Sure, write stuff for free. But write for yourself.
It was a design so cool, it belonged on a T-shirt.
At an old paper I worked at, I created a cover which was so epic that it looked like something a Threadless designer handed to a newspaper instead of a gaggle of hipsters.
But when my editor, understandably impressed by the design, actually pitched the idea of selling it as a T-shirt, it actually led me to think more seriously about the idea of ownership of content than I ever had before.
The problem with journalism these days is that when you work on a piece—from an illustration, to a graphic, to an aggregated piece of nothing, to a lengthy article—the owner is quite often the person paying the bills. But not always. It depends on what you negotiate. And in the case of a work-for-hire gig, which is what most creative-oriented salary-based jobs are, your boss is totally allowed to use your work in that context.
Or, to put it another way, I created this awesome design for someone else, and they had the rights to do whatever they wanted with it.
Why you need a side gig
In recent days, the journalism field has been having this big argument over the idea of writing for free—an argument built around the idea that big companies that make lots of money (see: The Atlantic) sometimes ask people to write for free—including at times they shouldn't.
Instead, I'd like to make an alternate argument—you should write for free—on top of your regular gig. Because you'll own those words, and you can control the output, and you'll be able to decide how the world sees them. The copyright’s yours.
The thing about creativity is that, secretly, it's all marketing. Even if, on the surface, it looks a heckuva lot like you just posted a picture of a cat, made a one-liner and went from there.
Too few people look at their writing in this way. They do their work at the job itself and say that’s that. And it's a mistake.
You should have an unvarnished outlet for your creativity: It's your voice. It's your writing. Even if it doesn't make you a penny, you should be an entrepreneur about it. You should tell the world, hey, I got this new thing, and it's awesome, because it's my vision.
Too many journalists are hoping that someone will give them the answers about their work. Why? Even if you can't write your full destiny, write part of it. You don't have to wait for someone to notice your work. You just have to be savvy, creative, and ready to hustle.
Think like an entrepreneur, so you don't have to worry about saying yes to The Atlantic when they call. You already put in the groundwork for your own "exposure"—whatever that is.
What the T-shirt wrought
When my editor—who (by the way) meant really well and never actually used the design in a way I didn’t approve of—made that pitch regarding the potential T-shirt design, it planted a seed.
Too much of my work is owned by other people. I need to have something that's all mine.
And when, just two weeks later, we learned the paper was shutting down, I got a chance to see where that seed would go. Between jobs, I built my site, ShortFormBlog. Four years and two jobs later, it's still something I work on daily. When I told people I worked at a newspaper, they couldn't believe the blog wasn't my main job.
On two separate occasions, I got really close to gigs thanks to my work with SFB, but at least part of the reason they didn't work out was because they wanted me to drop the blog and focus my energy on the other project. I started asking too many questions—I couldn't bear to see the labor of love go away. It probably cost me those jobs.
Part of the reason I took my current job is because it embraced side projects like SFB—and that they said "yes" showed me that they understood the value of this. I make not much money off of it, but it's helped me in so many ways. It expanded my skill set beyond the decaying newspaper industry. It gave me a chance to fill in the gaps left from the day jobs that had the set constraints I simply couldn't fight.
And it gave me ownership of something way cooler than a design that would end up on a few crummy T-shirts.