Working for “free” vs. Working for “Me”

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By: Mandy Mitchell

One of the very first things I was told in my very first newsroom was this:

“Never ever ever work for free!”

The photog was telling me this over a Wendy’s lunch that I found rather magical as a 16-year old intern out with a an actual TV news crew. We were covering a story about an endangered bird that had been shot. We had just come back from seeing the dead bird and getting the interviews and had just enough time to sit down for an “real lunch.”

He went on to explain that his “hours” were 9-6:30 and he planned to be out the door at 6:30 every day or they would be “paying him” for every minute he stayed. He then told me how he rarely answered his pager (this was 1998) because those who answer “get taken advantage of more often.”

I get this line of thinking. I really do. This is a tough business and we don’t make a lot of money and we keep getting asked to do more with less. Sometimes you have to draw a line. You also have to have a life outside the newsroom. You don’t want to constantly be worried you will get the call to breaking news on your days off. I get it.

But I don’t subscribe to this philosophy completely. I think there are times where you can benefit from working for free.

Let me give you an example from my own career. I produced a documentary on my own time last year. I didn’t get time to work on it during “work hours.” I was called “nuts” by a few co-workers who claimed I was giving my station content and getting nothing in return. They were right if you are thinking about this strictly based on dollars earned for hours worked. But value isn’t always about how many dollars you make.

I can remember having a conversation with a network reporter a few years back. He asked me what the longest story I ever told was. I answered, as most of you would, “Uh…I don’t know 2 and a half, 3 minutes. You know, sweeps pkg length.” He then told me I should find a way to do something longer. So I did.

I may not have made a dime producing that documentary, but I can now tell anyone who asks, the longest story I have ever told is 24 minutes. There is tremendous value in that.

Sometimes you have to look at the big picture and what will be best for YOU down the line. If you have an idea for a great investigative story, but no one will give you the time during your shift, do it on your own time! You can then put it on your resume reel and eventually you will get a better job that pays more and you may get that job because you took the time to do that story.

I know there will be TV news veterans shaking their fists at this post. I am not recommending doing regular everyday work for free. What I am saying is sometimes it’s worth putting in the extra time…your time… for something special.

You have to think of payment as something more than just money.

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