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Rick Reilly gives journalism school grads horrible, horrible advice

May 6, 2011, 1:35 PM EDT

Rick Reilly

ESPN’s Rick Reilly was chosen to give the commencement address to journalism students from the University of Colorado.  His advice:

When you get out there, all I ask is that you: DON’T WRITE FOR FREE! Nobody asks strippers to strip for free, doctors to doctor for free or professors to profess for free. Have some pride! … If you do it for free, they won’t respect you in the morning. Or the next day. Or the day after that. You sink everybody’s boat in the harbor, not just yours. So just DON’T!

Well, Rick Reilly is certainly the right person to tell people not to write for free, but I can’t think of a single thing he could tell would-be writers that would constitute worse advice than that.

There’s an old saying that all writers have a million bad words in them and that, to write anything worth reading, they’ve got to get them out of their system.  Put differently: writers need to write. A lot. Indeed, the only way anyone gets better as a writer is to just … do it.  Your credential as a J-school grad is nice, but it is insignificant compared to experience. And, as the media world progresses further and further into the digital age, it becomes increasingly insignificant in an absolute sense.

What Reilly is really doing here is not giving advice to graduates. He’s giving them a warning: “Don’t take my job!  Don’t take my friends’ jobs!  They make a good living writing, and if you come in and undercut them with your blog or your contributed piece, you may screw with the system, so cut it out, will ya?”

And I have some amount of sympathy for that position. It has to be frustrating for someone who paid his dues under an old system to see others come up under a new system and no longer have to pay those dues. And who are essentially taking the jobs of those previous dues-payers. But that’s where media is now. I don’t have this job if I didn’t spend years writing for free, working at the craft and developing my voice. The same goes for a lot of people in this business. Including a lot of people who work with Rick Reilly at ESPN.

No, you don’t work for free forever because, hey, ya gotta eat. But most people do have to either take unpaid internships or blog and otherwise hustle to make it in the media these days. Advice that says “NEVER DO THAT!” is useless, because most of those graduates will be asked to do it. They key is to know what unpaid writing gigs could lead to the development of one’s career and, ultimately, into paying jobs and what unpaid writing gigs are essentially slave labor offered by a company simply looking to get something for free.

Someone who could help would-be writers figure that out would be a really useful commencement speaker.  Reilly? Not so much.

  1. aaronmoreno - May 6, 2011 at 1:41 PM

    Craig, as a former attorney, you know that in law school you’re asked on many occasions to work for free or cheap-as-free. It’s part of the system, and fighting it won’t get you very far.

    Of course, some students get a fat paycheck for summer work. I feel worst for those kids, because the big firm that hires them extracts that summer money from their hides when they become lawyers.

  2. largebill - May 6, 2011 at 1:44 PM

    Actually, Rick we do ask strippers to strip for free. Usually they say no, but people keep asking. And if you follow current events you’d know there has been a push for free medical care which either means doctors and hospitals don’t get paid or somebody is lying about the free part. Lastly, does he honestly believe that 99.9% of the populace at large can not write?

    • Joe - May 6, 2011 at 2:30 PM

      Another option (on the healthcare thing) is that you don’t understand it. It’s not free. You would still pay money, but instead of premiums that go to doctors and hospitals and plan administration and CEOs and stockholders, you’d pay taxes that go to doctors and hospitals and plan administration.

      Cheaper and available to all. Not free.

      • largebill - May 6, 2011 at 3:07 PM

        Actually I do understand it far better than most. It was advertised to fools the masses as free universal health care. No such thing. Making the end user not directly pay for something will automatically greatly increase the usage and the costs.

      • Utley's Hair - May 6, 2011 at 3:48 PM

        I’m not sure where you would’ve gotten such an advertisement. I never saw it touted as “free.” And I don’t know anyone who was under such an impression.

    • genericcommenter - May 6, 2011 at 4:53 PM

      Who is pushing universal healthcare anyway? Not in the U.S., except some states ( Mass- is that it?) I am aware of some sort of corporate welfare program for insurance companies ( I can’t wait for the equivalent of the state minimum car insurers to spring up in health care), but nothing close to universal health care, and certainly not “free.” I think we might have something almost exactly the same that Republicans and the Heritage Foundation pushed back in 1994. I mean I’m sure some “regular people” are pushing for some sort of socialized “universal” health care but it’s not really in the plans of anyone in power.

  3. Jack Marshall - May 6, 2011 at 1:44 PM

    What an excellent commentary, Craig. Bingo, and Bravo.

  4. Jeff J. Snider - May 6, 2011 at 1:46 PM

    I bet every stripper in the world has stripped for free — it’s called an audition. Every time I hire a programmer, I expect him to program for free — to show me his skills as part of the interview process. Nobody asks doctors to doctor for free? Doctors PAY hundreds of thousands of dollars to practice doctoring for a decade before anyone pays them to do it.

    Rick Reilly literally has no understanding of the way the world works. It’s not even a “new system,” Craig, although I respect you giving him the benefit of the doubt there. For as long as people have been paying other people money to provide services, they have expected some assurance that the person was, ya know, GOOD at that service. And as part of the Catch-22 that is life, you can’t gain PAID experience if no one will pay you because you have no experience, so you get your experience by practicing — for free.

    • aaronmoreno - May 6, 2011 at 1:51 PM

      I think Reilly understands the system. But he’s already gone through all the trouble, and he doesn’t have to work for free. He’s protecting himself, and why should he help people trying to knock him from his perch?

      • CJ - May 6, 2011 at 2:02 PM

        you’re giving Reilly too much credit. I stopped reading his drivel long before high school.

    • itsacurse - May 6, 2011 at 3:48 PM

      Well, Rick Reilly’s not good. He appears to arrived at his current salary/readership through some sort of Faustian bargain, which tends to color your view of things, I suppose.

  5. BC - May 6, 2011 at 1:59 PM


    • CJ - May 6, 2011 at 2:03 PM


  6. Sean Breslin - May 6, 2011 at 2:25 PM

    That’s why I get offended when I cover an event and some angry 65-year-old turns his nose up at me. I worked for free and paid my dues to get to that event that you’ve now covered 40 years in a row that you take for granted, and I’m unqualified? Often times, the younger media members work harder and are better media members at sporting events, because they’re finally getting the break they’ve waited their whole life to get. They worked for free, and now it makes the event that much more special. Until, of course, I can’t find the press room and some old guy gives me crap about it because apparently he never worked his first event at any point and never got lost while trying to get somewhere because he’s new.

  7. dan1111 - May 6, 2011 at 2:46 PM

    “Nobody asks…doctors to doctor for free”? What about the long tradition of doctors providing care to those who can’t afford it? What about doctors who have traveled halfway around the world to serve for peanuts in an area with no medical care? Are these people disgracing their profession? Are they not respected? Imagine if a doctor gave the equivalent commencement address: “No matter what you do, don’t treat anyone unless they pay up first! I don’t care how sick they are…”

  8. kingkillerstudios - May 6, 2011 at 2:58 PM

    Uch, Reilly. I don’t so much mind if his motives are impure and he wants to keep these whippersnappers from eating his lunch; it’s that he picked the wrong argument to do that.

    I’ve been blogging since they called blogs “web journals,” and doing it for free gets old, even if you really want to do it. If you don’t — if you don’t like the work so much as you just like *saying* you’re a writer — you’ll find somewhere else to be in five years’ time. Half my creative-writing program had fled to MBA-land by the time we all turned 25. The dues-paying thins the herd, just like it does in a lot of other fields, so if he really doesn’t want these whippersnappers eating his lunch, he should be *urging* them to work for free…because 90% of them will realize they don’t like the work enough to do it for its own sake, and bail, thus reducing the volume of his competition.

    But I don’t know what he’s worried about anyway. Yeah, they could get some sophomore to do Reilly’s job for a fraction of the cost, but that’s been true since the ’80s, and yet he’s still getting work.

  9. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - May 6, 2011 at 3:22 PM

    doctors to doctor for free

    Aren’t there groups like Doctors without Borders that go to areas like Japan and Haiti to help after terrible disasters? What about the Red Cross? Are those just middle school nurses going to disasters and administering aid?

    No help with the strippers though =\

    • Walk - May 7, 2011 at 12:10 AM

      Church i can see it now. Coming soon to a natural disaster or airport lounge near you, Strippers without borders, because hey somebody has got to.

  10. clight3521 - May 6, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    Reilly is a terrible writer and even worse person.

    I usually loath you Craig, but you gained my respect in this column for taking such a has-been hack as Reilly to task.

  11. clight3521 - May 6, 2011 at 3:39 PM

    Reilly is a terrible writer and even worse person.

    I usually loath you Craig, but you gained my respect (for what little that is worth, I’m well aware) in this column for taking to task such a has-been hack as Reilly. He is the worst.

  12. mofoe56 - May 6, 2011 at 4:45 PM

    Hey Folks….how about giving old Ricky a break…i grew up reading the back page of SI first . Just to see what kind of stupid, obnoxious,….now get this….TOUNGE IN CHEEK …bullshit he was spewing….. He was making a frickin joke…. this is the same kinda shit he’s been writing for years!!!and you all are the butt of that joke..hahahahaha

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - May 6, 2011 at 5:02 PM

      Let me know where the actual joke is, unless it’s Reilly himself.

  13. cur68 - May 6, 2011 at 4:50 PM

    Every single Doctor, Nurse, LPN, Respiratory Therapist, Occupational Therapist and Consultant I work with has done some amount of free work. Myself included. I just asked the whole lot of them. It took ages.

    The fact is when we stop to help a person with a heart attack or asthma attack, or fainting spell, or diabetic crisis its free work. Most people here have formally volunteered abroad. For free.

    I’d like to present this as evidence that Mr. Reilly doesn’t know WTF he’s talking about.

    • raysfan1 - May 6, 2011 at 11:18 PM

      Just to piggy back–actually, we work for free when we volunteer to go abroad to Haiti or other such places, we give away the medicines (which were donated for the trip I went on), and we paid to get there. That’s technically working at a loss. Very worth it though.

  14. nicosamuelson2 - May 6, 2011 at 4:59 PM

    Good piece, Aaron.

  15. IdahoMariner - May 6, 2011 at 5:58 PM

    Gerry Spence spoke at a graduation at my law school (not mine, or I would have been really ticked to have had to listen to his crap). He told the graduates that they absolutely could not sell out, that they were worthless if they took a good-paying job working for a soullless corporation.

    Gerry Spence was “a successful defense attorney for the insurance industry. Years later, Spence said he “saw the light” and became committed to representing people, instead of corporations, insurance companies, banks, or Big Business.” Meaning, he “saw the light” after he made piles of money and could afford to represent the little guy.

    Which is fine, if he had mentioned in this address to graduates that he had actually sold his soul and had been worthless himself while making money hand over fist — if he had framed it as having seen the light, not just a condemnation of anyone who attempted to pay their bills or pay off their loans or even, I dunno, decide to work for a corporation whose work the graduate might actually believe in.

    I didn’t go work for corporations, banks, insurance companies or big business, and I am still paying student loans, but it galled me to hear this man condemn the people who did without revealing that it was the very same work that allowed him to bankroll his famous work for the underdog. I could have respected that.

    Rick Reilly’s nonsense brought that all back. Thanks, Craig, for riling me up as I go into the weekend….

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