“The biz ain’t what it used to be.”

(The above is a screenshot of the Atlantic’s homepage taken March 10th around 11:30PM. A recap of SNL skits sits next to an article about nuclear war and above a photo series depiciting international struggles against gender inequality.)

The issue of freelancing for, well, free, and the economics surrounding journalism, writing, blogging and “content creation,” are two things I am severely interested in. After all, I love writing. In addition, I love consuming media and talking about it. I love learning new things, reading about new things, and then writing about the new things I’ve learned and read. As a human being with a limited amount of time to actually be, anyway to get paid doing the above things, the things I love, is extremely important to me.

So when Nate Thayer published his exchange with an Atlantic editor who was requesting he republish some of his writing at that site for free, I couldn’t distract myself from the debate that resulted. Unfortunately the arguments and insights presented were hardly worth the time. For the most part, those in Thayer’s camp are adamant: don’t write for free! Those defending the Atlantic’s policy and attitude paid lip service to that sentiment but hedged at every turn, obfuscating that basic point by trotting out the numbers and some business lingo and pontificating about how competitive the industry is—the kinds of things “very serious” people do.

Felix Salmon, predictably, goes to a lot of trouble to demonstrate a very simple and obvious point: cross-posting can get you “buzz,” but freelance contributions just aren’t worth what they once were. Writes Salmon, “When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down.” Of course, while Salmon praises the Atlantic for how many staff contributors it has, he fails to point out why it can have so many: Lots of freelancers giving away their content for free!

And this is perhaps the most disingenuous part of the entire discussion, and one that creeps up in every attempt to defend the Atlantic or convey the complex and changing economic trends governing that and other publications. On the one hand people want to examine Thayer’s exchange in the big-picture context of the Atlantic’s business model, but on the other few people aren’t willing to cite the big-picture implications of his actions (i.e. what if everyone did it) with regard to that model.

Yes, maybe in a few more years the Thayers of the world will be economically extinct, and per Salmon’s advice, they should start trying to find staff positions ASAP. But, if the pro-staffer model that’s now making the Atlantic profitable is in part based on getting enough people like Thayer to give them content for free, how will it sustain a workforce of 50 without the support of desperate freelancers? When places like the Atlantic drive people like Thayer out of business by not paying them, and the people who want to be Thayer, today’s young freelancers, follow his example and refuse to work for free, what then? Everyone loves to look at the big picture, as long as they can bracket the inconvenient parts.

A logic that’s of a piece with that is on full display in Stephanie Lucianovic’s post on this topic at the Atlantic Wire. I won’t go into every part of it, but the first sentence should be enough to make the point, “Unless they’re independently wealthy, I don’t believe anyone should work for free. However, I will admit that I have written for free. And I continue to do so somewhat compulsively.” So either Lucianovic is, by virtue of violating her own commandment, in need of assistance in dealing with her compulsion, and a self-admittedly bad example for other people to follow, or she is independently wealthy. To my knowledge she is not wealthy, meaning that she should follow her own advice and that no one, by her own admission, should do what she’s doing. Ignoring the relative merits of this position one thing is still clear: when people who write for a living talk about writing for a living they often stop making sense.

At Poynter, Jeff Sonderman wonders, “Is it really so wrong of the Atlantic or any publisher to ask an author, politely, if he is willing to provide a piece of content for free? Can’t the author simply decline and move on? Does an incompatible business negotiation have to result in moral offense?” Notice how Sonderman would not be asking this question if we were talking explicitly about classism. Indeed, the idea that someone in a better economic position would presume that it’s alright to have me produce value for them for free is very offensive. Remember, the Atlantic isn’t just offering me potential access to millions of readers, it’s also profiting from it, and refusing to share any of those profits with me.

After all, the Atlantic as a for-profit institution must make money from repurposing content somehow, right? And even if they only make pennies on a particular article that they received for free, what possible argument could there be for not sharing ANY of that revenue with me? The whole “we can’t pay you,” position assumes a kind of “we would pay you if we could afford to,” which further assumes a sort of, “if your piece would generate revenue we’d totally share it,” but what the Atlantic is really saying is, “pay us money and we will potentially make you more popular and well respected.” The Atlantic is trading on its brand and prestige, and the prestige of those it employs and publishes.

Effectively when you write for the Atlantic for free you’re paying them money (assuming your time and labor are worth at least minimum wage) to get a chance to sit at the big boys’ (still mostly boys, yes) table. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that you’re paying the Atlantic to let you walk five feet behind them on the way to gym class, all the while basking in their pedigree and general awesomeness. That is what the Aspen Ideas Festival is about, and that is what TED talks are about, and that is what so much of the Internet is about. And it’s all fun and games and fine for the most part, until it comes to people’s livelihoods, at which point you’re exploiting them for arriving late to the popularity contest, which is resolutely disgusting.

Freddie DeBoer has expanded on a sentiment similar to this at length here, here, and here. Suffice it to say that encomiums from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Alexis Madrigal, no matter how heartfelt and genuine, reek of a certain convenient disregard for the basic inputs that produce their livelihood. At some point, the whole thing reaches a  magical point of no return at which it all gets kind of fuzzy before, presto-chango, you arrive at the online publication that is the Atlantic. For Madrigal it literally boils down to, “Anyway, the biz ain’t what it used to be, but then again, for most people, it never really was. And, to you Mr. Thayer, all I can say is I wish I had a better answer.” So after all his serious analysis Madrigal is left with, “I get paid, you don’t, the biz is funny like that.”

For Coates it’s a bit more complicated,

“Writing is always hard. I understand why someone might not want to do it for exposure. I’ve certainly had professional journalists like Thayer turn me down. But those journalists have also taken the title of “professional” seriously enough to not print my e-mail address and all of my private correspondence without asking me. Indeed, it’s the high morality and offense-taking which most puzzles me about all this, given that writers, all around us, are “working for exposure,” given that every one of us is participating in a system in which they consume for free.

I think journalists should be paid for their work. Even here at The Atlantic, I think it would be a good idea to provide a nominal amount, if only as a token of respect for the work. But more than that, I want more jobs at more publications wherein journalists have the basics of their lives (salary, health care, benefits) taken care of. Whatever The Atlantic isn’t, right now, the fact is that it currently employs more journalists than it ever has in its entire history. There are real questions about whether we will always be able to do that in this new world. But that is landscape on which all media currently tread. It’s not perfect. But it never was.”

It’s not perfect. But it never was. At once horribly banal but beautifully concise. A platitude for the ages, so meaningless that I might not even find it problematic if someone asked Coates to sell it to them for free. The mode of Coates’ response is to admit that writing is “hard,” impugn Thayer’s integrity and professionalism, remark that “hey, everyone else is doing it,”  and then declare that journalists should be paid for their work.

This is the problem. When someone so often insightful and cogent as TNC isn’t even making any sense we’re in real trouble. But we can cut through all the nonsense by asking one simple question: can the Atlantic still employ “more journalists than it ever has in its entire history,” while never profiting off of other people’s work for free? If it can then problem solved! If it can’t then the reason for the moral offense and revulsion that Coates’ finds surprising should be obvious

I’ll end with someone’s take on the whole subject that I can’t recommend enough. Cord Jefferson writes a good indictment of both himself, his own outlet, and those like the Atlantic over at, of all places, Gawker,

“All in all, the creative landscape is starting to look more toxic than it’s been in our lifetimes: Artists with million-dollar checks in their pockets are telling other artists that they shouldn’t expect to get paid; publications are telling writers that they shouldn’t expect to get paid, either; and meanwhile everyone wonders why we can’t get more diversity in the creative ranks.”

The truth of the matter is that, as in all markets, there are winners and losers, and you can analyze the reasons why until the cows come home, but that doesn’t make it any more reasonable, ethical, or defensible. The point of the market is that it doesn’t have to be morally unproblematic—as long as it makes money, it’s kosher. If you think the logic that governs your publication’s bottom line will somehow save you from condemnation or grandstanding though you’ve sorely misunderstood the game.

It’s enough to say that Thayer is entitled to his opinion, and his own economic decisions, but don’t question or criticize them from safer waters without doing a lot of soul-searching and some very heavy lifting. His economic survival is more threatened than yours, sure, but don’t don’t demand that he be happy for your success. When you play a cut-throat game, guess what: throats get cut.

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96 thoughts on ““The biz ain’t what it used to be.”

  1. Being a freelance writer has always been a crappy job to try and make a living at. I thought a bit about working at being a freelancer a few years ago and just decided i didn’t have the desire or energy to try to make it work. The proliferation of writing on the net may fool some people into thinking that could make being a writer easier. Its easier to be a writer and harder than ever to make an actual living at it.

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  2. This is true, and like a lot of us at the League, I lean toward funding my writing through a suitable day job rather than thinking I’ll ever get to the point where it would fund itself.

    There’s an independence in that which can induce laziness but also honesty.

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    • Of the handful of pieces i’ve published most paid a little which made me inordinatly happy. A couple pieces weren’t paid, but i was happy to have the writing credit. Unless you are driven, writing is best done as a hobby.

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      • I once had a client, Pfizer, in New Jersey, who wouldn’t sign my timesheets where I’d worked all sorts of overtime. I called the headhunter who was paying me, told him so, he got very upset with me. I left the premises and drove over to a lawyer’s office, I’d picked up his card while chatting him up at a bar in Morristown. Took my contract in there and all the time sheets. He rubbed his hands together, made a few phone calls.

        Next morning, I get an irate call from the headhunter. “You can’t be serious! Suing me for your overtime!” I said “Take it up with Pfizer.” and drove back to Chicago, with all my stuff in tow. A few weeks later, maybe two months, turns out Pfizer had attempted to screw all its contractors the same way. I ended up bankrupting the headhunter.

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        • It’s surprising how often situations that you would never expect to be a negotiation turn out to be a negotiation.

          It’s saddening how many people are so terrified of negotiating that they’ll take the other party’s first offer, no matter how bad it is, just so that they can be done with the negotiation.

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  3. It has gotten worse over the last decade, mostly to a decrease in ad revenue and a lack of solid internet models.

    I learned to write as a freelancer on the front page of my local weekly newspaper. I got paid $50/piece, and contributed at least one (plus photos) every week for about five years. At the time, the paper did not have its content on-line. Two years ago, it did go on-line. this past year, the editor retired, and the paper’s sole staff reporter was promoted to editor, her reporting role was not replaced. She called me to see if I wanted to contribute again, and what she was able to pay had gone down to $40/piece.

    I freelanced for dozens of magazines and newspapers; rarely earning more then $250 for articles required a full week of work or more. I frequently turned away work-for-hire contracts that kept copyrights; I frequently had (and still have) my copyrights violated.

    Freelancing is nearly impossible to make a living at; you have to be tied into a steady source of work that pays better them most publications can pay. And the competition for those good-paying slots is fierce.

    I’ve been intrigued by The Atlantic’s models for profitability; we’re beginning to see the dark side of it; not paying writer’s and ad content that looks like editorial content.

    Eventually, I suspect our internet browsing will have to scoop up royalties as part of our surfing and disburse them to content providers. But we are a very long way from a good working model.

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  4. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, for me to read this without thinking about how I try to write something every day for Mindless Diversions (or did, until I got a whole mess of co-bloggers). It’s impossible for me to read this without thinking about Jamelle Bouie and other league alumni who have either gone on to bigger/better things or those who write for us currently who are (some more obviously than others) hoping to move onto bigger/better things.

    Now, of course, I have no illusions about my writing abilities (“at least he writes clean copy”, I can see someone saying) and I know that we here are merely a bunch of fairly well-educated and fairly well-meaning folks who enjoy a very particular kind of argument and who, somehow, have found each other.

    So when I read about a writer who says that he wants to be paid for what he writes, I can’t help but think that, yeah, he holds himself in fairly high esteem. I write every day (or try to) and I do it for the endorphins. Hell, all of us here who write every day (in comments, sure, but that’s still a lot of words per day!) do it for little more than the endorphins.

    Hell, when I hear that one of us has been published in someplace like The Atlantic, the first thing I do is check to see if they linked back to us here.

    Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.

    I don’t know that I know of any other way to look at it.

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    • I think something sneaks (unintentionally) into a construction like this, “a writer who says that he wants to be paid for what he writes.”

      I think what he actually wants is to be paid when others want to post his content.

      Here at the League we all write for free (while Erik slides through mountains of gold coins–Scrooge MacDuck style). I’m cool with that though. I love it. I’m so grateful to have a place here around other smart, talented, and hard working people (like you Jay).

      And I get all fuzzy when someone like Sullivan links back to the site of one of my co-bloggers.

      And I can’t say that as a young aspiring writer, I wouldn’t jump at the opporuntiy to work briefly with an Atlantic calibur editor for a piece to be published somehwere on the site, for free.

      I would hope though that that writers at a place like the Atlantic wouldn’t let that happen, and would pay for the content if they requested it, or if they posted it, even if it was only $50, $25, or $10. Just because an overzealous amature wants to sit at the big boy’s table doesn’t mean the big boys are beyond reproach for exploiting that desire.

      It breeds a Colosseum mentality, spurred on by those who claim to be above it.

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      • I wouldn’t jump at the opporuntiy to work briefly with an Atlantic calibur editor for a piece to be published somehwere on the site, for free.

        Working with a good editor makes the world a happy place to write.

        This is one direction I could see the league taking; editing one another’s posts before posting. I realize that it means more free work — not only writing posts and writing comments, but contributing by editing other member’s content. But career-development wise, it would benefit everyone involved. And I say this as a highly dyslexic writer; one who fears generating content without that other set of eyes; and someone who’s be happy to speak at length about thing gleaned from working with dozens of editors over many years.

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        • And I should probably stress that I’m not against free writing, just against free writing for those who will make money off of it. At the League we’re all in the same boat, at the Atlantic there’s a stratification all itss own.

          To your point though I wish there were more opportunities to work with editors, even one another. The mentor relationships has been all but obliterated by the digital free for all.

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      • Yeah, I suppose that that’s part of it too.

        I know that it costs Erik a buttload to keep this place up and running. Like many of us, I am more than happy enough to fire off some funds every year when renewal time arrives and we’ve got to have a dinky little fundraiser to keep the lights on.

        I don’t know how I’d feel if I knew that Erik was getting (insert some number of millions of dollars here) for keeping this place up and to know that, nope, I’m not getting a red cent of that… which is strange because the amount of effort that I put into this (wonderful!) home of ours would have remained the same no matter what.

        It’s a weird dynamic.

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        • Thinking about it some more, that’s the dynamic that is going to distort everything about this discussion.

          Out of everybody who is going to write about this, what percentage is going to be from the professional writer class (that is, people who pay the rent from what they write)? What percentage is going to be from the amateurs who blog for free (or who even have to shell out from time to time to help cover overhead)? What percentage will be from the commenters to the above?

          Already I suspect that there will be a *LOT* more amateurs out there writing about this and commenting about this than pros. That’s going to color the debate.

          (Of course, twenty years ago, there would have just been the pros talking about this… or, more likely, *NOT* talking about this. And that means that, back then, we wouldn’t be talking about it either.)

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      • I guess so but underlying this whole issue is a painful basic quandary:
        We have this thing called the internet and it lets tons of people self publish in a way and in doing so we’ve discovered that a lot of people, while sustaining themselves on normal day jobs, are happy to give away some of their free time doing things that we would pay people to do prior to the internet; and they’re willing to do it for free.
        Now we have the people who we paid to do these things prior to the internet and they’re scratching their heads and thinking “how do you compete with free”?
        One answer is quality: the professional writer or the professional guitar player or the professional movie critic can write or play or compose a better product than the amateur or the casual contributor. But is the marginal superiority of their output so big that it can fit the difference between paid and free?
        Even worse (or better) we’re discovering that for a lot of entertainment and conversational products the terms “better” and “worse” are getting fuzzy. Turns out that sure, tons of people loved Elvis but even bigger tons of them just liked him and some of them sorta listened to him for lack of anything better to listen to and turns out they’d much prefer to watch a girl play Bach on water glasses or a baby panda sneeze.
        So it turns out that it’s very hard for the hundreds and thousands of professionals to compete against millions of amateurs. You can get more page views and more favorable press but as soon as you try and drop a harness onto that mass and extract some real world money all you end up with is a sack full of leaves like fairy gold at dawn.
        There’re a bazillion people who’re willing to throw their creativity out there just for the joy of sharing it. How do you compete with that?
        The Atlantic, meanwhile, is a sideshow. It’s an institution that has managed to cobble together some kind of stopgap method of staying afloat and now is being swarmed like a lifeboat in the middle of a drowning mob. I don’t think your basic premise holds: you presume that if the Atlantic keeps exploiting writers for free that the supply will dry up but there appears to be a population of writers who are happy to contribute for free. If that is true than Thayer is left just trying to prove his quality of writing and thinking is great enough to get him aboard one of those still afloat publications that’ll actually pay him for his output when people are offering to give theirs away.

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        • “you presume that if the Atlantic keeps exploiting writers for free that the supply will dry up but there appears to be a population of writers who are happy to contribute for free.”

          I don’t think the supply will dry up, I’m saying that if the Atlantic’s success is somehow predicated on a world where writers gladly give them stuff for free, than the Atlantic editors defending that model have a lot more work to do (given how they have decided to go about defending it).

          “If that is true than Thayer is left just trying to prove his quality of writing and thinking is great enough to get him aboard one of those still afloat publications that’ll actually pay him for his output when people are offering to give theirs away.”

          I’m not saying anyone needs to or should pay Thayer. If no one wants to read Thayer cause a free blog is doing a good enough job somewhere else, cool.

          But that’d a very different thing from the Atlantic making money off of indefinitely indentured servants.

          If Thayer won’t do it for free, and makes no money ever because of that, that doesn’t worry me. What worry’s me is the idea that him not wanting the Atlantic to profit off his work at his expense is somehow a surprise or not worthy of his indignation.

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            • In the spirit of someone going into indentured servitude as opting into it, the metaphor was less about against one’s will than, for free and with no clear endgame.

              If you think it BS though feel free to ignore it, I’d hate to get lost in those weeds when the more basic point is just about one set of journalists employing a self-serving argument even as they profit off the work of other journalists who aren’t in the position to maintain such double-standards.

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              • I just object to using a term with a specific meaning–and that meaning loaded with negative freight–to refer to something that is different in precisely those characteristics that resulted in the term having such negative freight.

                Of course I also object to objecting to people doing what they want to do, even if they do it for free and somebody else makes coin off it. As long as there’s no fraud, deception or coercion involved, I can’t see why anyone except those involved care. The whole “classism” angle seems to confuse, rather than clarify, the issue, because you’re suddenly shifting away from the focus of a particular individual’s decisions; you’re actually dehumanizing the individual by making him/her just a cutout representation of his/her class.

                This is why class-based analyses always worry me. They are ostensibly about caring about individuals, but they always do so by stripping away the individual’s actual individuality, by dehumanizing them, and not granting them actual existence, value, meaning or personal autonomy outside the structure of their class. It’s degrading, imo.

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                • As far as class goes, it sure seems to me that allowing people to prove themselves by working for free, for a time, is a good alternative for the unconnected. Raising the bar of being published by requiring payment would, I think, limit opportunities for those people who don’t know somebody.

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          • If he doesn’t wish for the Atlantic to profit off his work then lord(lady?) knows he is completely free to not let them use a single sentence of his writing. If the Atlantic was stealing his work, publishing it without his name or publishing it under his name against his will then I’d be sympathetic but I just can’t grok his indignation at them saying “it’s good, we’ll put it up on our site for you but it’s not so good that we want it bad enough to pay you for it.” I’m sorry dude but Atlantic page space is a limited and sought after bit of internet real estate. So long as the Atlantic can maintain their prestige and viewership such that people desire to be published there they’ll be able to offer to publish people’s stuff without paying for it. If he doesn’t like that then he needs to come up with some piece of writing or some idea that is so amazing or moving or ground breaking that the Atlantic franticly offers to pay him good cash (before some other publication discovers him) so they can have the privilege of displaying it under their banner.

            I guess I’m just not getting the immorality part of this. There is writing that is not good enough for a mainstream internet site to look at; there’s writing that they’d offer the privilege of hosting under their banner and then there’s writing that they want the privilege of putting their banner over. Only the latter most writing is the kind of writing they can be realistically expected to shell out cash for.

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            • I think part of the problem here is the initial response, ‘freelance budget used up.’ That means, hey, I’d pay if I could, but I don’t have a budget big enough to cover the freelance content I want to carry; but the exposure might be enough payment.

              My sweetie can gig for free every night of the week. He can give recorded music away. I can find knitters for free patterns all day long. Sad thing is that exposure doesn’t necessarily translate into paying work; it mostly means more freebies for the hungering hordes who typically don’t want to pay for anything without a bitten apple stamped on it. And even Erik asked Amanda Palmer/Radio Head style last November.

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              • Hmm I guess? But personally I would find “It’s good enough that I’d pay you but we’re out of budget for freelance writing would you be interested in us putting it up for your exposure” far more flattering and pleasing to my ears than “Would you like to let us put it up for free”. But that’s subjective.

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                • Look, there are two kinds of writers, for that matter, artists of any sort: those who’ve been on television and those who haven’t. Before you’re on television, nobody knows your name. Afterwards, people tell you what a great artist you are. The Oprah Phenomenon.

                  Nate Thayer has been on television. Nate Thayer has won awards. He doesn’t need the PR. Atlantic wants to put “Nate Thayer” on the little JavaScript article scroll. That’s not going to happen if they don’t pay him. Anyone who knows the first thing about war reporters and photographers knows how viciously they cling to their content: everyone wants it and nobody wants to pay for it.

                  Olga Khazan asked, like Simple Simon to the Pieman, “may I taste your wares.” In no uncertain terms, she was told “Show me first your penny.”

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            • North, do you think, if the technology made it feasible, paying these “freelancers” some small percentage based on hits, would be better?

              After all, I assume that the site doesn’t publish something for free if it actually loses them money. And I assume that they wouldn’t do it if it only broke even. Is it ridiculous to assume they make some money off of it, and as such can afford to pay the writer some money, since they would still be poorer without it?

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              • Maybe Ethan? But the question here pivots more around economics and (a little) morality I think than it does technology. Even if such a technology existed to allow payment by the hit not everyone would be able to get other people to offer to pay them by the hit.

                I shudder at straying into economics but it seems to me that we’re talking about opportunity cost here. Theatlantic.com has a finite number of slots for articles each day. The articles it puts into those slots affect it in several ways: there’re the paying subscribers. If the articles disgust/bore/offend those subscribers then they may bail. That costs money. Then there’re the non-subscribers: if they find the articles appealing then they’re inclined to read other articles on Theatlantic.com, they’re liable to think “hey I got a spare fifteen minutes, let’s see what Theatlantic.com has put up on their page…” the more eyeballs Theatlantic.com can train to aim at them the more money they can extract from advertisers who’re hoping to catch a bit of that eyeball power and divert it to products.

                My point is that putting up an article does cost the Atlantic something even if the immediate cash cost is nothing: if you fill article slot left B for 3/11/2013 with an article from Thayer then there’s an opportunity cost: they cannot fill that slot with an article from Me, or from Elias or from Freddie or from who knows who else.

                So when The Atlantic offers to put our writing up but doesn’t offer you any cash there that is more than nothing. It’s costing them something and they’re offering you something. Freddie can sneer in his inimitable way but there’re millions of people who look at that site and if you get your writing put up there they’re looking at you.

                And if they put you up then they’re not putting someone else up. Every article has some minute effect on the overall site. People look at it and go “another boring article, The Atlantic never puts up anything interesting/non-offensive/etc… why do I come here?” or they go “OMG I just read the most awesome thing at The Atlantic you should go read it!” So if they put your thing up you’re getting value and they’re taking a risk with you albeit small value and small risk overall.

                I just don’t get the part about the supposed immorality of it. As you and Jason observed below the going rate for internet writing is free. You need to have something special to get over the internet rate so what’s with the indignation. If I try and make a living selling sand in the Sahara, is it a moral travesty that no one will pay me a nickel for my North brand bag’o Sand? No; it’s not immoral or moral, it just is. People have discovered they like to do it for free. It’s potentially a market failure. Heck, I would think that Freddie would love the phenomena; free writing for everyone!

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            • In addition, let’s not ignore something pretty critical here for a struggling writer – getting published in The Atlantic, even if you weren’t paid for it, has very real value, as long as it’s still under your byline. As someone once pointed out to me, “links are the currency of the blogosphere.” Point being, if someone wants to make money at writing nowadays, then the way to do that is to draw attention to yourself, get your name out there, and develop a following. When you’ve developed a large enough following, you can get paid, whether as a freelancer or, eventually, on a more or less full time basis. By and large, TNC and the other folks who are on staff at The Atlantic don’t get paid because of the pieces published for free by freelancers, but because TNC and the other staffers have a following (and by and large had a critical mass of followers before they even joined up with The Atlantic), and those followers who read the Atlantic regularly do so largely because they are fans of TNC, et al.

              I dunno- ultimately, I just don’t see that there’s a material difference between (prior to the creation of the sub-blogs) me sending an e-mail to, say, Burt asking permission to cross-post something he had written for his site and The Atlantic doing the same thing, other than that the cross-posting at The Atlantic will allow the freelancer to develop a following and a portfolio that may eventually lead to a breakthrough for him financially.

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        • “Professional” just means you get paid for it. If it’s any good, people will pay for more of it. If it’s all for free, well, you’re getting exactly what you paid for.

          It’s kinda like the problem faced by a magazine: if they put a picture of George Clooney on the cover, it sells. If they don’t put a celebrity picture on the cover, it’s a much tougher sell. We damn the magazines for not being serious when they do put celebs on the cover but don’t buy the magazines when they don’t. The celebs are in the same quandary: they hate the paparazzi but need the PR at some level. If it bleeds, it leads on the news channels.

          I can’t understand human curiosity — controversy
          Was it good for you? was I what you wanted me to be? — controversy
          Do you get high? does your daddy cry? — controversy

          Nate Thayer made his name selling bang-bang. He’s no different than dozens of other bang-bang reporters, thrill junkies getting blown to hell in various parts of this troubled world. Risk equals profit: Thayer takes the risks, he insists on getting the profits. But let’s not mistake Thayer for anything but what he really is, a scavenger who profits from reporting on the suffering of the world.

          We want to read about Pol Pot on trial but anyone could see through that charade: Cambodia was using Thayer’s good offices to carry water to the outside world. Yes, yes, there’s some semblance of justice for the hundreds of thousands of dead Cambodians — Nate Thayer wrote an article about it. And everyone kisses his ass for doing PR for the Cambodians. Even Nate Thayer knew it at the time and said so, knowing full well that’s what he was doing.

          Is that Thayer’s fault, or ours, for assiduously following his reporting?

          Warhol once observed just about the time he quit trying to be everyone’s good buddy and went out on his own, a loner in his own mind, that’s when he got a Following. As soon as you stop wanting anything, you get it. Andy Warhol understood America rather better than America understood itself. Getting paid to do what you want comes down to finding out what you want, yourself, then making it, signing it and putting a high enough price tag on it to make people feel as if they’ve purchased something worth having. It has nothing to do with quality or substance.

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      • “I think what he actually wants is to be paid when others want to post his content.”

        Although this is the brave new world where we aren’t supposed to expect that people will pay us when they reproduce non-rivalrous goods.

        After all, when The Atlantic publishes your column, does that column vanish from your hard drive? No, you still have it. Obviously, therefore, you don’t deserve one thin dime from The Atlantic. Because they didn’t *take* something from you, right?

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  5. “[E]xploiting them for arriving late to the popularity contest… resolutely disgusting.”

    Has it occurred to you that you’re a part of the problem? And if you want to solve the problem, you should stop providing content for free, and dissuade others from doing the same?

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  6. I used to be involved with theatre where this stuff is also very prevelant. I eventually stopped and switched to law because I could never figure out how to get someone to pay me to direct.

    There are lots of people who have day jobs and just do their theatre on the side. Others constantly just fund their own projects and probably still have day jobs. My facebook feed is often filled with posts begging for contributions via kickstarter and indie go go.

    I simply think we have an over supply for all jobs and this is going to reduce wages for most if not all especially in fields where the Internet has destroyed the profit making ways like journalism.

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  7. Back in the 50s, Donald Wolheim was trying to bootstrap a new SF magazine. He called all of his buddies, one of whom was Isaac Asimov, and asked them to donate stories. Asimov sent him a dog of a story he hadn’t been able to sell. A few days later, Asimov talked to a friend of his, another SF writer, who was irate, saying “Anyone who gives a story away is undercutting the rest of us and should be blackballed.” On reflection, Asimov agreed. He called up Wolheim and said “Look, just send me two bucks, so if anyone asks I can say you paid me.” Wolheim did, together with a note saying “The only reason I’m using that piece of crap is that it has your name on it. Congratulations: I’m paying you a dollar a word.”

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  8. Magazines are bad, but think tanks, policy makers, law firms, etc. are a lot worse in terms of exploiting free labor. Where at this point “internships” are basically used as a consistent source of free labor with no regard to the actual restrictions.

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    • Also, the academy now exploits a lot of free labor from low-paid lecturers. Lecturers are paid to teach classes, but they end doing a lot more work than they are contracted to do.

      The textbook and journal publishing industry exploits students and authors.

      The world of ideas is a cesspool of exploitation.

      I agree with most of the OP, and the situation sucks. The question is what can or should be done, if anything, about the mess?

      The only thing I can think of is little “gated communities” of websites that charge readers a small fee for access to all the websites and posts that then goes to subsidize contributors. Not big money, just a little. That might work better in the long run than the current model, but it has to get set up organically.

      I can see aggregators like Sullivan making more and more cash, until eventually populat providers start to demand some cash from the aggregators, given that their work is driving the demand for the aggregators product.

      Not sure, though.

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      • I have to admit, Sullivan’s model bothers me a bit, in that he basically is an aggregator with the occasional bit piece of opinion. It would bother me less if the aggregated/gathered stories weren’t part of the gatekeeping, but they are and that strikes me as dubious if not outright wrong.

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  9. I’m not sure that I understand the actual problem here.

    You (and Thayer) seem to my eyes to be setting up a false dichotomy: either never work for free or force your children to starve at the hands of the literary robber barons. This approach seems short sighted.

    A while back David Ryan wrote that if writing was important to you, you should find a way to do it – and I believe he was correct. If I recall, David’s example was that maybe you could drive a truck for 8 hours a day and then write at night. Similarly, you could take a job as a staffer (not a writer) at a newspaper, or be a used car salesman to feed you and your family and write in your off hours. I have even heard tale of really bat-shit insane guys who made their money over a few decades and then retired early hoping to write. What Thayer has chosen to do is exactly that – something Thayer has chosen to do. He can actually write AND earn a living if he chooses to do so.

    (And, not to pile on Thayer, but here’s a tip for you young people looking to succeed in *any* field of business: If someone well-known, well-respected and well-connected offers you an opportunity that you feel you simply cannot afford to take, you should really try to respond in a professional and courteous manner. Don’t send numerous emails telling them to go fuck themselves and then publish to the world that you told them to go fuck themselves. If you are seldom hired in your chosen industry when you do so, you’re pretty much guaranteed to remain that way. Leonardo DiCaprio can get away with that and still pull eight figures per film; Steve Gutenberg cannot. So unless you’re the Leo of your industry already… )

    If you are an unknown writer (and even, really, if you are well known) getting your writing published in the Atlantic is amazing public relations – and PR is not a valueless thing, regardless of what you or Thayer might think. Imagine, if you will, that Elias and I each approach an editor with a finished article we wish to sell. This editor has never read the League and has never heard of either of us. I would let the editor know in my short email introduction that I, like everyone else in the world, had written blog posts; Elias would note that his work has been featured in the Atlantic. Who do you suppose might the editor actually bother to read to see if it was worth buying?

    Writing for publication is highly coveted activity, and as such there will always be more people willing to do it than there will be need for such people. People have to know who you are in order to succeed as a freelance writer, and exposure allows for people to get to know who you are.

    And the truth of the matter is that this isn’t actually a “writer thing.” As a risk manager, I can’t tell you how many countless hours I spent helping industries lobby, served on trade association committees for industries I wished to sell my services to, committed to pro-bono management trainings I did for larger companies so that they could see what I did was different from whatever guy they currently payed did, etc. I never, ever got paid a dime for any of those activities. But that “free” work led to opportunities I never would have been allowed otherwise, and when presented those opportunities the people I wanted to buy my services were already sold on my ability to bring value. And that allowed me to comfortably stop doing all of it decades before most people in my industry are able to retire.

    If you’re an unknown writer and you don’t want to do any pro bono writing work, that’s fine. There are, after all, a million ways to get from Point A to Point B, and pro bono work doesn’t have to be involved. But don’t assume that making decision has anything to do with whether or not a magazine owes you anything.

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    • I can’t speak for Thayer, but I don’t do this anywhere: “setting up a false dichotomy: either never work for free or force your children to starve at the hands of the literary robber barons. This approach seems short sighted.”

      You’ve misread me Tod if you think that’s what I’m saying.

      “Writing for publication is highly coveted activity, and as such there will always be more people willing to do it than there will be need for such people. People have to know who you are in order to succeed as a freelance writer, and exposure allows for people to get to know who you are.”

      I think you miswrote, what you meant to write was, “and working for free allows for people to get to know who you are.”

      “But don’t assume that making decision has anything to do with whether or not a magazine owes you anything.”

      Again, I think you are arguing with someone else here. I never imply that the magazine owes Thayer anything. They don’t have to pay him shit. Unless they want to publish his work. Unless they seek him out and request his digitized labor. If at that point they proposition him, and say, hey, we can’t pay you, but we’d love it if you gave us some of your free stuff so that we can continue to pay other people at our site, that’s where the issue comes in.

      None of this has anything to do with writing for free. None of it. I write for free, you write for free, we all write for free and we mostly love it.

      But as you point out, there will always bee more people willing than there are opportunities for them. The Atlantic has a certain amount of money to spend on producing content, they say they can’t pay you but they can let you be associated with them to get “buzz.” People do this in hopes that it will ge them closer to one day actually get payed for doing this. Lots of people do this. Only a handful will ever get paid–only a few will ever make a living at it. Which is absolutely fine. So the chances that that buzz ever pays off are very low. Meanwhile they will make money off you while they sell you immaterial buzz in exchange for monetizable content.

      If people want to do that, that’s fine. As I said above, I’d probably do that to.

      What this post is about isn’t solving that conundrum, it’s calling out the comfortable people who seem suprised or aghast that those who aren’t comfortable don’t like the arrangment as it currently stands.

      None of those Atlatnic editors will ever say, yes, my job security comes in part from young writers trying to get buzz by getting published in the same digital vicinity as my–part of my living comes from them not getting one (through writing).

      The point of this post is hypocracy, not the morality of market arrangments.

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      • As to the “starve” meme, that was the argument made by Thayer – or at least the emails of his that I read. I think I mistook you for defending Thayer’s position, so I apologize for spreading that net so wide.

        But that being said, I still think we disagree.

        I just don’t see the hypocrisy that you do, and I suspect the reason we see things differently is this: I think you perceive these unknown writers as getting paid nothing for their work; I perceive them as trading man-hours for PR and publicity. As I said above, I think exposure in the Atlantic is a highly valuable commodity for an unknown freelancer looking to make enough of a name for themselves that they can demand enough money from multiple sources to make a good financial living at writing.

        Take my Portland-Vancouver post from last week. That was just a blog post, but let’s say that I had tried to sell it and that I’d actually gotten two offers. One offer was to have it published without payment in the Atlantic; the other was to be paid $750 and have my post go in the Sunday print edition of The Colombian, the small, local Vancouver, WA newspaper. I’d have gone with Atlantic in a heartbeat – and it absolutely would have been a financial decision to do so.

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        • “and it absolutely would have been a financial decision to do so.”

          This could be the case, but I don’t think anyone has presented evidence to this effect thus far. We need to get Salmon on that aspect of the debate, because so far there hasn’t been much (unless I missed it) to show one way or the other that one article at the Atlantic would have gotten you more in the long run than $750 (maybe $100?)

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          • I doubt very much you can calculate a value like that.

            I have a hard time seeing that the $750 payday from a small, neighborhood paper leads to anything else.

            True, I can see the possibility that the Atlantic piece never leads to anything as well. But I can also easily see one unpaid Atlantic article leading to four unpaid pieces. If so, I have an easy time seeing that leading to doors being opened – not just with editors, but with interesting people I would love to interview and write about that won’t return my emails right now. I could see those opportunities leading to not just a story that I’d get paid for, but potentially years of freelance work. I’m working on a book right now; I dare say if I have half a dozen pieces in the Atlantic I will have an easier time getting it looked at when I am finished than if I have just that Vancouver neighborhood paper article under my belt.

            Not doing the unpaid Atlantic has an opportunity cost associated with it, that can potentially be more than $750. Or a whole lot more. Or less. We’ll never really know. But it *is* an opportunity, and I have a hard time seeing how you become a successful freelancer without the opportunities.

            Not directed at you, Ethan, but a lot of all of this pushback reminds me of my youth, when I was playing music and everyone I knew said they wanted to be a professional musician. Except most of them didn’t really want to be a professional musician; what they really wanted to be was a rock star. They wanted to form a band, play for 6 moths of a year and have a record label “discover” them and sign them to a big deal. And after a year of playing, they gave it up when they realized the big discovery was never going to happen.

            Now, I have a lot of friends that *are* professional musicians, even after all these years. They get paid little, they do their own publicity, they run their own websites, and almost all of them have “real” job to pay the bills and feed the family. But they continue to be professional musicians, because to them being a musician was the important part; being a rock star was just a thing that would have been nice to have as well.

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        • Funny, but my experience would suggest otherwise.

          Most paid content is highly regional or specialized, and regional/specialized publications like to see other regional publications in a portfolio. While it might seem counter-intuitive, I found big-name publications often signaled that I was unaffordable, particularly for those small regular gigs that make up a living. I did stints for The Bethel Citizen, MaineBiz, Northeast Trade, — all regional – and Veterans Business Journal, GI Jobs, The Officer (specialized) as well as many other one-offs. I also wrote for The Federal Reserve Bank, Fast Company, and The Conference Board, too; and got paid really well, and for The Atlantic for free (McArdle published one of my pieces.)

          But there’s a difference between getting published and making a living. It was the steady beat — region or speciality — that kept paying.

          That’s not to say that you shouldn’t write for The Atlantic for free; but if I were trying to build a portfolio of bylines, The Columbian seems more likely to get other paying gigs. I agree with you that The Atlantic pays via exposure and PR. But it’s really important to weigh options strategically if part of your goal is income, and having material published in places that actually pay regularly is strategically crucial to making a living. Giving one piece to The Atlantic may not help nearly as much as ten pieces in the local newspaper, no matter how small.

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        • I think you perceive these unknown writers as getting paid nothing for their work; I perceive them as trading man-hours for PR and publicity,

          Odd, isn’t it, that while we’re constantly told that money isn’t everything, and that markets/economists/businesses are too focused on money, suddenly we’re told that money and only money can constitute sufficient compensation for someone’s activity.

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          • James, I agree there’s a lot of hypocracy on that point from some people (though there is a difference from saying everything *shouldn’t* be about money, but while it is pay me what’s due).

            With the above, my contention is that the whole buzz/PR boost associated with giving away ones work to people who will make money off of it is not an equitable deal, and in so far as certain people are willing to *offer* that deal (rather than focusing on those who accept it) they need to either A) reasonably demonstrate it’s a good trade for both parties, or B) come out and say, whatever, it’s a buyer’s market and I got you by the balls.

            Where as I think you’d be okay with something like the latter, most of these editors would not, and so try to find some middle ground by which they can rationalize the bargain short of demonstrating it’s mutual value.

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            • is not an equitable deal

              In which case Thayer can just say no. As he did.

              No, it’s not the editor’s task to demonstrate it’s a good deal. That means you’re asking her to take Thayer’s place in evaluating what Thayer values. Would you trust someone who told you that X was well worth your while? You ultimately would take that under advisement and make your own choice, right? And if you want more information before deciding, you’ll ask, right? And if it seems clear to you that it’s simply not of value to you, so certain that you don’t need even need more information, then you’ll just say no, with whatever degree of politeness or nastiness seems appropriate to you.

              I don’t see it as a morality play.

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              • I’m obvioulsy talking about Coates and Madrigal.

                Rather than just say, that’s the biz–take it or leave it (as you are, I think, suggesting?) they are trying to have their cake and eat it too–it’s not just the cold hard reality of the marketplace…it’s better (or at least not too bad) for everyone too!

                Does that make sense?

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                • I”m not sure what you mean by this. I read Coates’s post last week, and if I recall he talked about working for years being paid almost nothing and using the PR opportunity to get himself to a place where he had a regular paying gig.

                  How was Coates’s opportunity to write for the Atlantic for free “having his cake & eating it” and Thayer’s not? It seems like they were both given very similar opportunities, and they each did very different things with them. I’m not seeing how that reflects poorly on TNC.

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                  • Do you think the part I quoted above and commented on reflects poorly?

                    The cake/eat has nothing to do with Thayer or TNC being employed or not, it has to do with the idea that the Atlantic is a mutual benefactor rather than in part a content farm, profitable in part because it does not pay for at times 20% of it’s most read content.

                    TNC’s anecdotal experience has nothing to do with the above, nor does Thayer’s, which was my poorly made point in the post originally about people playing fast and loose between the marcro economic picture and the individual experience. If we’re sticking to the macro business side, it doesn’t matter what Madrigal or Coate’s experience was, or what Thayer’s experience was, cause they aren’t representative. Most people giving free content to the Atlantic are not Thayer, and most of them will not get the opportunities that those two editors have.

                    What I can’t stand is the air which both peices give off as if it’s anything but a raw deal for the writers’ whose content they profit from without allowing to profit from as well.

                    Of course we can argue about whether in fact it is a raw deal (what you and I are doing) or whether a “freely” arrived at market exchange can ever be morally bad (what I am attempting to avoid with J Hanley). But rather than engage with either of those, most of the defenders of the Atlantic’s policy seem to want to take cover in the brutishness of the market while also asserting solidarity with those savaged by it.

                    And THAT is what I find disingenous.

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  10. I have to admit that I found it very meta to read Ethan discussing writers “giving it away for free” while himself giving us this very OP for free.

    There’s another take on this I could think of. Virtually everyone on this site is the happy recipient of freeware that one or several programmers poured a lot more blood sweat and tears into developing than any freelance journalist ever dreamed of. I spent countless hours contributing to the IETF on things I guarantee you have all used and are still using on a daily basis. Yes I had a day job at the time but no I was never paid a thin dime for my efforts, I was merely contributing to the greater good as were many of my fellows. As one so eloquently put it many years ago, “You gets so you gives”.

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    • So I’m not against free. If you read the post, you see I’m against other people profiting off of your free.

      People making freeware is cool, people making money off of the freeware other people made is not. That’s where I stand. We can debate that, but that’s what’s at issue here, not people doing stuff for free.

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      • But people make money off of people doing stuff for free all the time. Youtube made a fortune off of people putting amusing crap up for free. Sure they sold advertising time to companies who then annoyed the audience the free people drew but it was exploitation by your definition. Hell, YouTube offered video hosting for free and people make money off of it selling all manner of how to this and peddling all and sundry stuff or soliciting donations for their works so is Youtube simultaneously being exploited and being exploited?

        Or possibly your definition of “free” is too expansive?

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            • Potentially.

              In the end, and I can’t stress this enough, my objections personally come from the idea that one group of writers profits off of another group of writers, all the while explaining why that other group of writers should be okay with this, even while telling them they shouldn’t, but still the biz is the biz and all that ya’know?

              The impetus for this post was the double-talk of writers I admire. The substance though is wanting to parse out the difference between doing stuff without pay, and being taken advantage of.

              I ended with the Gawker piece because it makes a good point about what is sacrificed by encouraging a media predicated on the ability to work for free: a media dominated by upper middle class whites (like myself).

              Where people come down on this issue will probably reflect where they come down on unpaid internships.

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              • The substance though is wanting to parse out the difference between doing stuff without pay, and being taken advantage of.

                Respectfully–and with painful awareness of how what we intend to do doesn’t always come across that way to our readership–I’m not sure most of us got that out of your piece. Instead it seems to be the moral outrage that most of us got.

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          • Ethan, I wasn’t insinuating that /you/ were “against” free, just commenting on the meta of it all.

            As for Youtube, yes they make money and more importantly they share it. Anytime you hit a youtube video that has a popup ad, youtube is making money and so is their “partner” who provided the content. Those cute videos that have millions of hits? They’re making their creators hundreds of thousands of dollars.

            BTW there is probably a lesson here for the Atlantics of the world, assuming they ever hire people as smart as Google already has.

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            • Sorry for coming off short Ward. I wasn’t aware of that with Youtube, but it’s an interesting point, and one that would I think help cut through a lot of the rhetoric.

              Why CAN’T the Atlantic pay a small percentage of whatever revenue a piece helps generate to the author? I can’t think of any reason. I really can’t. And yet no one there or elsewhere, none of the Felix Salmons, have addressed that simple point.

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          • Well it’s a tch complicated. They absolutely generate income by selling add space and imbedded ads. Do they make more money than they spend? I’m not sure; they’re part of google now and I’ve never read an opinion yet that Google overpaid for Youtube. And finally they certainly made their founders money, Google paid, what, a billion dollars for youtube?

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            • Yeah, in my understanding, YouTube was hemorrhaging money (spending more than they made) until as recently as ’09; but that the suspicion by analysts (Google isn’t saying yet, and as YT’s a wholly-owned subsidiary of theirs, doesn’t have to) is that YT will shortly be very profitable, if it isn’t already.

              Google expects YouTube to eventually become what we now just call “TV”, and 99% of new shows to be created there.

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        • Actually, the news is an industry that that is built to make money off of people without paying them. Hard news sells advertisements by running stories, interviews, photos and videos of leaders and politicians people want to know about. None of those people are paid. SOft news does the same for celebs, and again, not a one of those is paid.

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            • Reporting on what they do.

              Entertainment Magazine sells magazines by selling George Clooney. They sell his image, his words, his life story, and – yes – his labor*. They don’t pay him a dime for this.

              The New York Times does the same with Barack Obama and Rand Paul.

              *(If George Clooney hadn’t just spent the past 10 months working on a big budget movie, they wouldn’t write about him.)

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              • In the end this seems to all turn then on whether or not there is a real benefit to the freebie.

                If it is the case that, per Burt below, someone who works hard as a real shot of actually geting paid for their work someday, and is fine taking that risk even if it’s a super small shot and they most likely won’t, and the publication isn’t getting off dramatically better than the person they’re soliciting from, I guess the problem resolves itself.

                I’m just unconvinced that a little (it really is a little) face time at the Atlantic does as much for the writer as it does for the Atlantic.

                Is it really a win-win? Someone’s got to run the numbers.

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  11. Right now I’m thinking to myself, ‘damn, if I only I could have gotten a request to write something for free that I could have posted online in outrage, I’d have a much higher profile.’

    Next time, next time…

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  12. A callout from Ethan above:

    Where people come down on this issue will probably reflect where they come down on unpaid internships.

    Just so. And unpaid writing should be treated that way, too.

    I worked as a law student without pay and then for little pay, in the expectation that it would give me experience and familiarity, and in the expectation that the people to whom I gave my labor away (or sold it well below its market value) would later serve as references about the good work I had done, the promise I showed, and so on. After a time, I stopped working for free and the legal labor marketplace stopped expecting me to do so, because I’d done enough of it and reached a point on my career arc where it was appropriate for me to insist on being paid a reasonable salary for the work.

    Other kinds of professionals will have similar sorts of stories, I’m sure.

    Why ought not a writer’s career arc look the same? And why shouldn’t a writer with some publications — perhaps a significant early sample of which were given away — insist on money? It’s one thing if the only thing I’ve ever published are some essays on a free blog. It’s something else if I’ve begun to make a name for myself and publishers have already deemed the quality of my work acceptable.

    Of course, there’s also getting the market to stick to that norm. It’s a norm, not a rule.

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    • “Why ought not a writer’s career arc look the same? ”

      Because, presumably, you wouldn’t ask a law student to go into the courtroom and try a case; but that’s what is happening The Atlantic asks to republish your writing.

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      • That analogy would work better if the Atlantic is asking young, unknowns to pen their cover stories or feature articles and short stories in their print edition without compensation – which to my knowledge, they aren’t.

        Throwing things on the Atlantic Online seems more like asking the intern to research briefs than to go before a judge and jury.

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  13. Having read the email exchange now, I notice that in the very email where the editor notes that they are unable to pay Thayer, she explicitly says;

    I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.

    Truly she is a monster who must be stopped. After all, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly the line Stalin used when he invited the Baltics to join the Soviet Union.

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  14. This is years ago, now. While working at Sun, I’d suggested using some of my code to support the reference implementation of one of the lesser-known Java initiatives. It worked well enough, but over the course of several years that group had managed to break it and lose all of the unit tests, so they had a mess on their hands. They contacted me for help, and of course my first question was “How much will you pay?” “It’s an open source project”, they replied, “so we were expecting you’d donate your time.” Well, open source or not, I knew damned well Sun was paying all of them, and I wasn’t going to fix their fish-ups for nothing, so I declined to participate.

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  15. My own wee two cents — the thing I wrote that got far more eyeballs than I ever hope to get again was published here for free, and then (with my giddy permission) re-published for free at io9. I was ecstatic that they even asked. It was one of the greatest thrills of my life to see how many people had read something I’d written.

    If someone from the Atlantic wanted to republish anything I’d written, I’d be similarly ecstatic. (I won’t threaten my health holding my breath about that.)

    But then, I’m a bad example, I guess? As much as I would love to write for money, I made a pragmatic decision years and years ago to pursue a profession for its financial stability. Thus I can write my silly little blog about whatever the hell I want purely for the pleasure it affords me. The pleasure of being published in the Atlantic would, similarly, be its own ample reward. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I strove to make my living at it, but that’s why I made my own different decision way back when I did.

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  16. Larry Niven is a perfect exemplar of someone who got into writing for the love of the craft, because as a trust fund baby he certainly didn’t need the money. That he turned out to be so excellent at the craft must have infuriated those of his colleagues who did.

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    • That he didn’t need to spend his time putting food on the table, that he had time to master his craft instead of treating it like a hobby, might have a whole lot to do with why he turned out to be so excellent at it.

      /and I say this as a fan, who has nearly all his book from in the first edition paperbacks. They didn’t publish them in hardback then.

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  17. I think the worry, both practical and moral, isn’t that The Atlantic asked Thayer to work for free.

    The worry is that aggregators of web content are trying to earn money off the back of providers who produce it for free. At present, and in Thayer’s specific case, I see nothing particular immoral, unfair, or unfortunate. But going forward, if the Ariana Huffingtons, Andrew Sullivans, and even The Atlantics of the world are profitting off of content that others are producing, and effectively charging users for access to that content, then you’ve got some moral and practical problems.

    I can see a situation where content providers start telling, say Sullivan, that they don’t want him to link

    At any rate, if the content providers can negotiate freely with the aggregators and big websites like The Atlantic, all will be good, but there is some worry that a few powerful people will gain control of important gateways and portals (for lack of a better word) and use that control to extract exploitative profits from the providers. I don’t think we’re their yet, but maybe we are seeing foreshadowing.

    I get that libertarians won’t see this treatment of the producers as more morally or practically problematic as the treatment of non-unionized labor, say Walmart workers, but there is an analogy.

    That said, even I am more concerned with the exploitation of the Walmart workers of the world than the web content workers of the future.

    It’s hard to say. I do think it would suck if 10 or 12 websites became pay walled aggregator sites that used their fame to sort of take over control of what most people read and then used that control to earn money off the work of providers.

    We’ll see what happens, I guess. I’m rambling now.

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    • That said, the internetz, as it has existed so far, is closer to the libertarian ideal of a world where no one can gain control of the means of production to create monopolistic control that drowns out competition than, say, the world of factory labor. So maybe the Thayers of the world will slowly use their control over the content they produce to leverage the Sullivans and Atlantics to pay them, and maybe the Sullivans and Atlantics will find a way to get us readers to pay. Could work out well. Like I say, we’ll see.

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    • Shaz, I think that horse left the barn a long time ago. Big newspapers, TV, Cable — handfull of onwers. Internet that get’s widely read wouldn’t surprise me to be close behind.

      Only real benefit here is that it’s cheap to startup something new; lots of free content available.

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  18. Nobody’s being asked to work for free. Having your material published at the Atlantic or a similarly high-profile, high-traffic site, is valuable. In fact, there are people who are willing to pay money to have their material published on popular web sites. They’re called advertisers. “But I’m not an advertiser!” you’ll say. But you are, of course. When the Atlantic runs something you’ve written, that’s an advertisement for your writing services. And for your blog or other personal web site, which your bio-blurb links to. The link also increases your search engine rankings.

    Furthermore, not all advertisements are commercial. Sometimes people who have something they want to say take out ad space to publish an opinion piece in a major publication. If you write something the editors consider valuable enough, you get to do that for free instead of paying for it.

    The bottom line is that free publication in the Atlantic is the market-clearing wage for writers of a certain perceived quality and/or popularity. What you’re suggesting is a union-style cartelization, but without the government interventions usually present in union negotiations. It could make for an interesting experiment to provide some evidence regarding whether unions would be viable in a truly free market.

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  19. I guess I just can’t see the appeal ad misercordiam on behalf of journalists. Writing is work, but it’s enjoyable work. It’s life-affirming work. It’s expressive work. It’s work that many will do for the sheer joy of it. It doesn’t surprise me, then, that only the very lucky and the very good will succeed in making a living at it. Millions of high school athletes will never get a scholarship, much less a professional contract. Most bands toil in obscurity, never getting beyond releasing stuff on soundcloud for free. Breaking into work that people are willing to do for free is hard. Why should journalism be any different?

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