'Lucrative Work-for-Free Opportunity,' Cont.

Rosiland Jordan is a fairly regular commenter here and also an experienced journalist. She currently works at Al Jazeera English. Rosiland stopped in to offer a useful dissent to my own arguments. I shall now exploit her labor and repurpose her typically insightful comment as my own original content. Although according to Rosiland, she should be paying me.


As a journalist whose face is an integral part of her work, I long have had limits placed on how I communicate "professionally" beyond my deadlines. Basically, if I'm doing anything closely related to what I do -- interview people on camera, write scripts, conduct research, talk on the TV for a news program, voice a TV story, or present -- my current employer has to give me explicit permission. That's because my employer benefits by having me collect, analyze, and present facts, anecdotes and personal observations on a daily basis. My employer pays me a respectable salary and benefits for that exclusivity, and I accept it willingly.

When I appear on panels or on other programs as an "expert observer," I typically do so for free -- it's about exposure for both my employer and for me. When I've been asked to appear at universities and am offered a cash honorarium, I usually turn it down, even though many other journalists gladly accept them. If I have to take the money, I donate it to charity with everyone's knowledge. (Coffee mugs, however, I gladly take and brandish. Coffee mugs are fantastic.) When student groups visit my bureau, I'll speak to them and answer all their questions for free. Here it's not about the exposure, but about the sharing of information and life skills that so many people just won't get otherwise, and I'm thrilled to do it.

Now, I haven't written for any other publications. I've always wanted to, but truth be told, I haven't had the time, and I love to sleep. If I did, I would need my employer's permission -- that rule is written into my contract, and I could lose my job if I didn't get permission first.

I'd also insist on payment -- even if it were a nominal amount. I'd be willing to negotiate -- but a check would have to be cut in my name. (By the way, $1 is not worth my time. I have an opportunity cost, and $1 isn't even on the same continent.) Now, if the publication didn't want to pay me at all, and still wanted the work -- well, it would be out of luck. There is absolutely no reason why any publication should think that it can profit from my 23 years of journalism experience, or from the investment my current and previous employers made in my career, without opening its wallet. That is exploitation. That is how the economy in the southern USA functioned for centuries. I am not interested in reestablishing a slave economy in any venue.

In the US, which does not have a robust intellectual tradition or climate, writing of all sorts is a PRODUCT. Companies that are trying to turn a profit do so by offering a collection of good products to potential consumers. If the companies could produce this collection with full-time staff alone, they'd already be doing it, and this discussion is moot. However, they cannot do produce this collection by themselves, and so they need freelance/occasional writers to help them do that. THIS IS A BUSINESS DEAL. FULL STOP. PEOPLE WHO PROVIDE ANY PRODUCT OR SERVICE TO A BUSINESS MUST BE PAID. FULL STOP.

Moreover, if the collection of products is attractive, consumers make a choice to spend money on that collection and not others. That is how companies earn their income. They have an obligation to share that income with the people who helped make that income stream possible: the freelancers.

Incidentally, I do write for my employer's website, as it's an expected part of my job. It's written into my contract. Accordingly, I'm compensated for doing the work; I, and no one else, am providing something that helps drive traffic to my employer's website. I cannot understand why this isn't happening at all magazines or newspapers (whether print-only, internet-only, or hybrid).

One other note: I do go comments-diving on the blogs, and I respond to others' ideas and opinions. I use my own name. I know that I have to watch crossing the line that protects my ability to report impartially, but still I comment. I'm nearly 47 years old, and I have seen and experienced many things so far in my life. I don't see why I should keep my mouth shut. I believe people should be using their real names, and be willing to defend their positions online. It's the only way I believe we can elevate the discourse in this country. What's more, I enjoy meeting and learning from other people -- that's why I'm a journalist -- and I'm not going to pass up a chance to engage, to challenge, to be challenged intellectually just because of my career.

Now, should I be paid to comment? No. I'm doing this on my own time. In my opinion, blog comment sections are akin to the old woodstove at the general store -- you wander in, you pull up a stool, you join a conversation, you go a few rounds, you wish each other a good day, and you go on about your business. You're deriving a particular kind of satisfaction and an education from taking part, and you're connecting with other people.

If anything, blogs should be charging people a nominal fee for the ability to take part in this conversation, because it's costing them money to make the space available. If you walked into that general store, you'd probably buy a soda or a cup of coffee as a thank-you for the opportunity to shoot the sh** for a bit.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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