ESPN’s Rick Reilly was chosen to give the commencement address to journalism students from the University of Colorado. His advice:
When you get out there, all I ask is that you: DON’T WRITE FOR FREE! Nobody asks strippers to strip for free, doctors to doctor for free or professors to profess for free. Have some pride! … If you do it for free, they won’t respect you in the morning. Or the next day. Or the day after that. You sink everybody’s boat in the harbor, not just yours. So just DON’T!
Well, Rick Reilly is certainly the right person to tell people not to write for free, but I can’t think of a single thing he could tell would-be writers that would constitute worse advice than that.
There’s an old saying that all writers have a million bad words in them and that, to write anything worth reading, they’ve got to get them out of their system. Put differently: writers need to write. A lot. Indeed, the only way anyone gets better as a writer is to just … do it. Your credential as a J-school grad is nice, but it is insignificant compared to experience. And, as the media world progresses further and further into the digital age, it becomes increasingly insignificant in an absolute sense.
What Reilly is really doing here is not giving advice to graduates. He’s giving them a warning: “Don’t take my job! Don’t take my friends’ jobs! They make a good living writing, and if you come in and undercut them with your blog or your contributed piece, you may screw with the system, so cut it out, will ya?”
And I have some amount of sympathy for that position. It has to be frustrating for someone who paid his dues under an old system to see others come up under a new system and no longer have to pay those dues. And who are essentially taking the jobs of those previous dues-payers. But that’s where media is now. I don’t have this job if I didn’t spend years writing for free, working at the craft and developing my voice. The same goes for a lot of people in this business. Including a lot of people who work with Rick Reilly at ESPN.
No, you don’t work for free forever because, hey, ya gotta eat. But most people do have to either take unpaid internships or blog and otherwise hustle to make it in the media these days. Advice that says “NEVER DO THAT!” is useless, because most of those graduates will be asked to do it. They key is to know what unpaid writing gigs could lead to the development of one’s career and, ultimately, into paying jobs and what unpaid writing gigs are essentially slave labor offered by a company simply looking to get something for free.
Someone who could help would-be writers figure that out would be a really useful commencement speaker. Reilly? Not so much.