We only like it because it's free

Part of the decline of newspapers, what part wasn't decimated by the excesses of private capital, came from Craigslist offering up a free marketplace for classified ads selling everything from socks to sex. In the past few weeks, in a cute bit of irony, I've been turning to the site looking for media jobs gradually being undermined by the service.

Fees, like captchas, are barriers to entry. When you charge for a service it discourages people from signing up and abusing (or even just using) the service as it changes the math of a break-even point for your scam. Newspapers offered that kind of barrier, though it was penetrated on occassion by the more ambituous, but Craigslist only attempts it for some real estate listings and ads from sex workers who, but for a wink and a nod, are pimping themselves to anyone that will look.

It is up to the community to point out the scams by flagging them and hectoring them with response posts warning their fellow users. For Craigslist the system makes sense, since there are thousands of listings posted every minute all across the world and it would be impossible to review them without grinding things to a halt, but in that darkness scams and shams proliferate.

The latter is the more interesting category. Posts that look like work, but certainly don't pay like work and rely on the innocence and credulity of people just starting out often asking you to do costly work for free.

The headlines shout out that someone is looking for a young creative type: a photographer, a writer, a glassblower or graphic designer. Clicking on it, the details of the assignment are vague saying that it would only take a few hours. The requirements are often contradictory, looking for amateur professionals or experienced students, always they want you to bring your own equipment.

This - "3rd Camera + Operator Needed" - is a typical example of what the creative job seeker faces:

A 3rd camera is needed for a living room interview to be filmed on Saturday, April 18th in Harrisville, RI (2pm-6pm at the latest). Need someone with HVX-200 (preferably) and shotgun mic and maybe a wireless lav. We will be shooting in 24 PA, 16 x 9. This will NOT be in HD, but on mini-DV. This is for a doc feature. Position Unpaid. Shooter will receive credit and possible future paid work. Please send resume and link to reel. Thank you. 

It's not unusual that you be asked to provide your equipment. If I were to shoot a wedding I'm sure that the bride would like me to bring a camera since Uncle Phil is probably going to be unwilling to part with his. Certain devices are part of the equipage of the professional, they are like a badge that says you're taking things very seriously. Of course that equipment costs money.

In our sample posting, the camera - a high definition model from Panasonic - costs about $5,000. Add to that additional batteries, tapes and all the equipage it takes to keep things operating smoothly and the price expands further. In any job your fee includes the amoretized cost of your equipment just as your fee is in part based on your experience and ability. The moment you walk on site with your own equipment, it costs you money even if everything has been bought and paid for.

Instead of pay, these listings offer to give you credit or tell you that you can use the assignment to build your portfolio. Above, they note that the position is unpaid but you'll get credit and maybe you can work with them in the future for pay.

Your portfolio is very important, since in addition to your charm and tenacity its what sells you to clients. The more gigs you have the more chances you have to catch that one photo that might convince someone to hire you, and it reassures them that you can deliver consistent results. Sometimes it's a good idea to do something for the sake of your portfolio, but commercial work rarely merits that treatment. If you're going to do something for free you should consider the value to you, you can just as easily work as a gift for a friend or for a charity as you can for a company.

I offer this simple rubric for figuring out if you should take on a gig for free: if it would break their budget to pay you then the gig won't jumpstart your portfolio, if it would knock your portfolio out of the park then they can afford to pay you. Your mileage may vary of course.

As a side note, it's important to remember that generally paying gigs can also be used to build up your portfolio. Unless you've signed a draconian contract where they own absolutely everything, you retain the rights to your work and at the very least you can always keep a few select shots for your personal portfolio (please consult with a lawyer before taking my advice). Credit, again depending on your contract, is also standard.

The second part, that they might come back to you with a paying job in the future is laughable.

By putting up that listing, the employer has already shown that they're willing to use people with little experience if they're willng to work for free. If they can do that once for one project, what is their incentive not to try it again at every opportunity? While it's possible they might call you back if they really enjoyed your work, it's not going to help your negotiating position if you've already shown a willingness to work for free.

Of course if you're paid for a gig and do good work, then you have the same chance to form an ongoing relationship with a client and you know that they're willing to pay. That you asked them for money will also not stop them from sharing your card with their connections.

The unstated major premise of these posts is that the poster is doing you a favor by letting you in on their project. While they might be taking a risk, you're also providing a valuable service and if you can deliver that service you should be paid for it.

The best investment in your future as a writer, photographer or zither player is not to start doing jobs for free, it's to deliver value to your client. So when you see these jobs around the Internet be skeptical.