Sunday, April 26, 2009...1:00 am

Ways to survive the media recession, part 4

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Part 1;   Part 2;   Part 3;   Part 4;   Part 5;

It’s been a bit of a marathon, but finally we’re getting to the end of the recession-busting advice.

In the next post, I’ll put together a handy summary, so you don’t have to wade through so much copy to see the bullet points.

First – A follow-up note on the whole business of advertising yourself.

Using freelance online marketplaces

One of the things I tried at the end of last year was to register on People Per Hour – an online marketplace for freelancers in a wide range of fields, including media-type stuff such as writing and design.

I thought it might be a good way of tapping into a wider market than I could reach through my own contacts, and also improve my ability to pitch for new work.

In brief, I found it didn’t really work for me, but it might work for you, especially, I suspect, if you’re a student or similar. I posted about this at greater length earlier, so it might be worth you checking out the pros and cons here.

Should you work for free in the hope of getting paid work later on?

When I went to blather at Kingston, I got involved in a discussion with one of the students about doing unpaid writing work. Although he was only in the first year, he’d been enterprising enough to get an unpaid commission to write for a publication (I didn’t catch which one, as I arrived late into the conversation).

Should you do this? Is it exploitation? Does it undermine your fellow journalists who rely on real income from writing to pay the rent? Does it make it easier or more difficult to get paid for your work further down the line?

My take is that it’s absolutely fine to work for nothing – under certain circumstances. The key is to ask yourself what you’re getting out of your pro bono work:

  1. Experience. If you really don’t have experience (you’re a student, say), then it pays to get it. The money’s not as important as the skills and ability you develop. Make sure, however, that you get feedback on your work so you can improve. This is especially important for students, but is also valid for professionals if they are moving into a new field, for example.
  2. Exposure. This works at any stage in your career. I recently wrote a piece for the members’ magazine of the British Association of Communicators in Business (CiB), because I wanted to get some exposure to the corporate communications market. It didn’t pay any money, but it is a useful thing to point to when I’m talking to potential corporate writing clients, particularly as I have spent pretty much all of my career in business journalism, and don’t have that much corporate work to show off.
  3. Contacts. If you want to break into a particular field of writing, it’s worth trying to build up contacts in that world. There are plenty of specialist publications dealing with things such as the arts, say, or other niche areas, most of which are produced by enthusiasts using volunteer contributions. If you put some effort into contributing to these magazines and newsletters, you kill two birds with one stone – you get experience writing in a specialist field, and you also start building up a contacts book of the field’s movers and shakers. And what does a successful journalist have? A solid contacts book. This in itself has a value to potential employers, not counting the clippings you are building up.

OK, then – there are good reasons to write (and do other media-type work) for free. But what are the downsides?

Primarily, you run the risk that doing work for nothing will actually undermine your ability to get paid work in future. Here’s how that works.

If you want to write music features for something like Uncut, for example, it may not be such a good idea to persuade the editor to give you a payment-free trial. After all, once you’ve given it away for free, why would they rush to start paying you full whack? It’s much more likely that your try-out period gets strangely extended and you end up donating far more than you had planned. And even if you do start getting paid, you may find it’s not at the full rate the “professionals” get.

I’m sure the fine Uncut doesn’t operate so shabbily, by the way (unless you know differently), and I’m sure this approach has worked for some. But logically it’s risky. It’s far better to donate your free writing to media outlets that don’t pay anyway. That means when you come to tout for paying work you have a bulging portfolio, but no track record of giving out freebies to potentially paying clients.

Also, make sure you get some kind of return from the free work. As noted before, if you’re a student wanting to write something for your portfolio and you get a friendly editor or features editor to commission it, ask them to give you advice and feedback in return. Many will be happy – or at least prepared – to do so. (If they’re not, that’s an indication to try somewhere else.)

I’ve been talking about writing, but the principle holds good for other media-type skills.

If you want to move into web design, for example, then by all means design web sites for free – just make sure it’s not for people that might otherwise pay you. And potential magazine designers can spend many happy hours working up newsletters and leaflets for small charities to hone their InDesign chops.

The moral? Sometimes you have to give before you can receive. Just make sure you give to the right people.

Next: the handy summary to all this verbiage.

Part 1;   Part 2;   Part 3;   Part 4;   Part 5;

1 Comment

  • Chris Cardell tells us to give lots away and that this will generate paying enquiries (my apologies to Chris if I oversimplify) but he does charge people about £295 to become part of his “inner circle” … Send me £50 and I’ll tell you how to make money easily … (lol).

    Agree about the pro bono writing. Definitely think there’s no point in doing it unless it really is a means to an end. And you’re right about prefering paces that don’t pay in the first place – the alternative is to be tossed when you start asking for money once the editors start telling you how great your work is and how valuable (!) your contribution is … (Yes. I’ve been there!!!)