If I’m Good at Something, How Long Do I Do it for Free?

The Joker once said:

Interestingly enough, Adrian Chen of Gawker tweeted this today:

Now whether Mr. Chen moonlights as Gotham’s greatest villain ever is something I cannot hope to speculate on but he has an interesting point. For a long time, I was very much in the camp that adamantly opposed the idea of, upon graduating college, ever using my time and talents for free again.  Seriously though, many of my peers and I are under mountains of debt, attempting to make ends meet, while still “following our dreams” like all our elementary school teachers beat into us for our most impressionable years.

I digress, but before we go any further, I am aware of the irony of posting these ideas on this lovely blog. There is no revenue here and my fellow writers are all kind enough to volunteer to write for the blog because it gives them an outlet to be creative and shuts me up.

When I left Boston University, I had emailed all these writers I looked up to and applied to dozens upon dozens of jobs and internships, all of which were paid. I figured, perhaps thanks to my own hubris, that I was good enough to make it and that New York was such a large market that eventually something would work out. I mean, how could it not?  I had gone to a fantastic institution, gotten relatively good grades, reached out, written for blogs for years, and so on and so on.  But alas, here I am, making ends meet with a barista job in Brooklyn (because I’m cliché), applying to unpaid internships, just hoping for an email back asking me to maybe come in, to maybe have an interview, to maybe get a bottom rung job that pays worse than what I make making lattes. And I would take it, I would love it, I would cherish it. It’s not that I don’t believe in my abilities or that I’m not proud of what I have created here with Audacity Oven, it’s simply that I’m tired of spinning my wheels in a large muddy puddle of underemployment.

Someone was (probably) literally paid to write this. *facepalm*

Someone was (probably) literally paid to write this. *facepalm*

The problem isn’t so much writing for free. Many young writers and journalists start out writing freelance for pennies if they’re lucky. The problem is that we’ve indoctrinated our up-and-coming professionals with this idea that “paying your dues” means being exploited.  You and I should be expected to work hard.  No opportunity should be given away, it should be earned. But when have you stopped earning and started simply being used? I wish I had the perfect answer all neatly wrapped up in a concise 250 word blog post I could send to Gawker, Salon, or Business Insider but odds are, if I don’t know the right people then I’m not getting picked up, no matter how witty and audacious I may or may not be. I’d be more angry but I already know why too. The blogging world is a sadistic game of endurance and manipulation where sensationalist pieces with misleading title (IS JUSTIN BIEBER SNORTING COKE OF CHEECH?!?) that are meant to pull in as many page views as possible. Makes sense: more clicks, equals more advertisements, equals more money.  And the bloggers are expected to pump out six or more posts a day that leads to easy manipulation by “anonymous tips” and shoddy journalism as a regularity. Though, to be fair, there are exceptions to every rule. But again, that’s another post for another day.

So why, as Mr. Chen puts it, do these established journalists pull up that ladder behind them? Why has it become this game of “How high should I jump sir?” rather than “How can we help this next generation?” I understand that journalism is still in this process of evolution and that well paid jobs are few and far between but it seems incredibly irresponsible to me to leave this next generation simply hanging in the wind. Shouldn’t we, in our world of ever-expanding communication, be trying to bring in and train as many talented individuals as possible? Shouldn’t we want to incentivize energetic and not-yet cynical writers to get out into the world to better understand it? Journalism, purely speaking, has one purpose: education.  More specifically, social education on a massive scale so that populations can best react and keep government, business, and other people responsible and in balance.  To quote Thomas Jefferson, “An hereditary chief, strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expenses, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”

Perhaps it is as simple as the old guard being selfish. More likely it’s a broken economy that says it encourages retirement and then works you to death to pay off your debts causing the next generation to intern into their thirties. Whatever it is, I can only hope that those “established journalists” let the ladder down because, if I may adopt the adage, this may be a dog eat dog world, but we run better as a pack.

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