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Rick Reilly Urges Journalism Grads Not To Write For Free. Good Luck With That.

The University of Colorado’s School of Journalism is closing. The final commencement speaker was “distinguished alumnus” Rick Reilly. He dropped the obligatory Hindenburg and Tiger Woods jokes. He delivered his mantra “write sentences that have never been uttered before in the history of the English language” (except if it was by you, a few years ago). Most importantly, he issued this sage advice. “DON’T WRITE FOR FREE!”

From an excerpt of Reilly’s speech.

“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! What you know how to do now is a skill that 99.9 percent of the people don’t have. 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!”

It’s easy to stress principles when you’ve made money. I’m sure he threw in the commencement speech standard: “It’s an exciting time to be entering the job market!” No health insurance. Not having a stable income. Moving back in with your parents. Feel the excitement!

Look, the journalism boats have already sunk. They were sinking when newspapers and magazines spent nearly a decade trying to ride out rather than adapt to this Internet fad. They were sinking when said outlets decided to pay columnists ridonkulous money in perpetuity. They were sinking when snotty college kids took what had traditionally been a trade and tried to stretch it into an art form, a profession and an academic discipline.

The current climate, for the 99.9 percent of writers who aren’t Rick Reilly, resembles Waterworld. We’re sifting through the wreckage, constructing crude rafts and, hopefully, converting our own urine into potable water.

Journalism’s fallacy, lingering from print, is that your written work is a physical commodity with intrinsic monetary value. It isn’t. However impeccable your AP style is, you’re sending an idea into the ether, along with everyone else with a tumblr. The value, as the Gawker outlets have shown, is extrinsic. It comes from how and how many people read and interact with it.

How people read and interact with your work is largely a product of reputation. Writing for SI or the New York Times endows that, but, if you’re not one of the gifted few, you must build this reputation yourself, through writing. This means writing often, writing for free and writing for outlets that may demean your journalism degree, which, I can assure you, is now largely irrelevant. Even then, there’s no guarantee someone will pay you money to type words on your keyboard. You have to get lucky.

Bill Simmons, essentially, wrote for free. Jason McIntyre wrote for free. Will Leitch and A.J. Daulerio wrote for free. Just about everyone who has become successful Post-Internet has written for free. Your skills may give you a leg up in the present climate, journalism grads, but your pride certainly won’t.

[HT to Romenesko, Photo via Getty]

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