I see much merits in Scalzi's arguments and those by the freelance writers who feel exploited. Yet I write for free. I write a lot for free. Sure, the Spew is free. I have not set this up for ads as I don't expect to have enough traffic to make sense to advertise. Sure, the academic journals we publish in do not pay us.* I am just glad I am not paying to have my stuff published in journals--in some fields, the journals do charge a price for submitting pieces. Journal of Politics did that for a while--a nominal fee that was quite galling. I would not expect to be paid to publish in journals since we are supposed to be disseminating our knowledge via scientific outlets. Publishing is essentially a job requirement, so my day job pays me to write and to publish, so I get paid for my writing that way.
* There is a big movement these days to ungate the academic journals, which I do think is swell. However, as a sidenote to this Spew, I would just say that this would not really lead to heaps of non-academic engagement. Our journal articles are written for academic audiences. If we want non-academics to understand what our articles are about, we need to do other stuff, like blog, to convey our findings. Non-academics are not going to read fairly indigestible stuff even it becomes free and ungated.When it comes to books, I am one for four in getting advances (not the first book and not the new ones). One could argue that books are like journal articles--disseminating knowledge and a job requirement. More importantly, we academics are desperate to get our works published in the best, most visible presses. So, we sell our work for cheap. Not for free, as we do eventually get paid, but since our sales are so low (measured in hundreds, perhaps a few thousand unless we write about Zombies or otherwise produce a hot textbook) that the amounts are often very small indeed. Kind of hard to demand advances if the book ekes out only a small profit.
How about the medium that started this conversation--online magazines (and perhaps also print journalism)? I am cutting back a bit on how much I do for free. I post regularly at a few blogs that are free, and I have a regular column at CIC which does pay a bit. I tend not to submit op-eds to newspapers anymore since CIC is a good outlet, they pay and newspapers do not. And newspapers are uncertain and take forever to get back to you. I will occasionally write for free for an outlet if it has an audience I want to reach. I just got invited to write for a military-industrial complex magazine, and it will be fun to send an uncomfortable opinion in that direction.
So, I do feel a bit of guilt providing free content at a time when freelancers are under heaps of pressure. But there is a big difference between those folks and myself. Dissemination is part of my day job, and reaching beyond academic audiences is now an increasingly significant expectation. Still, I will try to be conscious about not giving my writing free to outlets that are likely to be exploitative (Huffington, anyone?).