Australian lit-journal Meanjin has just published a great blog post answering the above question - I recommend you check it out.
My response below. A journalist from The Punch has also left a comment that’s well worth reading.
"Perhaps the question is not ‘should we write for free – yes/no’ but ‘to what extent should we write for free?’"
I agree with this completely. The main questions I ask myself when deciding if it’s worth writing for free are a) does the publisher in question have the money to pay me, and b) will this allow me to be part of a conversation I otherwise wouldn’t?
I’ve always strongly encouraged new writers not to offer their services for free to the major newspapers and magazines - they have the means to pay you and, up until the past six months or so, it wouldn’t have made a difference as to whether they’d publish you anyway - whilst also highlighting the importance of ‘paying your dues’, for which smaller, indie publications make a great place to start.
I don’t agree with Lucy that refusing to write for free is a “sacrifice” - despite the recession, I’m yet to experience a shortage of paying outlets willing to publish my work (although, admittedly, I don’t freelance fulltime and have other sources of income). But I’m okay with doing it when it means writing for my own blog (which I use to have a more interactive discussion about the issues I write about), guest posting for another blog (usually reprints of something I’ve already published), writing for a friend’s (indie) publication, or republishing something I’ve already written to a major news outlet that gets a lot of traffic (such as, well, The Punch).
But usually these pieces involve far less research and effort than pieces I am paid for, and my blog aside, I always prioritise paid writing over unpaid writing.
I’d also be willing to do it if there was something I really wanted to write about and no paying outlet would take it, but to date, this has not happened.
I recognise the sitution is different for writers who don’t have a publishing record already under their belt, but I still stand by my advice. Good writing, reporting and analysis takes time and commitment to produce, and it deserves to be paid for - especially if someone’s making money off it.