Writing for Free

It's complicated.

"Slaves of the Internet, Unite!" is the kind of headline that is guaranteed to get you attention on the Internet. And so, my little corner of it was ablaze yesterday with its central question: Is it right to write for free?
This discussion typically ping-pongs between two extremes: (1) It's deeply unjust and insulting to ask people for free work, including free writing; and (2) If you don't want to write for free, then just don't, end of story. These are easy and attractive answers, but the question is deeper.
Let's start with the fact that writing isn't like other forms of work, like law or medicine or plumbing, because just about everybody writes for free. You might not think you do, but you almost certainly do. Maybe you publish opinions and thoughts on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe you have diary, a Tumblr, or a personal blog, to share ideas and work out theories. Maybe you write long letters or emails or talks to colleagues, students, newspapers, mentors, and mentees. This is all free writing. Sometimes, it is done on sites with paid advertising, sometimes with sites with editors, sometimes in private windows and notebooks, and while writing is never "easy," it is easier than ever, and so it is done, often free of charge, all over the place. The Web is awash with words, and if everybody insisted on publishing only those words agreed upon by paid contract, the Internet and the world of letters would be considerably more empty.
But the fact that so many people write for free, all the time, sits uncomfortably with the fact that writing is also, occasionally, a profession. And we have, in this country, a fairly clear sense that work deserves compensation. This is, for example, why I consider unpaid internships morally repugnant, since we're essentially asking that entry-level jobs, for which there is a minimum wage, be performed for free because somebody replaced the word "job" with "internship."
So here is the rub. Unpaid writing is all over the place. But writing is also a job. And jobs should be paid. So is it immoral for a publication to ask for somebody to write for free?
Unfortunately, the "slavery" article in Sunday's Times by Tim Kreider buries the simplest argument—that it's good to pay writers, nobody should appreciate this more than *other writers*—under an avalanche of righteousness, like "nobody would ever ask my sister to perform dangerous surgeries for free." Well, no they wouldn't, and thank heavens, because freelance lobectomies sound like a horrible idea. On the other hand, asking smart people to write for free on their spare time creates an impressive intellectual surplus. I am immeasurably smarter about stuff (I think) because of other writers' willingness to "enslave" themselves to blog networks.
A clearer case for why writing for free is wrong comes from Kathleen Geier at The Washington Monthly:

The reason I insist on being paid for my writing is not only because my time and services are valuable and doing unpaid work for someone else is insulting. There’s also a principle of solidarity at work. Every time a writer agrees to work for free, she drives down writers’ wages and makes it harder for other writers to make an adequate living from their craft.

There are two arguments here. The first is personal: She doesn't want to write for free. The second is public: She doesn't want to create a class bias toward cheap labor.
But again, this issue is much more complicated than "every free op-ed lowers wages for writers." Websites have two sources of money: revenue and the generosity of the publisher. If you're working within a zero-sum writers budget, less money spent on freelancers can mean more money spent on writers' wages. Second, you can argue that free column-writing is a luxury that only the rich can afford. But you could also argue that the Internet breaks down class barriers, letting publishers find work they might never have seen, before the Internet (and all its free writing) created a populist portal for anybody to sound off.
So, do websites that accept free writing foreclose our industry to people who can't afford to write for free, or open our industry to anybody who wants to write for free? Maybe both. As TNC explained, in response to the journalist Nate Thayer and his arguments about non-paid work, "exposure" is not as valuable as a salary with benefits, but for some young writers, like himself, a bit of exposure proves invaluable.
At TheAtlantic.com, for example, where most of our writing is done by full-time staff, we cannot promise freelancers the kind of money that will cover mortgages and clothes, for straightforward economic reasons. But we pay something, not only because paying nothing would lose us some wonderful pieces, but because it is our policy to pay professional journalists for original work. That other websites don't do this, or (less likely, but possibly) literally cannot afford to pay writers anything is unfortunate, but it is much more complex than gross exploitation.
I think writers should be paid. But the idea that free writing is an obvious and categorical blight against authors and readers everywhere is a cheap thought, no matter how much its author is compensated.