Everyone at some point in their magazine career, and especially those just starting out, will be asked to do editing or writing work for free. It seems to be the nature of creative industries that because it's hard to quantify their value, people have no qualms about asking to have work done without paying for it.
I know a well-established artist and illustrator who, many years ago, did some work to appear on a concert t-shirt of a superstar world-famous band (i.e. they're filthy rich). When the subject of payment came up, the band's rep said the artist should be willing to do the work for free since it was an incredible opportunity, great exposure and a great honour to do work for said band. They could afford to pay so the artist dug in her heels and demanded a fee, which she got.
There are, however, times when working for free is ok. In a guest post on New York Times' Shifting Careers blog, veteran freelancer Michelle Goodman writes
[C]onsider when giving it up for nothing can work in your favor:
You have no clients or portfolio. If you left your staff position without any customer testimonials or work samples, you may have to do a freebie or three for a worthy small business to prove to paying clients that you’ve done this before. Pick short-term projects (several days, tops) so you’re not stuck working pro bono until the next decade.
Your dream client has shallow pockets. Writers, artists and performers are all too familiar with this phenomenon. Example: The indie magazine that barely pays its freelancers but, thanks to the power of PIE [Paid in Exposure], has landed many of them agents, book deals and art shows. For business consultants, speaking at a highly publicized conference might yield similar results, in the form of new clients and paid speaking gigs. Be sure to build such unpaid work into your annual promotional plan (which can be all of two paragraphs) so you don’t give away too much time each year.
You’re donating time to a worthy cause. When donating your services to your favorite nonprofit or charity, my motto is, “Give big.” Think high-profile auctions, galas and fund-raising marathons; the more PIE potential, the better. Although you’re doing the job gratis, send the client a short, informal contract clearly stating what you will and won’t do, and when.
Goodman also lays out when to avoid unpaid work, citing payment schemes like "credit for your work" and being paid on spec as red flags.
[Thanks to David Hayes of TFEW for drawing attention to this.]
Corinna vanGerwen is a freelance editor and writer. She has worked as senior editor at Style at Home, senior design editor at Cottage Life and is the former Canadian Director of Ed2010. She has also held the position of operations manager at a boutique PR agency, where she handled strategic planning and daily operations.