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.
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.