Nate Thayer, writing for free at his eponymous blog, has a post up detailing the way he received an offer to write something for free for the Atlantic and declined to do it.
The piece of writing that he did agree to do for free—posting the email exchange with the Atlantic editor and complaining about the present-day economics of freelance journalism—has sparked a great conversation online and also on a couple of journo-email threads I'm on. The quality of the conversation is one reason I'm glad Thayer agreed to write a piece for free about the state of freelance journalism today. And in general that explicates why we should all be happy that thanks to the Internet there are now lots of people writing for free. Some of them are publishing for free under the umbrella of an established media brand. Some of them are publishing for free on Twitter. Some of them are writing Tumblrs or blogs. But everyone's doing it and it's amazing—it means there's way more content out there for people to read than ever before.
Now as amazing as writing for free is, there are still good reasons to refuse to do it. For example, maybe:
— You don't like writing.
— You'd rather spend your time writing-for-free for a different platform (your own blog rather than the Atlantic).
— You have an offer to write for someone else for money instead.
But if you do enjoy writing and you don't have a money-making writing opportunity, you should definitely be writing for free. The tough choice is whether you want to write for free for some other publications or just under your own header. Maybe you just want to tweet vigorously. To each his own.
There are also good reasons for publications to pay people to write. The main thing is that when you're paying someone, you can really crack the whip and make them deliver. I love writing, and would definitely write blog posts even if nobody paid me to do it and I had to go get some other job. But would I do it every day? Would I think as hard about SEO lines? Would I make sure to get up early to have timely commentary on BLS Employment Situation Reports? Obviously not. If I were a hobbyist-blogger, I would blog like a hobbyist. To make money running a website it helps for workforce to have a professional attitude and approach and the best way to accomplish that is to pay people money.
I'm being a little flip about this, but I actually think it's really important. People have always had hobbies and interests outside of making money and watching television. And one of the great things about digital technology is that it provides platforms for hobbyists to have real impact on the world. Wikipedia is, obviously, a big deal. Tyler Cowen has blogged his way into becoming an influential public intellectual. And it's not just writing, it's true for other media too. This Nine Inch Nails / Carly Rae Jepsen mashup is amazing, for example.