Excellent article on the Atlantic website reflects on the business of writing and publishing journalism - and why writers may be asked to contribute for free.
Prompted by a blog post form a writer annoyed to be asked to let the Atlantic repurpose a big article for free, though includes a whole lot more info, and reflections on writing as work.
The blog post, by Nate Thayer, is A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013, and covers exchange of emails between him and an editor at the Atlantic.
Includes, from editor:
We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month.
and Thayer response:
I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.
The lengthy article on Atlantic site is by Alexis C. Madrigal, and includes:
I'm glad Thayer's post has garnered him lots of attention. He is a great journalist and I genuinely hope the spotlight gets him more work. Don't get me wrong. I'm still incensed by what he did, but I want journalists to prosper because I believe, like he does, that what we do is vital.
The main way to sell ads is to go "cross-platform" pairing digital with print and whatever else (events or video, say). This is what "the marketplace" is asking for. So you need ad inventory online. In some cases, like ours or Wired's, you need a lot of ad inventory online. It is a little more complicated than this, but that means you need page views, and if you want page views, you need people coming to your site. You need unique visitors.
If you can show me a way that this can be reversed for a large general-interest magazine, I would love to hear about it. So far, there isn't a single model for our kind of magazine that appears to work.
Let me give you this hypothetical. You are a digital editor at a fine publication. You are in charge of writing some stuff, commissioning some stuff, editing some stuff. ... What do you do?
Here are some options:
1. Write a lot of original pieces yourself. (Pro: Awesome. Con: Hard, slow.)
2. Take partner content. (Pro: Content! Con: It's someone else's content.)
3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money. (Pro: Maybe good. Con: Often bad.)
4. Find people who are willing to write for no money. (Pro: Free. Con: Crapshoot.)
5. Aggregate like a mug. (Pro: Can put smartest stuff on blog. Con: No one will link to it.)
6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content. (Pro: Content. Con: You suck.)
No matter how you slice it with a small freelance budget, paying people is going to get you a very small amount of the way to your own internal or external goals.
But the economics of these jobs were always bizarre. Many magazines have been funded by wealthy people who were willing to take moderate losses. (Thank you to all of you.) Or Conde Nast could suck money out of its newspapers to feed into its glorious magazine operations.
I'll be damned if The Atlantic dies with my generation, if all that is left of it when I leave is some moldering books and cold servers. ... I'd probably get stuck in purgatory rewriting press releases about corporate sustainability, forced to eat tuna sandwiches every day for lunch.