“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.