The Editor-in-Chief of Atlantic Magazine recently had to issue an apology after offending a freelance writer by asking him to repurpose his content to be published on their website for free. The apology came after the writer, Nate Thayer, published the email exchange he had with the magazine on his personal blog. The dispute has since sparked a national discussion that touches on a question that affects not just journalists, but people looking for employment as a whole: when it is okay to work for free?
Thayer pointed out in the email exchange that he is a professional journalist who has worked for 25 years and has a family to provide for, thus cannot afford to be giving his work away for free. The Atlantic countered that some journalists use the magazine as a platform to reach more readers and advance themselves. Thayer responded by saying he has no problem gaining exposure, just a problem paying bills. Thayer’s retort is one that likely resonates with the majority of college students who have given their work away for free, through either internships or freelancing and wonder whether the potential exposure or experience outweighs the financial hardships that come from work without compensation.
For decades the model that has been fed to college students studying for careers in all fields is that providing a few months or a semester’s worth of free labor will eventually pay itself back through experience gained and connections made. Sacrifice now, earn more later.
Some students are even lucky enough to find the heavily-hunted but ever elusive paid internship, but even then students will rarely find compensation equal to the work put into it. The majority of students end up losing money from internships, as there are fees to be paid for the credits and money spent on living and travel costs. Not to mention, a lot of the best internship opportunities, as far as providing ins to big-name brands, require students to relocate to expensive major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. Students from small towns are forced to decide between staying home and working for a lesser-known company or doubling down on their losses and springing for a tiny apartment in a major city to chase down a big-name brand to place on their resumes.
For the most part, the system isn’t completely unfair. Most students who take internships do not yet have the skill or experience required to attain a paying job in their field, so absorbing financial loss for an internship is a worthy sacrifice in obtaining that skill to use for later career advancement. But the Atlantic asking an established journalist like Thayer, who has dodged bullets covering wars and became well known for interviewing Pol Pot, is indicative of a troubling shift toward companies taking advantage of free labor, all under the guise of providing experience or exposure.
It’s difficult for any journalist to avoid grimacing while hearing Thayer’s tale. Journalism is not exactly booming at the moment, and there are far more skilled writers looking for work than there are open avenues to write. Freelancing (emphasis lately being on “free”) provides writers the chance to at least get their name out and, of course, do what they love, but it has poor implications on the chance of actually being able to attain a paying career in the field.
We at The Oswegonian do not believe it’s wrong for companies to want this kind of free labor; times aren’t great right now and they have businesses to run, but empathize with the plight of Thayer and all journalists asked to work for free. This summer most of us will head off to an unpaid internship. We will deal with financial loss and tasks that lean at times toward menial, all in the name of landing a position in our dream job in the future. Our only hope is that one day it does, in fact, come.