A few months back, a well-known band came to me via their publicist wanting me to promote an event they’re sponsoring. It was a cool concept, in a fun place, and it would allow me to check another item off my Life List. The kicker? They weren’t going to pay me for my time or my effort.
The sad thing is that I briefly toyed with the idea, and I might have green lit it had it not been for SVV. “You’re a professional. You’ve been working as a journalist for a decade. Your time, your knowledge, your experience—this is all incredibly valuable to a company. You’re not doing anything for free.” I tried to negotiate with them—something that as both a female and a Southerner I’ve always grappled with—but they weren’t budging. Not understanding what social media is about, or even the power of the press, they thought covering my expenses to attend the event—an event that, mind you, I would be working—was payment enough. And so after much debate, I turned down the opportunity last week with some regrets.
But you know what? After a few days to ponder this precarious situation, I’m glad I said no.
When did it become acceptable not to pay for a service? I logged my years of interning, I more than paid my dues, I’ve slowly worked my way up the ladder in this tumultuous media climate, something that was not easy, nor fun at times. To backtrack so much at this point in my career would be a completely wrong move. I don’t write for magazines whose rates don’t make penning a piece worth my time; since when do I spend days on a project making money for other people through promotion, sponsorships, advertising dollars and Lord knows how many other benefits that come cascading down the shoulders (and pockets) of the corporations that drive these things? The short answer: not now, not ever.
And this is where the Internet is at fault and possibly the economy, too. There are so many people out there perfectly willing to give away their talent for no charge—or, nearly as bad, $10 to $20 a post—that a company knows if you say no, there are 10 other writers who will say yes. But that doesn’t make it even remotely OK. That doesn’t mean you should buy into it. Because until enough of us band together and say this isn’t right, companies will continue to think they can exploit our talents.
I graduated from journalism school. Before that, I interned at magazines, newspapers, a TV station. I was a columnist for a publication at the age of 20. I’d worked on my first guidebook for one of the biggest travel brands in the world by 23. I was hired as a researcher for Harper’s while still an undergrad. I started at Newsweek the day after I graduated college. You’ll sometimes see my name in books. I’ve written for more than 50 national magazines and newspapers. I can’t remember the last time an all-access concert pass paid the rent. And what makes any company think that I will work for free, that I don’t deserve to get paid for the exercise?
You wouldn’t ask a surgeon to operate on your heart free of charge (or for front row seats at opera). You wouldn’t expect a plumber to come out and fix your pipes for no fee (or in exchange for a sandwich). Heck, you don’t even allow a server at a restaurant to deliver your food without leaving a tip on top of an already-hefty dinner bill. Why are writers and other creatives any different?
Women, in general, tend to get the short end of the stick, too. It’s a proven fact. In my experience, we’re also not very keen on bargaining, on asking for what we deserve. SVV has gotten four raises in less than four years at his current company; every one of them was because he went to his boss and said (in not so many words), hey, you know what? I’m awesome and I deserve to be paid for my awesomeness. You should give me X amount of dollars more for my skill and expertise. And you can guess what happened next: His boss did just that. Every last time.
I, on the other hand, have worked for some of the same editors for years and have never summoned the nerve to ask for an increased rate. In some ways, I’m just happy to still be able to say I’m a magazine writer. Many of my colleagues aren’t so fortunate anymore. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be so bold in the future, that I shouldn’t make it a goal to work on the power of bargaining. Saying no to the band, something that was far from easy, was a baby step in that direction.
A fellow journalist friend, a male, who was a bureau chief at Newsweek for a decade, told me how a political magazine recently came to him with the offer to write an in-depth, 5,000-word piece for their publication. If you’re not in the journalism industry, you should know: Such an offer is a writer’s gold. We’re never given the space to write the long-form narratives or op-eds we often dream about.
He did the smart thing and responded saying he’d love such a gig, but how much did it pay? “$500,” the editor wrote back, though the friend now thinks, looking back, that the rate might have even been lower than that. $500 for 5,000 words. Ten paltry cents per well-thought-out word. (To put it in perspective, most national magazines continue to pay $2 a word as a starting rate, with more money given to their more established writers, meaning if this was a legit publication, he should have been paid $10,000 for such a story.)
Politely, he declined the assignment—he is after all, a well-known journalist, and to write such a story would take weeks of his time, weeks that could be spent elsewhere on much better paying gigs—at which point the editor shot back a very snarky retort saying that my friend should be honored to write such a piece for his magazine. Really? Is that truly what editors think these days? That well-trained, sought-after writers should be thankful for the chance to earn them money? Hardly.
My point here is to all you bloggers, to all you writers, to all you photographers, to all you creative types out there who feel like you’re not valued, here’s an epiphany: You’ll never be valued until you start to value yourself.
So I beg you: When you’re approached with such an opportunity, weigh the pros and cons. Is it a good career move? Are you getting anything meaningful out of it? What are you actually receiving for your time? Or is the company just trying to use you as one of these “cloud-sourced” money machines?
Whether you’re a beginning blogger with 100 readers or a veteran with 100,000, you’re valuable. And don’t forget it either. Because until you start to see your own self worth, how can you expect others to recognize it, too?