Eyeballs and Thanks Aren’t Legal Tender
It takes uncommon hubris and disdain to request free work
Writing and editing are such undervalued professional skills practitioners are often expected to work for free.
A few days ago, I received a request to republish a piece of mine about how rest has become a privilege many of us can’t afford anymore. As is the case with almost everything I write these days, personal experience informed my work. In fact, I’ve spent the last year pulling myself out of sickness and hardship by the strength of my words after losing five years of my life to depression.
During that time, the illness took away my writing voice and with it my journalism career and my ability to support myself. Which meant I couldn’t afford to access the health care I desperately needed despite having insurance.
Much like the one meal I eat daily isn’t intermittent fasting or a lifestyle choice but a cost-cutting habit, I don’t get adequate rest. Because time is the only resource I have, monetizing it to the best of my abilities takes precedence over everything else.
Otherwise, I simply can’t survive.
When they approached me, the new magazine with a fancy French name out of a Californian university was gushy. Since the hallmark of my industry is bluntness, overly complimentary requests aren’t the norm. Nor would any bona fide journalist ask a colleague to work for free.
I wrote back to say I was not opposed to my work being featured as long as they offered a republication fee, as per industry standards. This is when they replied that all their “submissions for this issue had been graciously gifted.” And I, of course, was the grinch who wasn’t gracious because I refused my work be used as filler copy for their vanity project.
You have to admire the hubris and the deep-seated sense of entitlement of the students doing the asking. And if their journalism professors are condoning this practice then they are perpetuating the problem.
Lo and behold, another republication request for more pieces arrived a few days later, also from the US.
This time, it came from a well-established fringe publication about living mindfully. Once again, the approach was overly flattering, something that was less concerning to me as it’s often the Western US hippie granola way. If you come from elsewhere, it’s that uncanny combo of positivity on steroids and going with the flow, man, because “The dude abides.” And since I’ve spent the last six years in Seattle, it didn’t sound all that out of place to me.
The one thing that gave me pause for thought was the curious email address of the editor reaching out, featuring VIP in the username. Why, I wondered, did an editor not have a named address instead of this generic, bizarre one? I already knew the publication but hadn’t seen it for a while although I couldn’t remember why I stopped visiting their website.
Little did I know this seemingly innocuous email interaction was about to refresh my memory. There was a clue in the phrasing of the email but I missed it. “We pay our top writers weekly, based on our ecosystem”, the person who emailed me said. The keyword here was top but my brain, naturally inclined to overlook extraneous verbiage, missed it. So relieved was I at the prospect of rescuing a disastrous month during which I worked more relentlessly than ever that I didn’t even do my due diligence.
This, for a journalist, is inexcusable.
And yet, had I bothered to check out the site in more detail, I would have immediately remembered why I stopped reading and supporting it in the first place. Instead, I replied to the editor I’d be happy for her publication to feature my work and even suggested some additional pieces.
This is what happens when you’re too cash-strapped to rest: You miss a lot and you make mistakes.
When the editor’s reply arrived, it bore bad news. Payment would be contingent on having one of the seven most popular pieces on the site on any given week. This means payment isn’t simply based on the audience engagement model but it’s a competition between writers, dependent on some mysterious algorithm. In short, this outlet was offering to compensate only seven writers per week while the rest would remain unpaid.
In practice, this encourages the production of clickbait and filler content. To capture attention at all cost, the site deploys headlines using shocking vernacular, loaded language that is disparaging, and F*. This goes against everything I’ve ever worked for, everything I write about, and basic journalism ethics. Headlines such as “I Wasn’t a Victim. I was Just a Slut” sum up their attitude to personal narratives.
So I did the only self-respecting thing I could do and withdrew republication consent, asking them to acknowledge my email, which they still haven’t had the courtesy to do. I also took the opportunity to explain my position, not because I labored under the illusion that seeing their business model exposed as exploitative would register or make a difference.
But because I needed to spell it out, for vocation’s sake. Vocation is as much a blessing as it is a curse. A blessing because it grants you monomaniacal dedication to your craft, a curse because people who spot this are wont to try and exploit it.
This is how you could end up dedicating hours of your life and sacrificing sleep for a job you believe in against the tersest of thanks. And only because you dared pipe up about how unappreciated you felt your guidance, input, and professionalism were. The fault is yours and yours only. Those who take advantage of you will always find a way to justify their actions, assuming they even realize they’re doing so.
Sometimes, you will take on a job trusting people will do the decent thing and you won’t ask too many questions because it’s the kind of job that seldom comes along. It’s the kind of job that presents rare untapped potential and has the power to launch someone else’s career, something you feel duty-bound to assist with because vocation will do that to you: The opportunity to help develop and elevate new voices is what many editors live for.
And it’s also the kind of job that commands a comfortable professional fee that might finally have helped you get ahead for once… had you been paid like all other suppliers on the project. Much like you can’t buy food with eyeballs, you can’t buy food or pay bills with thanks. And you certainly can’t put eyeballs and thanks in the bank to fund a much-needed day off, either.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.