I’ve changed my thinking about student journalists doing free work.

There was a time when “no” was my reaction to the idea of students providing their work for free to commercial enterprises. If they valued your work enough to publish it, I reasoned, they should value it enough to pay for it.

But the nature of publishing has changed. There are a lot more people publishing now, only a few of whom are making much money, so the opportunity to be published — and to work for free — has grown substantially.

And my thinking has changed, too. Now, when a student asks what I think about the idea of them writing for free for x publication or y website, I try to walk them through some questions.

What will you get out of it?

Is it a good way to build your clips? Does it give you the chance to work with an editor who can teach you? Can you explore doing journalism in a niche you are interested in (music, gaming, fashion, etc.)? Is there are opportunity to build your network of contacts? Does the free work give you access to places you want to be — the press box at sports events, concerts, etc.? Will the free work help develop your skills, as opposed to merely making use of existing skills? Is there a realistic possibility that the free work might lead to paid work in the near future?

Can you do it, without it becoming a chore?

How much of your time and energy can you comfortably dedicate to free work? What priority will it demand? Are the rewards worth the effort that will go in it? Can you make it easily fit with your other obligations, as well as your need for personal time?

How will it end?

How is your ability to say “no”? Do you have clear goals going in and do you have a way of measuring how those goals are being met? If you’ve identified what you are getting in exchange for the free work, will you be able to say “thank you” and walk away when you’re no longer benefiting?

Finally, there’s the issue of being clear, with yourself and with those you’re doing free work for. If you have an over-developed sense of responsibility, or an all-too-human desire not to make other people unhappy, you may find it difficult to end a relationship that’s no longer good for you. And being clear on why you’re working for free — and making that clear to those you’re working for — makes it easier to change — or end — the experience when it’s time.

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