Working For Free
Posted by Chase Sanborn


A recent column in the Toronto Star, written by Heather Mallick, discusses the concept of working for free. While focusing on bloggers at the Huffington Post, it can easily be applied to musicians who are asked to donate their talents in return for exposure, fun or the possibility of future paid work.

This brings up the point that this blog is wholly owned and operated by U of T Jazz. AOL has, of yet, not made an offer.

Huffington Post, AOL and the perils of free labour
By Heather Mallick (Toronto Star)

There are 15,000 reasons the Huffington Post deal to sell itself to AOL for $315 million might founder and they’re very loud chatty reasons.

They are bloggers who wrote for the website unpaid because they had faith in its owner, Arianna Huffington, and believed the site was independent, truthful and courageous in an American media landscape gone sour. I believed it, too, but then I went through a dreamy Obama phase where if you asked me if I believed in Tinkerbell, I would clap three times.

Thanks, Arianna. Funny how money changes everything.

AOL, not a company one automatically twins with the words “speak truth to power”—“laughing stock” would be more like it—thinks it’s getting a writing army for free. No such army exists. Yes, a young HuffPo began with 500 unpaid writers, many of them Huffington’s millionaire friends, and now it has actual paid editors and investigative reporters.

But remove the bloggers and the product will look decidedly thin online. It’s hard for a website to look wispy, you wouldn’t think the platform allowed it, but AOLingtonPost will have to make its print bigger if it wants to retain its heft.

Huffington sent out a mass email to the disaffected. “Your posts will have an even bigger impact on the national and global conversation,” she wrote. “That’s the only real change you’ll notice — more people reading what you wrote.”

Funny, that’s exactly what they said to me at what I still rate as one of the lowest points of my life. About a year ago, Costco magazine (yes, they have one) asked me to write a column for them, which, heretofore, I would have described as “work I wouldn’t do if you paid me.” How embarrassing, I thought. I’ll charge two grand apiece.

Costco, the giant American corporation, offered zero.

Why would I do that, I asked the Costco “editor.”

Lots of people will read you, she said.

Free work is like a puddle of dirty water, spreading fast and if you’re young, hard to escape unless you keep your wits about you. Unpaid interns are a byword in office life now but they have lousy lives. There’s a reason interns are asked to rub lotion onto the legs of talk-show hosts. It’s that people who work for free are treated worse than paid people. But you learn so much about the business!

British Prime Minister David Cameron is cutting government spending in favour of something he calls the “Big Society.” It means volunteering — doing things for free that the government used to hire people to do — and has been variously translated as freelance dentistry and delivering chickens to old people. Neighbours will spontaneously rub ointment on you, the Independent suggests.

There’s a trickle-down effect. When people are persuaded to work for free, it makes slavery more plausible. Take Demand Media, a U.S. firm that pays desperate people for piecework: $15 apiece for articles on nasal rash or how to shoe a pony and $3 to edit the thing. Demand values itself at $1.5 billion and is planning a $125 million IPO. (Its business model is based on the claim that all writing, no matter how poor, is eternal and people will still want to read about cuticle cancer on eHow five years from now. The Securities and Exchange Commission disputes this.)

But that same writer is still living on fingernail clippings in his digital home sweatshop.

The concept of working for free or for peanuts has been insidious for a decade now, assisted by digital innovation that helps conceal the practice. It’s like flesh-eating disease. It will consume you entirely unless you put an end to it with radical surgery. Can HuffAOL lose a leg and still stand? I hope not.

Comments are closed.

Return to Blog