yes, sometimes it’s good to write for free

May 4, 2013

old typewriter

In March, freelance journalist Nate Thayer is incandescent with rage. It wasn’t that he’s trying to make his living by writing and no one’s paying attention. In fact The Atlantic is knocking on his door and asking to run condensed versions of one of his blog posts. No, the big problem is that they were not offering to pay him for it, and their once upon a time talks of a $125,000 per year retainer never really came to anything because the editor working on it was killed in Iraq. Thayer was livid, saying that he can’t feed his kids, can’t pay for his internet connection, and can barely pay his rent, so how dare the publication offer him nothing but exposure. Maybe it was wise that he didn’t take the deal because it would’ve made the charges of partial plagiarism for the post in question all the more embarrassing. But charges and controversies aside, when I came across a reference to Thayer’s debacle, I thought it would be a good idea to highlight what this incident shows about new vs. old media and why journalists will find themselves fewer in number.

Here’s the important thing about selling your services. Just because you need to make a certain amount of money to pay rent, doesn’t mean that what you’re trying to sell is worth that much to the entity interested in buying. Professional journalists who worked back when there weren’t any blogs around to break news, and newspapers were arbiters of what was must-read, are used to being able to take their time, work on a story, and get paid good money for their efforts. But this wonderful world of overseas posts, expense accounts, and large retainers is now gone. People like the immediacy of breaking news through social media and TV, and then in depth summaries and investigations as the situation settles down. And they get this from virtually everywhere free because anyone can break stories. The result? News is cheap. So how will The Atlantic cover a six figure retainer for someone producing stories that aren’t necessarily that valuable and won’t generate enough traffic to pay for themselves at such sky high rates?

On top of that, exposure is a good thing. I’ve had one of my posts reproduced by io9, of course with my permission. It gave the blog more credibility and more traffic, which helped a syndication deal I had at the time because the payouts were based on the number of readers. Being picked up by Time Warner’s news sites was also a huge boon, and although few of the publications for which I’ve written sent me cold, hard cash, the traffic and exposure for my work made this blog turn a profit. At no time was I laboring under the delusion that I was going to make six figures for my pop sci writing because pop sci articles are a dime a dozen. The web is positively lousy with them. The money from the blog was simply a way to help with rent while doing some freelance IT work and if it became something more, great. For Thayer to expect anything more out of a blog nowadays is simply unrealistic, and his fury at being offered free exposure sounds really out of touch. If his kids are going hungry and his rent is going unpaid, he needs to find another way to make money because let me tell you from experience, this writing stuff doesn’t pay well.

That said, there will always be some room for investigative journalists and researchers who will curate what’s circling around social media, track down sources, and find out real stories, but it’s unlikely that they won’t rely on the traffic their stories generate for their salaries and donations from readers who want them to keep going and appreciate the time it takes to create a massive, long form expose. But again, their stories better be gripping, fascinating, and start debates on a national scale. An abbreviated review of North Korea policy doesn’t necessarily fit that bill while parsing leaked information about top secret drone strikes does. The future of journalism is very savvy writers who act as their own editors and work in partnership with publications, not as their employees, focused not just on their stories but the economics of their storytelling. If former big shot journalists like Thayer don’t know that, they really need to wake up and smell the coffee as they read through the Twitter feed, looking for material for their next post…

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  • TheBrett

    For Thayer to expect anything more out of a blog nowadays is simply unrealistic, and his fury at being offered free exposure sounds really out of touch. If his kids are going hungry and his rent is going unpaid, he needs to find another way to make money because let me tell you from experience, this writing stuff doesn’t pay well.

    That’s what I thought as well. If you’ve got 2-3 kids and you’re so broke in your profession that you can barely scrape up rent and food, you need to consider another job. It’s not like he wouldn’t have options, either – some of the stuff he’s learned probably translates to other lines of work.

    News is cheap. So how will The Atlantic cover a six figure retainer for someone producing stories that aren’t necessarily that valuable and won’t generate enough traffic to pay for themselves at such sky high rates?

    More generally, they can’t pay that type of fee just for a free-lancer. Alexis Madrigal talked about that at The Atlantic, about how the way things are now it’s a more cohesive community where 90% of the writing is either done in-house or promoted by others (hence why they have such a small pay-out for freelance pieces). The only people who still make some money at selling free-lance pieces usually have other sources of income, like books, speaking engagements, or teaching positions.