April 12, 2011

“Free”lance Doesn’t Mean You Should Work for Free!

One of the biggest stories in the freelance writing world right now is the lawsuit against The Huffington Post. Earlier today, labor activist Jonathan Tasini filed a class action lawsuit against the online publication, co-founders Arianna Huffington and Kenneth Lerer, and partial owner AOL because its writers didn’t get a piece of the pie when The Huffington Post was sold.

The problem? These writers were never promised any kind of payment.

Although Tasini is asking for $105 million on behalf of the nearly 9,000 writers who worked for The Huffington Post, few of these writers ever signed a contract that said they were going to be paid. It wasn’t some kind of sneaky deal, either, where they were verbally promised payment or were otherwise led to believe they’d be getting paid. No, these writers signed on to work for free. It was only after the big payday that some began to think it wasn’t fair. The only thing they were promised was the ability to get their writing exposed to readers of The Huffington Post.

This comes on the heels of the announcement that a number of AOL-owned blogs would no longer be paying their writers (though writers were invited to keep working for free).

As a freelance writer, I firmly believe that writers deserve to get paid for their work – but not if they agree to work for free. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know how this case will end, but I personally don’t think the writers should have ever agreed to do the work in the first place if they weren’t receiving payment. Since they agreed to those terms, I don’t believe they deserve payment now, after the fact.

If you’re considering freelance writing, don’t let this story turn you off of this career path. I think there are a few important lessons here for anyone who wants to find freelance writing jobs:

  • Don’t work for free unless you are okay with working for free. Even if the person makes millions of dollars from your writing in the future, they really aren’t obligated (in my opinion) to pay you if you agreed to work for free.
  • Sign a contract. A solid freelance writing contract protects both parties if there is ever a lawsuit. Make sure that both you and your client have a copy of the contract signed by both parties.
  • Understand the value of “exposure”. The Huffington Post bloggers were promised exposure in exchange for their work, rather than payment. If you’re going to sign that kind of contract, make sure that you know what kind of exposure you can get. According to reports, the blogs at this publication received a very small percentage of the actual traffic to the site, which means that for many of these writers, the “exposure” wasn’t worth much.

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to work for free. I certainly don’t, and most of the freelance writers I know don’t either. This industry is definitely competitive, especially if you’re hoping to find a blogging job with a top publication, but even as a new freelancer, you don’t have to take jobs that pay little or no money unless you want to. There are tons of paying writing jobs out there – it is just a matter of finding them and applying.

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