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Writers, Just Say No to Free Work on the Web

You scan Craigslist for that great writing or editing job you so badly need to pay your mounting bills. You see the ideal listing, one requiring an advanced degree, several years experience, an impressive resume, and links to your dazzling blogs. You scroll down to the important part, the compensation for your investment in j-school, years on the job. It hits you in the head like a badly tossed morning paper: They want you to work for free: nada, bupkis, zilch. A-holes!

The sad part is that this is the growing trend for employers desperately seeking talented journalists in a highly saturated market. They know as newspapers and magazines fold, there is a growing market of hungry and skilled writers, copywriters, editors, and bloggers who need work, as well as fresh meat needing to get a foot in cyberspace and get published.

And these are opportunities are not limited to internships. From sites like Media Bistro to Huffington Post job searches and gads of other resources, start-ups and existing sites are looking for free labor, suggesting you can grow along with the success of the venture. Hey, you might get paid some day, but in the meantime, think of what a favor they are doing for you!

Naturally, the internships also are there for the taking. They have always been around. When I finished at Northwestern, many in my class started with internships at places like CNN, where they called it a Video Journalist (or VJ) and the position was paid. The phenomenon of unpaid internships seems to have blossomed along with the recession, and dozes of alum on the Medill job site complain how hard it is to get real work. In fact, the overall unemployment of college grads now has reached 10 percent, and they are all vying for jobs in a horrendous climate. The employers know this. They feed on it.

So what are young and old journalists to do? Perhaps we need to stick to our guns and refuse to work for free. Oh, sure, once you have a paid position you can always contribute to community websites that don't pay, just for fun, but it cannot be our bread and butter, or else we will be starving artists.

Just say NO to pro bono, unpaid internships, unpaid jobs. Tell the employer you value yourself and your time and paying for labor is the American way. Watch what happens. You will see the trend will shift when they realize journalists are looking out for one another despite the fact we are not unionized. The good news is the pay will show up, once employers attempt to do the writing themselves, usually to disastrous results.