A well-managed work experience placement, as part of a structured college programme, can be a valuable way to gain experience in an increasingly competitive industry. (See /features/story723.html)
But after college, qualified graduates - desperate to break into the mainstream and prepared to write for free - present more of a threat to professional journalists.
Foot in the door?
Several online publications provide graduates with the opportunity to publish their work if they are prepared to contribute for free.
One of these, GreatReporter.com, was established in April 2003 by 25-year-old Richard Powell.
Frustrated by the lack of opportunity for new journalists, he established the site as a kind of online news agency. The idea is that GreatReporter.com publishes work and then attempts to sell it, taking a 35 per cent commission.
Mr Powell did not want to comment on the issue of writing for free, but was keen to emphasise that the site is designed to pay contributors - although work is submitted on the understanding that payment is not guaranteed.
Providing a platform for new journalists is a key objective of the project.
"We publish the work of young hopefuls and try to get them paid - and get them mainstream exposure for their portfolios.
"A recent example was a piece by Canadian writer Philip Sen on an AIDS hospice in Thailand. The piece was published on our site, and then after a phone call or two the article was picked up by the Glasgow-based Sunday Herald."
Will Farr has just finished his MA and is just beginning his career as a journalist. For four years, he has written for free for WebJapanese.com, a Tokyo-based site for language students that offers insights and observations on Japanese culture. He feels that contributing to the publication gave him the experience and profile he needed.
"I wanted the opportunity to get my writing published, and I also got valuable feedback from the editor," he said.
Although he benefited from the opportunity of publishing on the site, he is quite clear about his commitment.
"In theory you should be paid for your writing if somebody along the line receives money for the product you are contributing to."
Sheila Johnson, a more established freelance journalist, accepts that it can be useful to promote your name by writing for free, but has experienced several cheapskate editors on local newspapers.
"I think it is an insult to be poorly paid or not paid at all by publications that can easily afford it. It devalues good writing," she said.
"My rule of thumb is where the company can afford to pay you but won’t pay or even give you a byline, I leave well alone."
Charity begins at home
One situation where journalists may offer their services for free is when working for charity. Sheila Johnson is also a committed Christian and has contributed work for free on a Christian magazine.
"I wrote an article concerning an Ethiopian lady who works among some of the world's poorest people in Addis Ababa," she said.
"I felt the work to be of sufficient value to write about and, as a result, perhaps raise funds for the cause."
Tim Gopsill, editor of the NUJ's monthly magazine 'The Journalist', says that even contributing work to a charity can cause problems for other journalists - and it is important to distinguish between small local charities and major organisations.
"Many big charities have lots of money and highly professional PR operations, which some freelance journalists make their living from," he said.
"Writing for free can create serious problems if it is undercutting professionals who work for the same charity."
Publishers - taking liberties?
For established, professional journalists, there are more worrying problems - including the possibility that some publishers could be taking advantage of the conventions of the internet to source more of their content for free.
The accessibility and interaction of the internet is central to online culture. And traditional papers, it could be argued, have always had a significant proportion of free content - most obviously the letters page.
But in the undefined landscape of web publishing, the overlap between amateur and professional content provision presents several problems.
Freelance journalist and active NUJ member Bernard Thompson is seriously concerned about the implications for professional journalists.
A specialist sports writer, he feels that there are have been several occasions when he has lost paid work on sites that publish a significant amount of content posted by amateurs - including SoccerAge.com and OneFootball.com.
"If websites can procure free content at sufficiently high levels - especially as part of their business strategies - then that has huge implications for all content providers," he said.
"It is true that interactivity is one of the key features of new media. But we have to try to draw a line between feedback - letters, opinion pages and discussions - and editorial content.
"Naturally, that will result in a reduction in demand for copy from freelances and, if the culture develops, will eventually lead to a reduction in staffing levels at online publications."
Football365.com and Rivals.net are both football-based sites operated by Rivals Digital Media (RDM). Earlier this year, RDM was confirmed as the UK’s largest online sports network with more than two million unique users on its sites during March alone.
Liz Ryan, marketing manager for RDM, confirmed that a large proportion of the content on the Rivals.net site is posted by fans on lively message boards.
"The boards are one of the main strengths of the site and probably make up half of the content," she told dotJournalism.
"However, all the formal editorial sections - articles and comment pieces - are written by paid staff."
This element of online community is a common aim of many web sites, encouraging an audience to engage with a site and develop a more personal loyalty to what can seem a faceless and impersonal medium.
As well as providing a platform for news and information, BBC News Interactive has established several projects where the public is invited to contribute to the site. These include photo galleries, discussion forums and the chance to put questions to politicians and high-profile experts. Recent examples include the Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Prince Hassan of Jordan.
"The culture of the web is one of participation and inclusion," said the BBC.
"There should be a method by which the users of BBC.co.uk are able to contribute and interact."
The development of interactive technology and greater public participation in news sites is a phenomenon that the BBC has been quick to respond to, but one that could challenge the role of traditional reporting.
In the right place at the right time, anyone with the right technology could post a photograph online from their mobile phone.
"Getting to the story first has always been high on the priority list for journalists," said the BBC.
"But professionals will still be able to file a higher quality story or a better picture, so posting pictures from the public on the news website is quite unlikely to have any adverse effect on the journalist community.
"The issue is really one of advancing technology and what measures journalists should be taking to adapt."
Professionals can start to protect their livelihood by joining a union, Mr Thompson suggests, to create a single, powerful voice to raise awareness of these employment issues.
"The purchase of material should be restricted so that, for example, photographs from concerts and sporting events are all taken by bona fide professionals," he said.
"The BBC should be encouraged to use exceptional photos submitted by amateurs but must pay for them at a reasonable rate."
You get what you pay for?
The nature of the internet means that there is almost unlimited publishing space - and room for everyone to take part. Freelance journalists must hope that the web’s more reputable publications continue to want to pay for the best quality, professional content.
Many freelance journalists seem unaware of the threat that free content could present to their livelihood, but as web publishing becomes more established it seems inevitable that these problems will increase.
"My expectation is that the media industries are set to change far more dramatically than they have ever done," said Mr Thompson.
"We should define what is and is not acceptable - and that calls for a debate within the media industries that hasn't started yet."
Ultimately, working for free has to be your own choice. But if you do decide to work for free, make sure you know who is paying the price.
Writing for free - work experience
The first of our two-part report:
The dotJournalism guide to work experience:
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