In a now-famous anecdote from 2013, a journalist was contacted by an established magazine requesting an adapted version of an article he’d already written. When he replied to the editor, asking for more details (word length, deadline, and fee) her reply was, “unfortunately we do not have budget to pay for it, but we reach 13 million readers every week.”
The story is from the US, but the practice of asking – or expecting – creative freelancers to contribute for free is truly global. Ask any writer, photographer or other kinds of content creator and they will have similar stories to tell. The unconvinced need only follow the For Exposure Twitter account, which collates real-life quotes from editors and the generally deluded search for free contributions.
It is easy to assume that it is mainly young creatives making a start in their career who are targeted in this way. Not so.
One experienced, award-winning photographer tells me she is constantly asked to work for free. “For someone established the message [from potential clients] is, ‘well you don’t need to be paid, do you?’ and for someone new, it is, ‘you need exposure, we’ll be doing you a favour by using your work’,” she says. “The most offensive one, which comes up a lot is, ‘we don’t have a budget for photography’.”
In 2016, a survey carried out by the Freelancer Club as part of its #NoFreeWork campaign, found that UK freelancers on average work 15.5 days for free every year, translating to an annual loss of £5,000.
A majority of respondents (54%) said they agreed to work in order to gain exposure, while 46% were looking for more experience and 45% hoped the association with a particular brand would bring more opportunities. In the same year, another survey reported that 87% of UK photographers were asked to work for free, 16% agreed to do so.
If this practice is so prevalent now, where did it come from?
The trend may not have begun with the launch of the Huffington Post, but it is a sensible place to start when considering the practice of asking freelancers to contribute for free.
Launched by millionaire Arianna Huffington, the online platform was a genuine disruptor in the news space when it launched in 2005. It formed part of a new media landscape that was hungry for content – and lots of it – and changed the rule book for publishers, writers, and other creatives.
This need, combined with a desire to keep costs down, meant contributors – or bloggers as they were called – were not actually paid.
John Thompson, managing director of Mousetrap Media, the publisher of Journalism UK, points to this changing media landscape as one of the causes of the trend.
“It does seem to be happening a lot, but it’s not really anything new other than perhaps becoming more prevalent online, as readers migrate away from print and traditional revenue streams that publishers rely on continue to wane,” he says.
From launch, the Huffington Post relied heavily on free content provided by journalists. Founder Arianna Huffington argued that the content was not exactly free – instead of money, writers got exposure on a high profile platform in return for the writing.
Aspiring journalists would find their bylines on a platform that featured celebrities and star writers, hoping the association may lead to something bigger and better i.e. something paid.
You can hardly blame the 9,000+ writers who bought into this idea for getting irked when Huffington then went and sold the publication to AOL for $315m.
A group of writers sued after this sale, arguing they should get a share in the profits given that they helped to boost the value of the business. They lost; Huffington may have won the case in court but ethically it didn’t look good.
Professor Heather Brooke, leader of an investigative journalism course at City, University of London says she never writes for free and actively discourages students from doing so.
“Writing is a profession, a craft and labour. People should be paid for their labour and expertise,” she says. “If a writer gives away their work for free it undermines the field for everyone else.”
But, says Thompson, it’s a mistake to imagine that freelance journalists are somehow losing out on paid work, because there are legions of competitors out there who are willing to write for free.
“No-one can work for free forever and those that do in the short term are likely to be inexperienced and producing substandard material, or amateurs working in their free time,” he says.
“There is still a strong market for experienced freelancers able to provide quality content even if that may not always be in the traditional sectors. So I guess the positive is that it might teach freelancers to seek out better clients.”
Creatives at all stages of their career can now expect to end up in this situation, but it is perhaps harder for young people hoping for a breakthrough to say no.
A student in his second year of the digital photography course at Ravensbourne University London, Benjamin Peters has been shooting football and rugby for four years. For someone still in the early stages of his career, his position on providing work for free is clear: he won’t do it. Not anymore.
Last year he was approached by the sports editor of local South East London newspaper the Newsshopper, looking for someone to shoot football matches. At the time money was not mentioned and in hindsight, Peters says he should have raised the issue himself.
After working matches for the paper for a year and realising money was not forthcoming, he decided to stop.
“There are clients out there who expect something for nothing. I know that clients tend to view students as a perfect candidate for someone who will take work for exposure,” he says.
“I was told by the sports reporter who commissioned me, ‘we can’t pay photographers a match fee, so we predominantly use students. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as we’re getting them into games where they gain much-needed experience’ and that is the attitude.”
Of course, this new media landscape has grown to include an ever-expanding array of creative workers. The old categories of journalist, photographer, designer and so on, are blurred.
Today social media operators monetise content; Instagram influencers make a living – or at least an income – out of the partnerships they establish.
Sarah Mantelin, a full-time graphic designer, works as a freelance content creator and micro-influencer on social media.
Essentially new media concepts and content creators work with brands to develop creative work, while influencers have the ears and eyes of their own followers and have a considerable impact on purchasing decisions. Influencers are increasingly used by brands – in 2016 Social Media Today reported that 94% of marketers regarded their work with influencers to be effective.
Being a new category also means that there are few established rules. “Influencer marketing is a new industry which makes it particularly vulnerable to unpaid work. It is sadly very common to see young creatives work for free,” says Mantelin.
As a content creator, she works with fashion and lifestyle companies to create content for their brand.
“My expertise lies in creating imagery that will speak to their target audience and therefore generate high levels of engagement, which result in increased sales,” she explains.
“They mainly use my work for their own social media marketing, to promote their products through digital ads or to use on their website.”
As an influencer, these brands work with her to promote their products to 13,000+ followers on social media. “They want to reach my audience and use my position of influence to encourage them to buy a certain product,” she explains.
Every week she receives in the region of 20 collaboration requests from all kinds of brands “from the local shop owner to multinationals”.
A staggering 95% of those potential clients ask her to work for free in return for exposure and sometimes a free product.
“A free T-shirt is not going to help me pay my rent. Most of the time, they will try to make me feel like it’s a privilege to have been selected by their brand to work for them (for free),” she says.
“This is very irritating as no one would ask them to come and work every day at their office for a free pair of socks. By working with me, these brands get access to an art director, a model, a photographer, a stylist, a photo editor and a social media manager – all in one.”
Mantelin says it’s the fact that so many younger creatives accept this norm of working for exposure, without pay, that’s what’s part of the problem.
“It puts brands in a situation of superiority. At the end of the day, why would they pay for my services when they can get it for free from someone else?” she asks. “Creatives need to learn to say no to free work, in order to create a situation of scarcity for brands. This will make our work more valuable and they will have no choice but to pay creatives.”
The impact of unpaid work was clear from the previously mentioned Freelancer Club survey:
45% of respondents said they lacked money to cover work-related costs and 40% struggled to meet basic living expenses; while another 40% said they were competing with freelancers who were willing to work for nothing.
Student photographer Benjamin Peters has considered the conundrum, following his own experience and conversations with lecturers. “I’ve come to realise that every time I shot for the local press for free there were other much better photographers who weren’t being considered,” he says.
“There’s a photographer, who I personally know and look up to. He has 25 years experience, the latest equipment and is a fantastic photographer, one of the best. He’s been approached by the Newsshopper before and he doesn’t shoot for them. I bet it’s because they won’t pay.”
As Thompson concludes, freelancers need to ask themselves, who ultimately benefits from this dynamic.
“Unless there is a compelling business case, or you need to hone your craft, then do not write for free and avoid any client who does not value what you do,” he says. “Because if you don’t, you will end up working too hard for too little and preclude yourself from better-paid opportunities.”