Writing for free: exposure or exploitation?

29 June 2011

Written by: Suzannah Macbeth

Blogging and journalism are no longer mutually exclusive. Any animosity between the two is long-buried and blogging has now been integrated into mainstream media, with surprising and controversial results.

Editors of successful magazines were relegated to the second row at the 2010 Paris Fashion week while 14-year-old blogger Tavi Gevinson took her place in the front row. Meanwhile, travel websites such as Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor use written pieces from the public and present them alongside the work of a professional travel journalist.

However, the rise of amateurs isn’t without its problems.

Instead of paying professional writers, many publications use amateurs who are willing to work for free. To these bloggers, it’s worth it for the exposure.

Arianna Huffington has recently found herself and her successful news site The Huffington Post on the receiving end of a US$105 million lawsuit brought against her by bloggers who contributed to the website.

The legal action, instigated by trade unionist Jonathan Tasini, came shortly after Huffington announced that she was selling her site to the AOL for US$315 million.

The bloggers who wrote on the site argue that their work contributed to a third of its sale value.

In a legal sense, the bloggers don’t have a leg to stand on. As Huffington’s lawyers and advisors have been quick to point out, all the writers agreed to contribute writing in the hope of gaining some publicity and no pay.

In return, contributors to The Huffington Post received more exposure than they would have as individual bloggers.

Most are offended and outraged that Huffington managed to portray her paper as a unionist for-the-people publication that has now sold out to the larger companies. As one commenter noted ‘it’s true, the left does eat its own’.

What’s particularly unfortunate is that often the use of bloggers in the media seems more like exploitation rather than exposure.

It’s likely that the sale of The Huffington Post is just the most visible case in what is likely to become a bigger problem for writers who contribute their work for free.

Unfortunately many people seem to believe that writing is little more than a hobby, not something that one does as a living.

At the very least, editors need to remind themselves of what it was like being unemployed writers. Media companies have a duty to encourage younger writers rather than exploit their labour.

If they can’t pay every contributing writer, perhaps another method of compensation is needed.

Extra exposure or other benefits for the most popular and viewed articles of the week is an easy and financially secure way of rewarding journalists.

One website which is actively seeking to use bloggers and yet still pay them is run by another media mogul, Tina Brown.  The Daily Beast, an emerging news site in the United States, pays all contributors around $US350 per article.

The money isn’t great, but this does provide a reward and credit to the writers, and instils a sense of loyalty to the site.

In an interview with The Guardian late last year, Brown explained her sense of responsibility to encourage and be a patron to bloggers and writers.

‘As a writer myself, I cannot look other writers in the face and ask them to do things for nothing,’ she said.

If money can be exchanged for writing then the situation is ideal. If it’s just publicity, then use it. In return for good writing and interesting content, writers need recognition and sufficient rewards. A sense of loyalty and gratitude are integral in making a system like blogging for a large site successful and respected.

If the media companies market themselves as blogging-friendly, then they should pay for it. Writing is a profession and needs to be taken seriously.

This recognition needs to happen soon. If every writer fears that their material may be used and they won’t get anything in return, then soon they won’t contribute at all.

Maybe this is what it will take for media companies to realise how valuable quality writing is.

Celia Murray is a freelance journalist. After studying Arts at the University of Melbourne she moved to La Trobe University to pursue a passion in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @celiamurray