Opinion

Slave labor? I didn't get paid for this piece – and I'm OK with that

More and more writers are publishing their work without payment in exchange for the promise of 'prestige' and 'platform.'

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AOL’s tidy $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post in February produced more pity for the folks who drive much of the site’s success – the HuffPo hordes of bloggers who won’t be offered a slice of the spoils.

They are expected to continue writing for free.

Some call it slave labor. I call it fair barter. Seriously, I would write for HuffPo for free. Heck, I even agreed to write this commentary piece without compensation. [Editor’s note: Thanks again, Michael. You’re very generous.]

I’m a freelance foreign correspondent. I have a wife and three kids to help feed, and I believe that productive labor should be rewarded. So why on earth would I voluntarily submit to sweatshop conditions?

The reason is ...

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Just joshing. Did I have you going? The real reason I blog for free is, well, because my wife lets me. Another joke! Only partly true. Journalistic Borscht Belt, here I come.

But seriously, folks. The key to why I numb myself to compensationlessness can be summed up in on word: investment.

Build our brand

We freelance journalists out on our own today have to “build our brand.” I can’t believe I pulled a mantra from the PR flak’s handbook, but that’s the reality today. How else to distinguish yourself amid the din of countless competing voices and social media? To survive, you have to absorb short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Even if that means writing for free.

Today, for example, I preach the benefits of blogging to all aspiring journalists – whether they’re my Chinese students in Hong Kong, or my foreign-correspondent trainees in Prague. With you wedged into a stack of applicants, the blog is one way to show, not tell, an editor what you can do.

I don’t blog for blogging’s sake. Or for the love of writing. Or because Central Europe is woefully under-reported. Or that I’m a swell guy helping jump-start a fledgling, non-profit site. Or because I adore seeing my name in the bright lights of 11-point Calibri. The narcissistic tug frays when you realize that the audience for the profound thought you had in the loo and later blogged about essentially consists of your mom and her mahjong partners.

Instead, the reason I sometimes write for free is because as I steer my career in new and exciting directions, blogging is a means to that end. In fact, point to any journalistic work I do today – writing articles, sample book chapters, blogging, teaching, training – and I can illustrate how at this stage of my career, any gig I pursue must have spin-off benefits. Preferably, two or three.

In my case, I can’t divulge what my specific ulterior motives are for blogging. What, you expect me to bare my freelancing secrets to the world … for free? First a book contract, please! Just know that whenever I write for free, it serves a greater purpose. And none of it would be possible if my breadwinning wife weren’t on board – most of the time, at least.

'So calculating!'

Last October in Hong Kong, I described this peculiar mindset to my mainland Chinese students. One young woman gasped, “So calculating!” (I couldn’t tell if this was uttered out of horror or admiration.)

Yes, calculating. Who says it has to be a bad word?

Of course I’m not fond of pouring hours into crafting a piece – complete with those time-consuming but reader-friendly hyperlinks – for no pay. How many hours would you be willing to sacrifice? Even a token amount of compensation would make me feel better.

More unpleasant than arriving at the point where you accept your labor as unpaid is the occasional scorn of some colleagues and penny-pinching approach of certain editors.

A few months ago, while visiting New York, I innocently mentioned to a journalist friend that now and then, I don’t even get paid for my writing. “I would never do that,” she erupted. “You’re hurting all of us!”

Is 'prestige' enough?

She’s got a point. Writing gratis does hurt the professionals who want our writing to be valued monetarily. It doesn’t help that more and more editors now expect writers to write for free. In exchange for “platform” and “prestige.” Which inevitably means, they, too, diminish the value of what we write. They seem to figure, if you won’t write for free, there’s a line behind you of those who will. Which, unfortunately, is true.

Which brings me back to The Huffington Post. Some consider it the most powerful blog in the world, as it reportedly receives a staggering 500 million page views per month. Soon after news broke of its stunning sale to AOL, HuffPo bloggers began to see dollar signs, understandably. Founder Arianna Huffington’s answer was clear: Sorry, but we have something else in mind.

Just don’t liken it to slavery, says HuffPo spokesman Mario Ruiz. “The vast majority of our bloggers understand the value of having a platform that reaches a very large audience,” he explained.

I’ve heard that rationale before, and one other. When I pitched a magazine affiliated with one of the world’s most magnificently endowed institutions, the editor politely informed me: “We think the prestige is payment enough.” Yes, I went for it.

Platform and prestige. Does it work? You betcha. I’m sure each of HuffPo’s unpaid bloggers has their rationalization. Or full-time jobs to pay the bills. Are platform and prestige enough for me? Only if it takes me where I want to go. And if my wife doesn’t balk. But there’s a fine line. Too much of this barter would be unhealthy for my finances ... and my marriage.

Michael J. Jordan is a freelance foreign correspondent who has reported for The Christian Science Monitor since 1995. A visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University’s International Journalism program, he blogs at http://jordanink.wordpress.com.

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