Streams

Open Phones: When Do You Work for Free?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

A recent blog post by writer Nate Thayer has sparked a conversation about journalists working for free. We broaden the conversation to all fields— do you work for free? Have you created rules for yourself about when to give away your work? Let us know at 212-433-9692, or post a comment here.

A Nate Thayer "Life of a Freelance Journalist" Primer

 

Comments [60]

carolita from NYC

When I have a pressing need to be heard, or when I just want feedback -- free feedback from strangers, I write or I do cartoons for free (for thehairpin or the huffpo, for instance). But in instances like this, I feel more like I'm doing it for myself than for whoever publishes. Sometimes I'll do a cartoon that is so topical that it has a short expiry date, and if I can't sell it, it seems a shame to just throw it in a drawer. That's when I give it to the Huffpo. And as for my writing, I get a lot of feedback from the commentors at thehairpin, feedback that helps me with my writing. It's an exchange of services. I also found my agent through publishing there for free, and my editor there is a gift from heaven, even if she doesn't pay. I am pretty sure there's an even exchange going on there, at least for now.

However, when people write to me and ask me for my cartoons for free for use on their soap packages or as illustrations to articles, as if I were a provider of stock photos, I do ask them to proceed through my agent, for paid licensing. I'm not a provider of free stock images. I respect my work, and will not allow it to be used that way. "Exposure" is overrated, and it's always overrated by the person offering it, I notice.

Mar. 10 2013 12:56 PM
James

I work in the building trades. There have been a number of occasions in my 15 career, when times were tough, when I felt myself inclined to give cut-rate prices for my work. I have regretted it every time. The only reputation you get working cheap, is the reputation as a guy who works for cheap. It leads to further abuses and attempts by clients to get something for nothing.

That is not to say that there are not plenty of reasons for donating one's time. But then I prefer to just make a gift of my labor, instead of asking for half pay. And yes, sometimes giving your time to a worthy cause can open a door professionally.

Mar. 08 2013 10:29 AM
Mick from Queens

I take free work because it feels like the only way to build experience, connections and a portfolio in the film industry. I have a college degree, but it didn't give me the job experience I needed to pursue the career I want, and now I feel like I have to "pay" for my on-the-ground continuing education by accepting unpaid work. It doesn't make me happy, especially when I see the company I intern for buy ridiculously expensive treats for their office parties, but I should remain optimistic, shouldn't I? It will lead to something, right...?

Mar. 08 2013 09:48 AM
Rachel Pearlman from Brooklyn

I understand Nate Thayer’s response because I have “done it for the prestige, not the money” and it didn’t lead anywhere. While I got cache, none of that work ever led to a paying gig. In fact, most of the work I get as a freelance animator comes from clients who pay me for every gig. I’ve found it nearly impossible to get a client to move from free to paying. For the most part, they seem to have a “why pay for it when I can get it for free” mentality.

Also, a lot of times, I've found that the fact that they can't or won't pay is a sign- like they don't think people like me should get paid for this work, they don't understand the amount of work that goes into animation, or they don't have any money at all. For this reason I rarely do work for free now and am very suspect of anyone who asks. I've burned too many times.

Mar. 07 2013 06:12 PM
VEB from NYC

There always is a point - usually in creative fields - that you will have to ask yourself that question. Should I work for free? Here is a great flowchart to help you wander through that decision. http://shouldiworkforfree.com

Mar. 07 2013 04:41 PM
WNYC Newsroom

Thanks for all of your responses -- keep them coming! Have you ever worked for free? And are there instances where exposure trumps payment?

Mar. 07 2013 04:13 PM
yvonne from queens from nyc

When Do You Work for Free? NEVER!

Mar. 07 2013 04:11 PM
Shari from NY

I own a website/blog and can't tell you how many "opportunities" are receive to post about a product for free. When I tell them we do not post free advertising they are shocked that we are even asking and then answer me with they found someone who would do it for free. Thank you Mommy Bloggers for working for free. You are ruining it for the rest of us.

I have been offered gum as payment. Unfortunately, my electric co. doesn't take gum as payment.

Mar. 07 2013 03:59 PM
workingwoman from NYC

How ironic this discussion is, when so much labor at WNYC is unpaid.

Mar. 07 2013 03:34 PM
NABNYC from SoCal

If you donate some professional (lawyer, doctor, tutoring, dental, tax preparation) services to low-income people, that is a decent thing to do. But beyond that, never work for free. Never.

When I was in law school (decades ago), it was common for students to get "internships" working with lucrative private law firms for no pay. The law firm billed the students' work to clients at $150/hour, but the law firm did not pay the student. What happened to that money? It went into the pockets of the already-rich partners.

Now I see people all over the country working for free. Usually young people, right out of college, doing an "internship" for a fashion magazine or designer, art firm, even law firm. It's absurd.

I saw an ad on Craigslist recently. Local attorney advertising for an "intern." Job responsibilities: answer phone, file, type, get documents filed with the court, schedule appointments. [Oh -- you mean like a secretary?]. "Great opportunity to learn about a law office." Yeah. Great opportunity for some cheap lawyer to get free labor. Never work for free. Bad idea.

Mar. 07 2013 03:32 PM
Andrew Campbell from Putnam County, NY

I intentionally haven't focused on working for money my whole life. I have <always> worked, in school I worked instead of doing sports, for example, but I have always had a specific interest of forcing myself into the realm of <what 'economy' is there besides money> ('spirit.') understanding money--and life--by asking "What is there besides money?" (the 'bottom line' being money--I didn't believe it.)

Cities and money are apparently connected directly and critically with the start of 'civilization' but there is nothing more tenuous, less 'substantive' than money--it's a con (confidence) game plain and simple but it is also apparently the key to 'meaning' in human life, from the days of strings of sea shells...

Love the Brian Lehrer Show!

Mar. 07 2013 12:13 PM
hank

That heart surgeon is patting himself on the back. He is engaging in a barter where he is on call and performs emergency operations in return for having operating privileges at the hospital. Then I am sure he bills and tries to get what he can from whomever he operates on. The only people he's operating on for free are those from whom he can't get any money. How many times does he bill poor people? Does he send the bill to collection if they don't pay? At what point does he write it off? I don't consider this giving his work away for free. I would suggest that the more appropriate question is whether someone came to his office needing surgery and could not pay, would he then perform the surgery? That would truly be a pro bono act of giving.

Mar. 07 2013 12:13 PM
Bob from Brooklyn

Monique - I have advice for you. Start stealing shit from your employer, shove tampons down the toilet so they have to call a plumber, and then stop showing up to work. Make sure you tell that c-nt boss you have where to shove it when they come calling again.

Mar. 07 2013 12:10 PM
Kate from Brooklyn

In response to the last caller, who is a heart surgeon: when he operates on someone in the ER, he is not doing it "for free." He is on salary at the hospital, so he is getting paid. Perhaps it is more lucrative when he has scheduled surgeries, but that's not the same as not getting paid. Not to mention that it would be cruel and unethical not to operate on someone who is undergoing a medical emergency. So he's not really a freelancer and I don't see why Brian took this call (it sounded as if the caller was driving a car so he was also endangering others on the road in order to make this irrelevant point).

Mar. 07 2013 12:10 PM
Tony from Canarsie

I recommend a listen to NRBQ's song "Ain't No Free" on the Youtubes. It pretty much says it all.

Mar. 07 2013 12:09 PM
monique from nyc

I volunteered to help out at this little place over a year ago, hoping it would turn into a job. I offered to help out around the studio with organizing, reception, tidying up. It has turned into cleaning. I am not very happy but I do get a membership and get free classes. However, I only take 1 class a week. I work 7 hours per week. In my regular job, as an organizer I charge $30 per hour. The membership is worth $90. I am definitely not be adequately compensated. On top of this, they have hired a studio manager. I am pretty pissed off. I have cleaned their toilets for over a year and I am treated like garbage. I am older and the people who come in for classes don't even acknowledge me. I worked in big offices for years and know that attitude of not speaking to the help. Now I am the help. It's funny cause last week a woman my age asked me if I was the owner of the studio.
Anyone have any advice? I know, I should quit but I really like the class I take and I can't afford it. I was laid off 4 years ago.

Mar. 07 2013 12:06 PM
monique from nyc

I volunteered to help out at this little place over a year ago, hoping it would turn into a job. I offered to help out around the studio with organizing, reception, tidying up. It has turned into cleaning. I am not very happy but I do get a membership and get free classes. However, I only take 1 class a week. I work 7 hours per week. In my regular job, as an organizer I charge $30 per hour. The membership is worth $90. I am definitely not be adequately compensated. On top of this, they have hired a studio manager. I am pretty pissed off. I have cleaned their toilets for over a year and I am treated like garbage. I am older and the people who come in for classes don't even acknowledge me. I worked in big offices for years and know that attitude of not speaking to the help. Now I am the help. It's funny cause last week a woman my age asked me if I was the owner of the studio.
Anyone have any advice? I know, I should quit but I really like the class I take and I can't afford it. I was laid off 4 years ago.

Mar. 07 2013 12:06 PM

ALL work has value which should be recognized. It's an economic transation. No one should work for 'free' - offering free services is volunteering, not work. I don't think 'exposure' suffices as an even trade. However if one chooses to get creative and barter for services, etc. in lieu of financial payment that's a personal choice.

Mar. 07 2013 12:05 PM
David from Queens

There are endless postings on internet job sites for unpaid internships - which as I understand are no longer legal unless they are in exchange for college credit. None the less, many small companies (and some larger) are offering these unpaid internships to anyone. Some are even full time, so forget working to earn money to live off of while you gain the "experience" that is supposed to be in lieu of payment. While internships can be valuable in advancing careers, it seems that they are more commonly becoming a way for startups to get free labor. Based on how many postings for these internships that I see, I can't imagine that they will look impressive for much longer. Employers will eventually get tired of reading resumes full of 3 month stints spent "doing social media," but void of real experience where another employer found the candidate worthy of hiring and paying.

Mar. 07 2013 12:05 PM
Paul Grillo from UWS

Beware the "Crowd Source" trap. I am a graphic designer, and this increasingly popular practice undermines all creative professions. When I see "Crowd Source," I read a "cheap client."

Mar. 07 2013 12:03 PM
Bob from Brooklyn

Seeking exposure is the same as seeking fame. Whores.

Mar. 07 2013 12:02 PM
Louis from Jersey Shore

As a Dental Tech. I do not charge retired people for fixing their dentures.

Mar. 07 2013 12:01 PM
Kim from Brooklyn, NY

I write a free bi-weekly column for a blog upstater.net - mainly as a hobby, because it's something that I'm interested in and want to share with people and the blog gets more traffic than I could hope to get on my own blog. But I agree that the Atlantic was inappropriate to ask a professional writer to give them something for free. The blog I write for doesn't really make any money, so they can't pay me (they would if they could). The Atlantic does make money, so they should pay for their content.

Mar. 07 2013 12:00 PM
FeeLancer from Manhattan

No one should work for free. They should intern with good people for experience but always charge for professional work. Free workers are destroying the market for everyone.

Mar. 07 2013 11:59 AM
Laura from Basking Ridge

I have been working for free for 12 years for my Township, my children's schools, for friends and at church. It is called volunteerism. The benefit to me was that it was rewarding and fulfilling and I gained experience in areas I might not have had I not volunteered. Now that I wish to return to work, I have a long list of skills and experiences that I have to my credit, rather than a gap with no work skills over the time I stayed at home with my children. The benefit to them was the free labor for fundraising, project management, community development, education and public policy work. Now, will someone be willing to pay me for my work? We shall see...

Mar. 07 2013 11:59 AM
Sarah from NYC

I am an independent academic (by choice, not default, I should add). There is a huge pressure for me to donate time without compensation. Some of it built into the local system (faculty meetings etc where I teach part time), and in the larger academic system (where I'm supposed to publish reviews, essays, books, give papers at conferences) for free or, at best on spec in a system that seldom pays off for the author.

I tell some people who ask that I will donate 8 hours of my time to any good cause --that conference committee, the database design group, etc-- but after that I need to be paid.

And I've been upfront wherever I've taught that this represents a donation to the school of somewhere between $1 and $5 for every dollar I've paid.

Mar. 07 2013 11:58 AM
Stella from downtown

I'm a graphic designer and educator, and whenever possible -- if I have the time and don't need the money -- I work pro bono for ngos. I'm not 'giving it away,' the opportunity to work 'for the good' is its own reward...

Mar. 07 2013 11:58 AM
Zach Turner from NYC

Oy--Brian! You're killing me! Please!!!! Not "for free" but "free of charge"

"For free" is NOT English!!!

Mar. 07 2013 11:58 AM
jm

I've managed designers and writers, and those above me are constantly trying to lowball creatives with limited rates. You get what you pay for, and management also has to compensate by putting in more hours to deal with inexperienced labor.

I've also stopped building websites, because I'm tired of "oh hey I need a website but I don't have a big budget and can I just ask you a few questions..."

Mar. 07 2013 11:58 AM
george from Queens

I once created an illustration/artwork on my own that happened to work perfectly w/ the dimensions/article of a major glossy magazine. I was called by them and they paid the proper fee for the illustration despite it having been already created (and they knew that). One should always get paid no matter what the reason as that is the proper commission. Do not work for free no matter what, you 'damage' the field.

Mar. 07 2013 11:57 AM
Janet Potter from New York City

I have witnessed many companies using "interns" for the kind of work that I do. Why hire an experienced person who must be paid a salary and receive unemployment compensation and social security when you can retain an egger young student or recent graduate who will work for nothing and no benefits?

An internship should be a learning experience, an extension of one's education and last a short specified time. But from what I have seen, the "intern" is expected to know everything that is needed to perform the job and the "internship" can continue indefinitely.

Many of these "internships" are little more than slavery, a violation of the 13th amendment."Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction". The interns accept the situations as a prerequisite to a salaried job to be awarded at some point in the future contingent upon their performance in the position. More often as not, the job never materializes, because the "employer" never intended the spend the money to hire another worker. Why should they?

Mar. 07 2013 11:56 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

Two principles to follow in life:

1) don't work for free
2) don't have dinner with the president

Writers who work for free are DUMB WRITERS.

Mar. 07 2013 11:56 AM
abcdefg

"Sometimes even we (WNYC) do it..."

Ha!

Brian -- you guys are legendary moochers! I am certainly hoping this disclosure will be addressed in the segment or a follow up.

Mar. 07 2013 11:55 AM
Robert from NYC

I work for free when I get paid for it.
Nah, lol, I'm just pulling your leg, lol, ya know, wink wink nudge nudge lol. I work for free only for non-profit charities, you know folks who don't have lots of money but help others with no or little money.

Mar. 07 2013 11:55 AM
Hillary from Brooklyn

It's an interesting comparison that academic journals never pay their contributors. It's considered a sufficient reward to be published at all. This is the case even though one's writing as an academic is very much one's currency.

Mar. 07 2013 11:54 AM
Des from Boulder, Colorado

Would a hedge funder work for free? Would any other professional work for free? Then, why would a writer? Huffington Post built its empire on free blogging. What happened? It made its founder a lot of money not the pro-bono bloggers. I only do free work for legitimate charities I care about not for for-profit entities.

Mar. 07 2013 11:54 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

Agreed, dboy. Exposure is BS. Work on your art and writing and the money will flow. Don't get tricked into giving it away, people!!

Mar. 07 2013 11:54 AM
Craig

What about situations where you're providing your work to friends? Or friends of friends? Do you charge, do you offer a discount, do it for free? I find that challenging.

Mar. 07 2013 11:53 AM
Muriel from NYC

I am infuriated by a listener who implies that if its art you should give it away. What is she thinking? Why is it that in this culture people seem to think if you are an artist you should give your work away.

Mar. 07 2013 11:53 AM

The person that calls you to ask you to work for free is ALWAYS getting paid to make that call!!

Mar. 07 2013 11:52 AM
yoyo from nyc

i have done volunteer work for a political party i support. they have like zero money and i volunteered to do something i would ordinarily get paid for, for nothing. i don't mind doing tings for free, if i think it's for a good cause. you have to believe in what you do.

Mar. 07 2013 11:51 AM

"Exposure" is BULLSH*T!!

Mar. 07 2013 11:51 AM
Sarah from Brooklyn

I volunteer as a yoga teacher for at-risk populations. I will teach for free to bring yoga to populations who would have no access to $20 classes because I believe they should have access to yoga. I would never teach for free at a studio that charges students, because I must make a living and my services are valuable. Its important to balance volunteering services to under-served populations, vs. giving away your skills and devaluing your industry.

Mar. 07 2013 11:51 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

Brian, the Atlantic site has very, very low page views. Most posts get fewer than 100 clicks. Go take a look.

Mar. 07 2013 11:50 AM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

As a photographer & writer, I have only worked for free in the following circumstances: if I would like to add a new genre of type of work to my portfolio that I have not had much experience in before; if I have a very close personal relationship with someone, and know they cannot afford to pay for my services, so I do a trade; or if it's a project that I want absolute complete, creative control and it will lead to other things.

In general, I would refuse to do work for free for an established company or organization. It is absolutely abhorrent how companies use "digital" as an excuse not to pay people. Just because we don't PRINT everything anymore, it still takes time, experience, and equipment to create work, and we all need to be paid for our time.

Mar. 07 2013 11:50 AM
simpsonsmovieblew

as a photographer i recognize that my pricing is crucial.

friends and family get a (literally) 33% off coupon and charities get an unsigned print (for fine art). I count these as "marketing expenses." Nobody else gets anything for free or a discount!

Trust me -- once you realize that you can never charge full price once you give away for free, saying "NO!" becomes very satisfying.

With regard to the Atlantic situation -- if they can't pay, that's fine, but they should go and find real jobs. Free content (Ariana Huffington, hold your ears) is not an ethical or sustainable business model.

Mar. 07 2013 11:50 AM
jm

The fact that the editor didn't disclose the "compensation" up front means even she realized it was an outrageous request.

If a website offers exposure as "compensation," then it's perfectly reasonable to demand a record of page views and other statistics referenced by advertisers for their banners.

Mar. 07 2013 11:49 AM

I'll do "free" for a friend who is starting-up with no $$$ to pay.

NO ONE else.

...even not-for-profits that I'm down with. Have you looked at the salaries of not-for-profit folks... including the folks here at WNYC?!?!

NONE OF US can LIVE without getting PAID!! Especially in NYC!

Mar. 07 2013 11:49 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

The Atlantic Wire blows. That site sucks, the writers suck and you see what 'free' work is awful.

Mar. 07 2013 11:48 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

I give my work away for free to friends for their enjoyment. For the market, it's gonna cost money. And if they don't want to pay I'll go sell it somewhere else. Simple.

If you work for free, then you're a slave. Internships are a form of slavery. Minium wage work is slavery, as is most all other underpaid work.

Mar. 07 2013 11:47 AM
will from williamsburg

How many years did Leonard Lopate work for free at WBAI? I have often thought I didn't allow myself to work for free enough when chasing my dream.

Mar. 07 2013 11:47 AM
Telegram Sam from Staten Island

The answer is NEVER. Working for free says you and your work are worthless. Any job worth doing is worth paying for, and creatives need to stand united with this. The exception for me would be close family or charity.

Mar. 07 2013 11:46 AM

"F" free!!!

Mar. 07 2013 11:45 AM
WNYC?

What is the hourly or annual salary of the armies of producers who put together WNYC's main shows?

If ever "zero, is this a topic of discussion among hosts and other WNYC power brokers?

Mar. 07 2013 11:42 AM
Bonn from East Village

I am a three-time award-winning journalist (also copy editor) and can't find work. I have been replaced by free interns (or those who work for very little) who do a lousy job, but the papers don't seem to care. So what if there are grammar, spelling and punctuation errors? Who cares if the writing is subpar? As long as the bottom line shows a profit. Print is almost dead anyway. Just last night I met with an award-winning photographer, whose hours have been cut back dramatically at the daily he freelances for. He received a phone call from an online paper, wanting to use his photos - for free. He refused, and they couldn't understand it. They said, "Don't you want photo credit? He replied, "No, just money." But they will certainly find others who will agree just to have their names in the paper. And, I just saw "weird" spelled "wierd" in the NYTimes online EV paper. Yikes. Who is minding the store?

Mar. 07 2013 11:07 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

Don't work for free. When you work for free you are reducing everyone else's rates. It hurts everyone in the long run.

Mar. 07 2013 11:07 AM
superf88

Nate Thayer! This man achieved demi-god status back in the late 90s, at least among Asia-based journalists -- not for scoring the last interview with Brother Number One (Pol Pot- after tracking him down in the jungle -- but for figuring out how to earn literally hundreds of thousands of dollars for what I believe he billed as "The Last Great Scoop"!

On a note unrelated to Nate Thayer but on point to this segment, I was startled to learn that writers for the New Yorker back in the 1940s earned $4-6K for long articles (on which they could live in Paris for a year!). ...No wonder our parents encouraged us to be careful, passionate observers of the world -- it used to be a job!

Mar. 07 2013 10:28 AM
super88

Nate Thayer! This man achieved demi-god status back in the late 90s, at least among Asia-based journalists -- not for scoring the last interview with Brother Number One (Pol Pot- after tracking him down in the jungle -- but for figuring out how to earn literally hundreds of thousands of dollars for what I believe he billed as "The Last Great Scoop"!

On a note unrelated to Nate Thayer but on point to this segment, I was startled to learn that writers for the New Yorker back in the 1940s earned $4-6K for long articles (on which they could live in Paris for a year!). ...No wonder our parents encouraged us to be careful, passionate observers of the world -- it used to be a job!

Mar. 07 2013 10:27 AM

NO ONE should "work" for free! This is another have vs have not issue. Yeah, some people can afford to "work" for free (isn't that volunteering?) but most probably can't so, again, the poorest people suffer. We need a working people's union!

Mar. 07 2013 10:21 AM
Stephen from East Village

I'm a designer who sees many good things in offering free introduction meetings and reviews of potential work, however, WARNING: If you are on unemployment, the "free offer" will be considered work and have all the effects on your claim that "real" work will.
S

Mar. 07 2013 10:06 AM

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