A few weeks ago I wrote about the disdain for labor issues when we talk about digital things, and today’s debate about writing for free reminds me that this disdain can be found not only in consumers but in workers themselves. Whether or not to write for free is a debate we’ve been having for a while (2009; 2011) and, obviously, haven’t really resolved - in part because there’s no clear resolution! But when reading through all of these debates, it seems important to point out that labor markets are not unitary. Specifically, it’s fair to say when we’re talking about writing, that:
1) There are different kinds of writers,
2) There are different kinds of publications, and
3) There are different kinds of writing.
The price the market sets for your services is dependent on all three of those factors. Newer writers whose services aren’t worth much could work for free until they are able to charge more, and wouldn’t drive down other writers’ prices since presumably the product they produce is also worth less at that time. Worthwhile but commercially difficult publications could ask you to work for free as a way of encouraging better quality in the world and opening up a market for certain kinds of writing down the line. A publication might pay less for your more self-indulgent ramblings than they do for grunt work or reported work. So to say that no one should write for free, or everyone should write for free, isn’t really the argument we’re having. It’s about when to write for free, and the different effect those different decisions might have.
In the example from today, an extremely established writer was asked by an extremely established publication to write for free. In traditional labor terms, this is clearly an attempt to acquire the writer’s services for a below-market rate. When done systematically - that is, when employers with a decent amount of revenue ask writers to work for less than they are worth - this represents a systematic attempt to drive down the cost of labor. And I understand why you’d do this! I know how much editors are squeezed by their superiors to produce more hits and more content for less money. They are just doing their job. Which is why, as much as it’s the responsibility of publications to stop asking, it’s the responsibility of writers whose services are worth more than what they’re being offered to that particular employer to say no.
Should anyone ever write for free? Of course! Someone writing free for a smaller publication is absolutely no economic threat to me as a writer at this point, so they should go nuts. Someone writing for a less-established but worthy publication making no revenue is no threat to me. Someone blogging for free on their own site is no economic threat to me. None of that should impact what I can get paid at publications that can afford to pay me - unless said publications try to just take that content and republish it wholesale without paying the writer. Such behaviors are a threat to people trying to make a living writing for smaller publications or newer publications or personal blogs, of course, but that’s a problem with that particular labor market, and comes concurrent with the question of whether the market can bear higher labor costs. If it can’t, then your decision as a worker becomes very different: do you have an interest in seeing this market survive, and is it worth more to you to be published there than to work on something else? Your call! The market sets its prices. But if we’re talking, as we currently are, about major publications not paying writers for legitimate work, then that’s a threat to my future wages.
If you’re a writer who can make a decent amount of money, because you have before, and you’re offered less than that by someone who can pay you more, it’s up to you to say no. The problem with that, as is always the problem with labor, is that this in absolutely not in your individual and immediate self-interest. It’s a collective action problem! We would all be better served as workers if we refused to work for less than what we’re worth, but that’s not always a decision we can afford to make at the time. Unions exist to take that choice away from us, to force us to think about the collective good, and to pool resources so as to lessen the blow of those momentary decisions. No one likes unions, of course, because they restrict what you can do. But the whole idea here is that maybe your individual freedom is not worth the long-term harm it does to the economic interests of the group.
The underlying issue here is that the people who decide what the internet is going to be like do not think consumers should have to pay for content. They think this for the perfectly self-interested reason that the people who decide what the internet is going to be like make tools, not content. And so, for equally self-interested reasons, the people who produce content should resist those pressures. That’s hard to do, since the people making the tools are the people who have the money. But it seems important to me to at least be aware of. It’s a question with a lot of shifting parts, and we’re certainly still figuring it all out. But one thing I know for sure is that if the market price for reputable writers to work for major publications gets driven down, it’ll stay there for a long time.