Lady Business: The Myth of Free Work
Newspapers learned too late that giving away content for free is pretty costly. The Wall Street Journal was among the leaders in requiring a subscription to view most of their content; the New York Times and others followed reluctantly and much later.
That's why newspapers like the New Orleans' Times-Picayune have scaled back on printing, while others have folded completely.
Essentially, print subscriptions and advertisers pay the salaries of the reporters who produce the work that you love in print newspapers. In the feminist blogosphere, the same principle applies, even if the way publications are structured isn't quite the same. Most feminist blogs aren't funded at all, or, like Bitch, are reader-supported nonprofits that don't run on ads.
The conundrum, of course, is that important work is often underfunded and done by those who have the means to do it, which Courtney Martin wrote about in 2011 for The Nation, here:
Many feminists innovated remarkably early on in the Internet's existence, founding blogs and online communities, but we've largely stalled in progress over the last few years because we are under-resourced and overwhelmed. Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the executive editor of Feministing.com, explains, "Blogging has become the third shift. You do your activist work, then you have a job to make money and then you blog on top of that. It's completely unsupported."
This is significant because it points at the longterm effects of free work: Working for free is not a sustainable way to live. Women and people of color are almost always asked to do free work. The only problem is, there's no such thing as working for free. People who can afford to do free work are the elite, as Martin points out in her piece.
In 2010, my colleague Omar Gallaga, a tech writer at the Austin American Statesman who also contributes to NPR and CNN, posted a blog that changed my life. The title was simple: "How much it costs me to come speak at your event for free."
Most journalists get asked at some point to come speak to a middle school class about writing or to some other group about their area of expertise (whether it be sports writing, movies, education or whatever else). Over the years, I've spoken to journalism classes, to a Writer's League group, on panels about social media for public relations professionals and lots of other places. The speaking engagements are not always short; they can go on for two hours or more and I've sometimes had to do them solo. I never get paid to do them and because of this, I've always taken a "I'll just wing it" approach. If I do a presentation of any kind, it's usually a PowerPoint left over from something I was paid to work on or something hastily pulled together on a topic that's typically not of my choosing.
Omar wrote, too, about the difficulty of getting exposure for your work, and the invitations that come with that, but also the fact that people don't always treat their invited guests well—to say nothing of actually paying them for showing up. He worked out the costs of travel, parking, lunch, psychiatry for his kids because of the time he spends away, flowers for his wife to make up for always working and the cost of the actual work, low-balled and came up with $273.
I was so happy to see these articles because I'd never considered the tradeoff and privilege of using one's talents and skills for a good cause. As a self-employed freelancer, my time is my money. The same is true even if you are working at a business and have a side gig. Anyone who wants to bend your ear, pick your brain—they are asking you to do free work.
I haven't quite figured out how to handle this yet, except to remind people that I do have bills to pay. I am always conflicted about how to balance my need to earn money with the demands of the market.
There are exceptions to this rule, of course. I don't get rich writing for Bitch, but I believe in what it stands for. I also appreciate that Bitch considers it important to pay online and print contributors (even though it's not very much). I believe in the importance of a smart, feminist take on popular culture and providing alternative narratives to the dreck that is over leveled at women in mainstream media. (No, they didn't tell me to write that.)
I have written guest posts for blogs that I love, but only a few and usually while I was working on several other paid pieces. I sometimes edit pieces for a couple of friends and provide free feedback in exchange for the same.
I don't believe that we have to get paid for every single thing we do. But since women, especially, tend to be more socially connected, and more expressive and amenable to doing it, we get asked to do free work more often. This is to say nothing of the free and/or invisible work that comes with family life and the myth of work-life balance.
Has that been your experience? If so, how have you negotiated the myth of free work with work that actually pays you?
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