When free is not always the best thing

A few foggy Santa Monica mornings ago, I sat in an empty parking lot going over my resume, eating a bagel, trying to convince myself that yes, somewhere out there, there are still paying jobs in journalism.

Moments later, I was sitting at a Coffee Bean, meeting the editor of Some New Startup Blog who was looking for a real salaried reporter.

This was it! I was on my way …

Two sips into a coffee and the Paying Editor started saying things like, “So, you’ll be writing mostly about Miley Cyrus and ‘The Real Housewives of Atlanta’ … They love that show … We need people who can ask celebrities the hard questions … You have to be ruthless!”

I sunk a little deeper into my chair, embarrassed as the hip screenwriters and morning yogi-biker Santa Monicans chuckled to themselves as I tried to feign interest.

“I can be ruthless,” I said, imagining myself standing up at a press conference for Angelina Jolie’s next peace mission, yelling out, “Angelina! My FOIA investigation has found that you were canoodling with a United Nations heartthrob while in Uganda … is it true?”

Walter Cronkite is rolling in his grave.

We are living in a climate in which four out of 10 journalism and mass communications graduates can’t find full-time jobs in their field, according to an annual survey from the University of Georgia.

Few land those ever-rarer paying jobs at big-time news organizations. These days, many are forced to work for free while finding other work to support the journalism.

Soon, waiters won’t be undercover actors; they’ll be undercover journalists, trying to write the lead of their story in their head while serving augratin.

Talk about putting the “free” in freelancer.

I scrounged on Craigslist and though I found some writing jobs (the high school kid paying someone to write his essay for college, the match.com applicant who needed a writer to make him sound sexy and cool, the how-to Web site offering pay for

writing how to charge a golf dune buggy battery), the journalism jobs were more like this:

“PLEASE NOTE: There is no pay in the beginning BUT this is an excellent opportunity for the right person.”

I even found one ad with a pay scale based on how many Facebook fans you can accrue for blog posts.

There are those lucky ones who can afford to work for free – the kids who pay the University of Dreams, which in turn pays employers $6,000 to produce a Guaranteed Unpaid Internship.

We are riding what Wired magazine Editor Chris Anderson calls the wave of Freeconomics.

This past summer, British airways asked 40,000 employees to “volunteer” their time in the airline’s “fight for survival.”

Business and government have come up with a fancier word for “free”: furlough.

Anderson describes in his new book, “Free, The Future of a Radical Price,” how businesses can profit more by giving things away than by charging for them.

Take it from newspapers: This does not work!

Though the newspaper industry is often compared to the music industry, with no one buying it, unlike musicians who have learned to buoy themselves by touring, the same is not true for journalists.

We do not get to jump on stage across America re-reading old stories about Corrupt Government Bureaucrats as people beg for an encore.

Originally published in the Pasadena Star News on November 21st, 2009

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