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Nate Thayer vs. The Atlantic: Should You Ever Work for Free?


On Monday, Olga Khazan, the Global Editor of, reached out to veteran reporter Nate Thayer to see if he’d be interested in contributing a trimmed-down version of a previously published article to the site — for free. Thayer declined, and then publishing his exchange with Khazan on his blog. By Tuesday morning, the internet, or at least the newsy corner of it, was flaming like a comments section.

Responders to Thayer’s post seemed divided into two types: 1) those who felt Thayer was being unreasonable, given the current climate in online journalism, and 2) those who felt that once a reporter has interviewed Pol Pot, he should be exempt from doing work for “exposure.”

Regardless of where you stand on this exact situation, the exchange brings up an interesting question. When, if ever, should we work for free?

The obvious case is when you’re doing an internship, but even that is less clear than it was previously. Unpaid internships are under increasing legal scrutiny. Currently, the Labor Department has a six-part rule about which interns must be paid minimum wage and which can toil for free. Chief among the factors determining an unpaid internship: the experience must be for the benefit of the intern, the internship must be educational, the intern cannot perform duties in the place of a regular employee, and the intern isn’t entitled to a job at the close of his or her internship. (So, sort of a good news/bad news proposition at best for interns: they can’t be forced to do junior employees’ jobs for free, but they’re also not necessarily getting a job after their time is up.)

Do You Know What You're Worth?

As for non-interns, the question of whether to work for free in order to get exposure, or the chance of paid work down the line, or in trade for other services (like web development, or plumbing, or any other thing you’re not good at doing yourself) is a fairly individual one. However, to Thayer’s point, there’s always the concern that offering too much work for free might disincline organizations to pay.

Or, as he puts it “…while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts.”

Ultimately, no matter what we decide about doing free work right now, unless it’s volunteer work for an organization we admire, our labor has to be in the service of getting paid — at least, eventually.

Tell Us What You Think

We want to hear from you! Would you ever work for free? Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter, using the hashtag #MakeItHappen.

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(Photo Credit: 401(k) 2013/Flickr)

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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