Precarious, unpaid or underpaid writing is similar to what unpaid internships—initially developed to help young people learn job skills—have become in many industries. It seems to be the only stepping stone into an employment security, if it ever comes.
by Daiva Repečkaitė
Image: Mohamed Hassan, Pixabay (adapted)
An experienced travel journalist once confided that, average fees dropped ten times over the past decades, as publishers started pointing to unpaid travel bloggers as an excuse to cut costs. When accountants, programmers and recruiters happily write about their travels in exchange for exposure and perhaps a free night at a fancy hotel, professionals struggle to justify their work expenses. Writing about travel is fun, but like any kind of journalism, it requires ethics, independence and integrity.
So how did non-fiction writing—and I mean the analytical, research-intensive variety—become mostly a hobby?
With ever-changing algorithms, businesses spend money on boosting ‘content’ on social networks so that more people click, in the hope to convert these clicks into advertising revenues.
To blame individuals taking up writing as a hobby in the digital age for the demise of writing careers would be the same as to blame band clubs for any financial issues Malta Philharmonic Orchestra could have. Amateurs and volunteers normally enrich industries and transition into professionals, if and when, they are willing and ready. Crowding out happens when the industry itself is challenged—not only by decreasing trade volumes, but also by deep confusion as to how value is produced, exchanged and delivered to customers. With ever-changing algorithms, businesses spend money on boosting ‘content’ on social networks so that more people click, in the hope to convert these clicks into advertising revenues.
It is tempting to believe that text is cheap in the digital age. And yet writing project applications, policy reports, blog posts for companies, technical texts and product descriptions does pay well. Thus, the relative ease of research and publishing online, or oversupply of skilled writers cannot explain why a text about a moisturiser would be more valuable than a journalist’s months-long research on post-earthquake hardships in an underreported country.
The forces of commercial demand, as well as ideologies of work value and individual self-development, are at play.
The ethos is that if you enjoy independence in your writing, don’t dare complain about working conditions—in the era of ‘bullshit’ jobs, you are actually getting the privilege to do a meaningful one! Pleasure, purpose, desire and income in writing careers are in most cases becoming a zero sum game. Independent analysis is now rewarded with what influential French theorist Pierre Bourdieu would call other kinds of capital.
In The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (1993), Bourdieu suggested that career paths depend on “space of positions” (field) and “space of dispositions” (habitus).
The ‘field’, a social universe with its own laws of functioning, assigns value to the work you produce, using your skills and passions (habitus). Dispositions also include tastes and values one picks up by being of a certain social class, making it easier for some to play in the ‘field’. As in sport, by entering the ‘game’, actors “tacitly accept the constraints and the possibilities inherent in that game (which are presented not in the form of rules, but rather as possible winning strategies)”.
In one of the ‘how to make it in professional journalism’ talks I’ve listened to, an American radio producer offered quintessentially American dream-y advice: just do it, just blog, just show the industry that you will create great products (i.e. show off your habitus) regardless of whether anyone pays you or not, build your follower base, and the industry will eventually reward you for your passion and skill.
Precarious, unpaid or underpaid writing is similar to what unpaid internships have become in many industries. It seems to be the only stepping stone into an employment security, if it ever comes.
Outlining the flows of economic, cultural and symbolic capital, Bourdieu wrote that “Agents are distributed in the space according to their possession of these kinds of capital”[*]. Writers’ education, fluency in hegemonic languages, and knowledge are their cultural capital, and their personal brand, awards and followers are their symbolic capital. These are accumulated and can eventually be exchanged for economic capital—money for living and job security, but whether a writer has the latter or not, they are pressured to restlessly work on their symbolic capital—post and tweet during their free time so that, heaven forbid, their followers do not feel abandoned.
For some, reward in symbolic and cultural capital will be enough, and they will gladly generate economic capital elsewhere. Not everybody wants to be a reporter strutting between press conferences and summits, or an overworked academic who writes books at night—the classical writing careers. The problem is, the ‘American dream’ tip was professional advice for breaking into a sustainable career. If unpaid writing was only about volunteering and amateurism, knowledge production would have developed into a lively exchange of various forms of capital, confirming the optimism of early blogosphere enthusiasts in the 2000s. The actual effect is similar to what unpaid internships—initially developed to help young people learn job skills—have become in many industries. It starts being a labour issue when precarious, unpaid or underpaid writing turns into the only stepping stone into an employment security, if it ever comes.
Under financial strain, the media industry used the convenient excuse of volunteer writers to cut salaries and staff positions—even if that meant admitting more people with vested interests to pose as journalists and/ or increasing working hours, shifting health and safety risks to individual workers.
Consumers get accustomed to knowledge workers’ desperate branding efforts (such as social media posts about interesting interviewees, travels and successfully overcome dangers, but never about anxiety, delayed paychecks and numerous rejections of grant applications) and start believing that the latter get paid enough in the fun and self-realisation they enjoy on the job—the non-economic capital. So they shouldn’t complain.
In discussions about addressing the unfair system, we must clearly differentiate between survival and solutions.
Progressive media organisations should respond to writers’ needs for other forms of capital—be it training, mentoring, grant endorsement, legal aid, or tax assistance to ease the burden of freelancing.
With increasing precarity and strain in conventional writing careers, many individuals feel indeed better off writing for symbolic capital and relying on parallel careers, savings or family for financial stability. Still, they would be better off critically assessing whether each gig on offer are worth volunteering for, and unionising (like freelancers in Poland) to collectively demand better working conditions. Progressive media organisations, which extract added value from unpaid labour to cut operating costs, should respond to writers’ needs for other forms of capital—be it training, mentoring, grant endorsement, legal aid, or tax assistance to ease the burden of freelancing. They should value unpaid writers as volunteers and amateurs, and support any professional stuck in a series on unpaid or underpaid gigs in moving towards a stable career.
Beyond survival, we should all think about solutions. If clicks are currency, which generates income for aggregators like Facebook through longer screen-time, it is only fair that all those sophisticated tracking algorithms start converting symbolic into financial capital for content producers. Freelancers and media organisations are experimenting with Spotify-like alternative payment models (e.g. medium.com or Blendle)—but micro-payments encourage click-baiting and will likely be no less precarious than freelancer fees are. Various institutions and foundations offer reporting grants—but this makes it all the more tempting for publishers not to pay their writers.
Writer residencies financed by public funds could ease the pressures, but in a precarious world, how many will leave a secure parallel job to focus on their writing? Perhaps to start the discussion, we need to admit that every limited solution will create problems of its own—just like enthusiastic blogging helped undermine professional writing.
[*] In Other Words. Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology, 1986.