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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.'

By Michael J. Jordan / March 22, 2011

Bratislava, Slovakia

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.

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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!'


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