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April 26 2012

11:20

Telling wannabe journos “Don’t work for free” doesn’t help

“Don’t work for free,” they were saying at the So You Want To Be A Journalist conference yesterday. “It’s fear, not freedom, that drives creators to succumb,” argued Jonathan Tasini in the Guardian.

The advice is understandable. But it’s also easy to say when you’re not an aspiring journalist competing against hundreds of others for entry level jobs.

The fact is that people do work for free to get a foot in the door, or experience, or both – and that many employers exploit that.

The fact is that this leads to a media industry which does not represent the diversity of its readers, viewers and users.

When opportunities are limited to those who can support themselves for months without a wage in an expensive city, to those who can fund degrees and postgraduate courses to boot, we end up with a journalism which is for the people but not of the people.

But telling people not to work for free won’t change that unless it offers an alternative opportunity.

“The only profession”?

Jonathan Tasini claimed that:

“We are the only profession I know of who work for free. No coal miner, nurse, shipyard worker, accountant, or any other person with bills to pay works for free.”

He’s not looking very far. Musicians work for free. Artists work for free. Designers work for free. Sadly or encouragingly, depending on your point of view, journalism is becoming more like those professions.

They work for free because it makes them better musicians, artists and designers. They work for free because they enjoy getting better at what they do. Sometimes they work for free because it makes the world a better place. Journalists (including many of the investigative journalists on the final panel yesterday who do work on their own time) share all of these motivations. But the key difference is this: when they work for free they typically choose who they work for.

And here’s where I add a big practical “unless” to the “Don’t work for free” argument:

Don’t work for free unless it’s adding to your value in the market

I agree with Tasini that I wouldn’t work for HuffPo for free, because the value to me would be negligible. But that doesn’t mean that all ‘free work’ doesn’t have value.

Aspiring journalists now need to make the same business decisions as publishers do – because we are all publishers now. They need to ask: will investing my resources in this piece of work make me more valuable in my market?

That includes the skills learned, contacts made, and experience gained. But it also includes the effect of working on the market itself: for instance, working for free for a publisher might contribute to depressing wage levels and reduce full time opportunities.

I considered this carefully when designing the work placement element of my MA in Online Journalism, ‘Labs’. This is explicitly not an experience where the student sits at a desk doing someone else’s work (most have already worked as journalists); it is designed as a consultancy relationship with an industry client, focused on an identified industry problem, so that the client benefits from the unique knowledge and experience of the student, and the student benefits from time, space, and access to develop much-needed knowledge.

If addressing that problem increases the client’s future capacity, that will lead to more work. Simply making more content for free wouldn’t help the industry employ more people.

Like so much else in the media industry, the internet has changed the market for internships and work experience, and as a result they should be considered carefully: for the first time, they are not the only options.

If you want to get into a journalism job you can add to your value by being your own publisher, and you can do so without having to spend your own money to work in someone else’s office doing the jobs that no one else wants to do. That is what one group of students did with Wannabehacks (currently on its second round of editors after the first round all landed jobs); that is what Josh Halliday and Dave Lee did before landing jobs straight out of university, at The Guardian and BBC.

When magazine publishers like Future and Reed Business Information are hiring from – and acquiring – specialist blogs and online communities, the canny move is not to spend your own money on months of fetching coffee, but on becoming your ideal employer’s competition.

It’s a big step to take: internships at least provide that tangible hope that you will strike lucky, and the illusion of working as a journalist. Doing it yourself means taking on more responsibility and initiative, and trusting more in your own ability to improve. But those are the qualities employers – or owners – are looking for.

This isn’t a post saying that blogs are going to solve everyone’s problems. Internships will still work for those with the resources and contacts to pursue them. But they shouldn’t be the only route – and encouraging people to think critically about the options open to them is better than shutting them off entirely.

11:20

Telling wannabe journos “Don’t work for free” doesn’t help

“Don’t work for free,” they were saying at the So You Want To Be A Journalist conference yesterday. “It’s fear, not freedom, that drives creators to succumb,” argued Jonathan Tasini in the Guardian.

The advice is understandable. But it’s also easy to give when you’re not an aspiring journalist competing against hundreds of others for entry level jobs.

The fact is that people do work for free to get a foot in the door, or experience, or both – and that many employers exploit that.

The fact is that this leads to a media industry which does not represent the diversity of its readers, viewers and users.

When opportunities are limited to those who can support themselves for months without a wage in an expensive city, to those who can fund degrees and postgraduate courses to boot, we end up with a journalism which is for the people but not of the people.

But telling people not to work for free won’t change that unless it offers an alternative opportunity.

Jonathan Tasini claimed that:

“We are the only profession I know of who work for free. No coal miner, nurse, shipyard worker, accountant, or any other person with bills to pay works for free.”

He’s not looking very far. Musicians work for free. Artists work for free. Designers work for free. Sadly or encouragingly, depending on your point of view, journalism is becoming more like those professions.

They work for free because it makes them better musicians, artists and designers. They work for free because they enjoy getting better. Sometimes they work for free because it makes the world a better place. Journalists (including many of the investigative journalists on the final panel yesterday who do work on their own time) share all of these motivations. But the key difference is this: when they work for free they typically choose who they work for.

And here’s where I add a big practical “unless” to the “Don’t work for free” argument:

Don’t work for free unless it’s adding to your value in the market

I agree with Tasini that I wouldn’t work for HuffPo for free, because the value to me would be negligible. But that doesn’t mean that all ‘free work’ doesn’t have value.

Aspiring journalists now need to make the same business decisions as publishers do – because we are all publishers now. They need to ask: will investing my resources in this piece of work make me more valuable in my market?

That includes the skills learned, contacts made, and experience gained. But it also includes the effect of working on the market itself: for instance, working for free for a publisher might contribute to depressing wage levels and reduce full time opportunities.

I considered this carefully when designing the work placement element of my MA in Online Journalism, ‘Labs’. This is explicitly not an experience where the student sits at a desk doing someone else’s work (most have already worked as journalists); it is designed as a consultancy relationship with an industry client, focused on an identified industry problem, so that the client benefits from the unique knowledge and experience of the student, and the student benefits from time, space, and access to develop much-needed knowledge.

If addressing that problem increases the client’s future capacity, that will lead to more work. Simply making more content for free wouldn’t help the industry employ more people.

Like so much else in the media industry, the internet has changed the market for internships and work experience, and as a result they should be considered carefully: for the first time, they are not the only options.

If you want to get into a journalism job you can add to your value by being your own publisher, and you can do so without having to spend your own money to work in someone else’s office doing the jobs that no one else wants to do. That is what one group of students did with Wannabehacks (currently on its second round of editors after the first round all landed jobs); that is what Josh Halliday and Dave Lee did before landing jobs straight out of university, at The Guardian and BBC.

When magazine publishers like Future and Reed Business Information are hiring from – and acquiring – specialist blogs and online communities, the canny move is not to spend your own money on months of fetching coffee, but on becoming your ideal employer’s competition.

It’s a big step to take: internships at least provide that tangible hope that you will strike lucky, and the illusion of working as a journalist. Doing it yourself means taking on more responsibility and initiative, and trusting more in your own ability to improve. But those are the qualities employers – or owners – are looking for.

This isn’t a post saying that blogs are going to solve everyone’s problems. Internships will still work for those with the resources and contacts to pursue them. But they shouldn’t be the only route – and encouraging people to think critically about the options open to them is better than shutting them off entirely.

May 29 2011

05:07

Huffington Post blogger lawsuit: Jonathan Tasini got what he was looking for - exposure

paidContent :: Lawyers for The Huffington Post have moved to dismiss Jonathan Tasini’s novel lawsuit claiming that the popular internet newspaper actually owes money to its unpaid bloggers. Tasini got exactly what he was looking for from his free blogging, HuffPo lawyers argue—exposure—and his lawsuit insisting on payment must be thrown out.

Continue to read Joe Mullin, paidcontent.org

April 20 2011

18:49

Tasini Lawsuit Against Huffington Post Has No Merit

Jonathan Tasini's at it again.

Last week, the writer and labor activist declared war on Arianna Huffington, first promising to make her "a pariah in the progressive community" and then threatening to make her life "a living hell." He went on, in a splendid variation of Howard Beale's "I'm mad as hell" speech, to say that unpaid Huffington Post bloggers are "modern-day slaves" on "Arianna's...plantation."

In short, Tasini's a real charmer.

He made those comments in the shadow of a class-action lawsuit he filed April 12 against the HuffPost and its parent company, AOL. Tasini claims that all unpaid HuffPost bloggers -- he was one of them, until two months ago -- deserve a share of the site's estimated $315 million buyout value. Specifically, his magic number is $105 million. He wants not a penny less. Why that much? Because "justice" demands it, of course.

Weak Legal Theories

The lawsuit really is two things: It's interesting and it's a loser. On the one hand, the suit raises some provocative big-picture questions. Should media sites pay their content creators? If so, how would those relationships be structured? If not, how would the supply of free content affect the creative market? On the other hand, a trial court is not the best forum for those questions, and the suit relies on weak legal theories.

The big theory, the one I'll focus on here, is unjust enrichment. Tasini argues that Huffington Post has generated enormous revenue by inviting people to blog for the site on a volunteer basis, in exchange for exposure. The low production costs have lifted the HuffPost's value, with the "entirety of the financial gain" going to the site. The bloggers have received no money, even though their content has generated a portion of the revenue. As a result, the HuffPost has been unjustly enriched.

nln-jonathan-tasini-s.jpg

So goes Tasini's argument, and needless to say it's unpersuasive. The theory of unjust enrichment stems from the principle that one person should not be allowed to enrich herself at the expense of another. It applies in cases where no legal contract exists. After all, if a legal contract existed, then its terms would dictate the relationship between the parties -- their rights and obligations. On a claim of unjust enrichment, the court can impose the obligation of one party to pay the other, in the absence of a contract, if doing so would be fair and right.

In the Southern District of New York, where Tasini filed his lawsuit, a person "seeking relief under a theory of unjust enrichment...must demonstrate (1) that the defendant benefited; (2) at the plaintiff's expense; and (3) that equity and good conscience require restitution." In other words, Tasini needs to show that the HuffPost benefited from the posts written by the unpaid bloggers, that the HuffPost benefited at the expense of those bloggers, and that requiring the HuffPost to repay them is the fair and right thing to do.

I bet Tasini could satisfy the first two elements, either by submitting evidence about the amount of revenue that the Huffington Post realized from each freebie post, or by submitting evidence about the savings in production costs that HuffPost realized by using unpaid bloggers. However, I don't think that "equity and good conscience require" the HuffPo to repay them. Thus, Tasini couldn't satisfy the third element.

Not 'Modern-Day Slaves'

It's easy to think of the unpaid bloggers as helpless -- as victims of a tidal wave of digital-industrial capitalism. But that's too generous. I'd like to see writers get paid just as much as the next guy, but the HuffPost bloggers chose to write for free. They're not "modern-day slaves," contrary to what Tasini said, and their relationship with the site has been informal, at best. As Lauren Kirchner wrote in February, in the Columbia Journalism Review:

The thousands of unpaid bloggers...have signed no agreement with the site, and are under no obligation to submit their stories with any regularity. They do not receive assignments. If they have an idea for a post but then decide not to write it, they are not penalized by the site's editors in any way...When bloggers no longer feel it's in their interest -- or that it's disproportionately too much in AOL/HuffPo's interest -- then they'll quit, which they have every right to do...Every individual writer has his or her own individual motivations for contributing for the site.

Tasini offers no evidence that he expressed to the HuffPost any expectation of payment. Nor does he offer evidence that the site expressed to him that he'd be paid. In short, he had no reasonable basis to believe he'd get any money. For these reasons and in light of Kirchner's comments, I just can't say that "equity and good conscience require" the Huffington Post to repay the bloggers.

If they want to get paid, they shouldn't write for free.

Jonathan Peters is a lawyer and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he's working on his Ph.D. and specializing in the First Amendment. An award-winning freelancer, he has written on legal issues for a variety of newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at jonathan.w.peters@gmail.com.

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