Why You Should Give Away Your Hard Work For “Free” – In Defense of Exposure

In a recent New York Times op-ed*, writer and cartoonist Tim Krieder argues that creative professionals shouldn’t sell their work solely for “exposure:”

So I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.

This is nonsense. Exposure is simply one type of compensation; some find it deeply valuable, others less so. There’s nothing “wrong” – professionally or socially – about accepting it instead of money; building up unnecessary moral walls against it does more to serve incumbents like Krieder than the upstarts he’s purporting to help.

Rather than refuting his arguments point by point (does Krieder – a veteran writer and cartoonist with a published book – really think he’s as “equally unsuccessful” of an artist as the young people he’s imploring to say no? What exactly “isn’t right” about voluntarily giving your content away for some non-monetary benefit? Etc.), I think it’s more useful to defend the concept of “exposure” more generally.

“Creative content” is a broad umbrella term for a wide variety of pursuits, so for clarity’s sake I’m going to focus on journalism/writing – something I know better than poetry, photography, or cartooning (though I think the arguments are broadly transferable to these, too).

When we’re talking about exposure, what we’re really talking about is eyeballs – that writing for a national, prominent publication (like The New York Times) allows your work to be read by an audience orders of magnitude larger than what you may otherwise garner by publishing at a smaller concern or your own website. The implication is that having your work read by a large audience confers current and future benefits to your career; perhaps other editors will read your work and will be more likely to accept your ideas in the future, or may even search you out.

As Krieder notes, editors who may lack the budget to pay for contributions from freelancers will ask an individual to allow his or her article to be published at the site for no monetary payment; the benefit offered is the exposure itself.

Is this a good deal for established, veteran writers like Krieder? It can be, certainly. But it’s much more valuable for amateurs and newcomers.

Journalism – and, more generally, writing for a living – is a crowded field. There are basically no barriers to entry for would-be writers (a journalism degree simply isn’t necessary to be successful), and there are a lot of people who want to write for a living. The supply of words has grown a lot faster than the demand for words, which pushes down wages and makes it harder to succeed (provided you define success – rather narrowly – as making a living off of your writing).

Would-be professional writers need to find a way to stand out from the crowd, and having a byline at an impressive, nationally-recognized publication is an excellent way to do that. For upstarts, the exposure is worth far more than any nominal fee a publisher offers.

Krieder clearly understands this, and has transparently been a beneficiary of exposure in his past:

And it’s not strictly true that you never benefit from exposure — being published in The New York Times helped get me an agent, who got me a book deal, which got me some dates. But let it be noted that The Times also pays in the form of money, albeit in very modest amounts.

Noted. But let’s not pretend that the compensation package of exposure plus a “very modest amount” of money is substantively different from solely writing for exposure. I’d write for The New York Times for a non-monetary benefit, and I bet Krieder would, too.

Are there serious problems with this model? Unquestionably. As Bill Keller notes in the same op-ed space today, international freelance journalists are unsupported, underpaid, and unsafe (though I’d argue the non-monetary pieces of that are much more troubling). A profession that doesn’t pay a living wage is one that is out-of-bounds for many underprivileged groups who can’t afford to improve their craft for meager, mostly non-monetary benefits (nor can these groups make it on “very modest amounts” of money).

But Krieder’s solution – pulling up the ladder after using it to establish his career – isn’t a solution to either of these problems.

I’m undoubtedly coming from a different angle than many writers, which is worth noting. I have degrees in finance and entrepreneurship, not journalism, and I currently freelance as a hobby, not a full-time job. I don’t rely on freelancing to pay rent, and I find the entire freelance process deeply inefficient and annoying enough that I don’t see it becoming a stand-alone career**.

The profession and economics of journalism has irrevocably changed (Krieder notes that he gets paid the same or less for national publications today as he did for small outlets a few decades ago), but the “right” model isn’t to create artificial barriers to entry that would effectively cut off access to the profession more than it would open it up.


*Complete with a terribly offensive title equating freelancing to slavery, which I’m going to blame the editors for, not Krieder

**If you think any of this disqualifies me from the discussion, fine – but why? If a would-be writer is making you a latte at Starbucks as she tries to “make it” in a creative pursuit, does her opinion count?

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