One common response to my praise for writing for free on the Internet is snark. Joshua Foust remarks, "Hmm, @mattyglesias, who does not write for free, thinks you should write for free." Joshua Kucera writes, "Nice that @mattyglesias has volunteered to write for free here. Or did I misread this?"
Am I a huge hypocrite? I would say no.
I started blogging when I was a junior in college and did it very diligently for a year and a half. Largely on the strength of that work I got a low-paid job at the American Prospect, where in addition to writing stuff for their magazine and website and also contributing to their group blog, I continued to diligently blog (for free) under my own name. After about three years of that, I got a paid blogging gig at the Atlantic. And good for me! While I was working there, I, at one point, went on vacation and needed some (unpaid) guest bloggers. I had been very impressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic piece on Bill Cosby and realized that he was blogging (unpaid) under his own name and persuaded him to do unpaid Atlantic writing. Yes, for the exposure. Now I'm reading in the Observer that he's turning down (presumably paying) New York Times column gigs. And good for him!
Is the moral of the story that if you work hard at unpaid writing you'll get offered a New York Times column? No it's not. You almost certainly won't. But that's because almost nobody gets offered a New York Times column.
The fact remains that if you have things to say that you think are worthwhile and nobody is offering to pay you to say them, you ought to say them anyway for free. If enough people agree with you that those things are worthwhile, it just may lead to something.
Obviously a word like should is loaded. If you don't want to write for free, you're certainly under no obligation to do so. What's happened is that as publishing has shifted to digital, there's been a structural shift in value away from freelance work and toward staff work. That sucks for freelancers, and nothing I can say is going to make it any less sucky. But aspiring writers should know that doing work "for the exposure" isn't by any means a crazy idea.