Recently saw a help wanted ad seeking an online reporter, a part-time telecommute position involving doing stuff I’ve done for, oh, the last 15 years or so. Perfect. More work is always (okay, usually) good. I could slot that work into my freelance schedule, add a little income, and stay sane in the process. I applied, providing many writing samples when I did, as requested. This is the response I got, in full, from jobs
Thank you for your interest in the company and for sending me your samples.
You have been identified as a possible reporter candidate for our group of legal journalism websites and newspapers. As stated in the job posting, the average pay for these types of stories is $24 each. However, while nearly all ICS freelancers start off at $24 per story, for well qualified candidates there are opportunities to make between $36 and $150 per story. In this position you would conduct in-depth interviews with a variety of subjects and write reports based off of those interviews.
Here are a few recent examples of stories our writers have recently completed:
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Before we move forward, I would like you to complete a writing test. Please take the attached press release and fashion it into a story similar to that provided in the examples above using background info you pull from elsewhere (for actual stories you would need to complete one interview, but since this is a test an interview is not necessary).
If you are still interested, please complete the story. Interview-based, paid stories generally have a 500 word minimum with 3 direct quotes however this evaluation is to ascertain how you synthesize the information, so you may feel inclined to make it longer or shorter. Please return the story to me when completed and we will be in contact. There is no specific deadline however the length of time it takes also plays into the hiring decision. To give you a baseline, most people return the sample in 3 days or less.
Okay, setting aside the fact that their rate is low — $24 per story for a 500-word minimum news feature that requires research and interviews is low-balled to the extreme — take a note what they are asking here.
In order to even be considered, I have to provide them with content for free. This isn’t a fake story meant merely to test my skills, either. I checked. The material they attached is a real press release about a real event. It’s something they can actually use. And not only do I have to create content for them with no pay, but take note of that final paragraph: they cleverly attempt to guilt me into meeting a deadline.
Surely I must be wrong, right? There’s no way they are trying to extract free work from me, right? In the past, I’ve been very diplomatic when I’ve encountered requests like this. No reason to change now, so let’s be gentle about this and clarify. My response:
Thank you for your response. Before I begin this work on this piece, I would like some clarity: what rate is being paid for this “test” piece?
Thank you for your reply. The writing test itself is actually not paid, but if you complete it and if we are pleased with you final draft, we may be able to offer you a contract.
Ahh, so after actually working for them and providing them with material they can use, they “may” be able to offer me a contract. Reputable companies actually PAY people for the work they do, even if the work is just a test. In my many years as an editor, I gave countless applicants test assignments before hiring them, and they were always paid the full standard rate. That’s not only standard practice, it’s the only moral thing to do.
But Interactive Content Services, well, they want me to work for free on the outside hope that they’ll maybe consider me alongside the other six dozen freelancers trying to get the same gig (and all for the privilege of eventually being paid half the going rate for news writing) — and all I’ll have to do is give them my professional services for nothing. That’s like … well, here’s how I responded:
Thank you for your prompt response. I’m afraid I do not provide content for free. If more than 15 years experience in journalism, an extensive portfolio, and a decade as an editor-in-chief does not suffice to display my ability, I don’t believe we’ll be a good fit. You wouldn’t ask an experienced mechanic to rotate your tires for free to “test” them first. Don’t ask the same of the other professionals you seek to hire.
Have a nice day,
Note that I resisted the urge to ask her and Interactive Content Services to go fuck themselves, though perhaps I shouldn’t have resisted, given the phrasing of her final note:
Very good, Eric. I understand that you are not able to complete the test, and am sorry that we will not be able to collaborate, but wish you the best of luck in your freelancing endeavors.Best,
Ummmm, no. No, no, no. Do you not get it? It’s not that I am “not able” to complete the test, it’s that I WON’T complete the test. There is a distinction, and it’s pretty fucking huge. In one, I’m incapable of doing what you ask. That is, of course, hugely incorrect. I’ve written thousands of pieces like the one they asked me to write. No, I’m refusing to take the test because it’s complete fucking bullshit in every way, shape and form.
For real, imagine calling an experienced electrician to rewire your house, but demanding he install new outlets for free to test him first. He’d punch you. Or going to a doctor and explaining that before you decide whether or not to choose them as your GP, they are going to have to give you a full checkup for free first. You’d be invited to go find another doctor and never return.
That’s what Interactive Content Services asked of me.
There are a lot of companies out there like this. They are content mills, nothing more, and one of the things they rely on is tricking desperate people to work for free. This is a common scam, where applicants are asked to take a “test,” are not hired, and then all those “tests” they got for free end up becoming grist for their content mill. It’s a reprehensible practice that no other industry would tolerate, but in freelance writing people get sucked in by it on a regular basis.
Don’t tolerate this bullshit.
And don’t ever hire Interactive Content Services.