The plight of freelance writers

1-Eliza-Jordan

Eliza Jordan

It is great to see aspiring journalists, like the one pictured above, forge ahead in the job market despite the difficulty of making a living from writing.
Some magazines and newspapers these days pay as little as $25 per story – and some resist paying at all.
Freelance journalist Nate Thayer found that out when an Atlantic magazine editor contacted him about his article on basketball diplomacy with North Korea. The editor, Olga Khazan, wanted him to cut the story from 4,300 to 1,200 words and give it to Atlantic for free. She wrote:

We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.

Thayer replied:

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.

Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them.

On March 4, Thayer reproduced his email exchange with Atlantic, touching off a new debate about the value of original reporting and writing.  The magazine quickly published an explanation.

Atlantic staff journalists write most of the stories on our sites. When we publish original, reported work by freelancers, we pay them. Our freelance rates vary, depending on the kind of work involved. We do publish some unpaid pieces, typically analysis or commentary by non-journalists, if the work meets our standards and if, of course, the writer sees value in publishing with us. We don’t force anyone to contribute to us, and we are extremely grateful to the wonderful writers who do.
The case involving Nate Thayer is unusual. We did not ask him to report and write an original piece for us, but we did ask if he’d be interested in posting a condensed version of an article he had already published elsewhere, which we would have done with full credit to the original publisher. We rarely do this outside our established partnerships, but we were enthusiastic about bringing Thayer’s work to a larger audience – an outcome, I guess, we have now, backhandedly, achieved. We’re sorry we offended him.

I see Thayer’s point. He deserves compensation, especially if he wasn’t paid for the 4,300-word version of the story that has already been published.

I can also see Atlantic’s point. Most reporters can cut their stories quickly, if necessary. Thayer, if in a pinch, likely could have chopped 3,100 words from his story in as little as 15 or 20 minutes. Or he could have taken a half day to do the job. Would that be worth reaching 13 million readers? Could that kind of exposure lead to more paying assignments?

I probably would have cut the story if 1) I had already been paid an adequate fee for the piece and 2) repackaging the story was OK with the organization that first published and paid for the story.  If not, I would have done the same as Thayer and declined Atlantic’s offer.

I sympathize with Thayer’s frustration about the treatment of freelancers in today’s media environment. But despite the difficulties of writing for pay, I tell my students at Flagler College that journalism can be rewarding. And I am glad to see such talented young people as Eliza Jordan give the profession a shot.

Jordan, a former student of mine, graduated from Flagler College in 2012. See her blog here and portfolio here. It’s clear to me she has drive, determination and talent. And she’s in a great media market – New York City. I just hope she doesn’t have to work for free.

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10 thoughts on “The plight of freelance writers

  1. connergo

    Oh boy does this get my Irish up. Its a complex problem involving the erosion of respect for good, well-researched, and topical writing; the so-called demise of print publications and rise of the internet where there’s a constant need for “evergreen” content; and writers – professional and not, wannabe and established – writing for FREE. Ive seen it over and over and over again. Why pay when there’s someone who’s position is: “I probably would have cut the story, if it were mine”?

    This is not an attack on Eaton but this really chaps my ass as it been happening with ever more frequency in my corner of the world. Here’s just one of my recent anecdotes: UK journalist calls me from London for an interview to provide substance and to fact check her Cuba article for UK Guardian (she hadn’t been yo the island in 3 years). When I point out how this is discordant on many levels and how she is actually my competition, she says “oh, but Im not getting paid; I just want to break into the Guardian.”

    So, you’ll write for free on a place you haven’t visited for 3 years, using the expertise of another freelancer, essentially saying, it’s ok giving “services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills”

    Bravo to Thayer. The freelancer world is like sex: as long as writers are giving it away, who’s gonna pay?

    Reply
    1. Ellen Fead Fields

      Conner, I totally agree with your outrage. After doing the majority of the legwork for freelance writers (for publications like the New York Times) when they would come to visit the Yucatan, and then NOT getting even a mention in the resulting piece, I’ve stopped entertaining them altogether. I can write just as well as they can and I actually know what I’m writing about and I like the place (one writer wouldn’t actually EAT the food in Mexico, as she didn’t want to get sick). We are a small publication (REALLY small and online only) and WE pay $25 for a story. What’s wrong with these publications expecting things for free?

      Reply
  2. maninhavana Post author

    Conner – I agree with you entirely. It is disappointing to see how writing has become so devalued. The trend is one reason why I have been moving toward multimedia and video. I am not giving up on writing, but looking for other ways to pay the bills… I hope things are going well for you in Havana. As I’ve told you before, I am a big fan of your work. Saludos, Tracey

    Reply
    1. connergo

      Yes, diversification – between publications, media, genres – is important. In my case, my dial up access (the only kind plebes like me have in Cuba), make that an impossible task. I can’t even stream audio, let alone upload. So no radio, video, or podcasts for me. I also have no access to magazines and newspapers so am not up on who’s editing, what’s being published, what the trends are. I have only my expertise, experience and dedication to the written word to rely on.

      Thanks for the props. No es facil here but Im still convinced an experienced, informed, and writer of some talent can prevail. Rose colored glasses, perhaps!

      Reply
  3. t h i n g s + f l e s h

    there are a lot of very good amateurs who are willing to do what some of us are paid for. the pressure is on the freelance writer, designer, anything, to show they not only possess the chops, but the reputation as well … and to make it clear the amateur solution isn’t good enough for the job that requires a professional. tony

    Reply
  4. maninhavana Post author

    Good point, Tony.
    To be clear, I wouldn’t trim the story and give it to Atlantic unless I had already been paid for the story once. If it were an original piece that I had published on my own and Atlantic wanted a trimmed version for free, I’d do the same as Thayer and tell ’em to take a hike.

    Reply
  5. Jeanne

    Here’s an old-fashioned idea: unionize. You can’t cast a play or movie with free actors. You can’t form an orchestra and give paying concerts with free musicians. How is it you can publish a newspaper or magazine using free writers? Everyone knows this profession is dying even, I’ll bet, the lucky staffers on union contracts at the NYTimes. Whether new media or old media, every single job, from editor to staff writer to intern to stringer, is precarious. Anyone who doesn’t recognize that is living in a dream world. To unionize an industry is a difficult and bitter fight but it really has to be done. It is a hard, hard job but what’s the alternative? We are fighting for our lives and, not to get melodramatic (but what the hell) for the future of a democratic and egalitarian society.

    Reply

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