I Didn't Think About Being Ripped Off, I Thought About Whipping Ass

As I said in comments on Monday, I think Eva14 pretty much offers up the most trenchant critique of The Atlantic not paying for freelance work:

...the company has been in the news as posting growing profits as a result of its web set-up. I don't generally applaud corporations that expand their profitability by shifting from low-paid workers to unpaid workers, do you?

I don't know how much of a shift there's been, but that's beside the main point. The Atlantic is now profitable, and we have been very happy to tell other media outlets that this is the case. It strikes me as fair to then ask by what means that profit has been attained. I've said in comments that "work for free" content doesn't actually drive traffic. But clearly it does something, because otherwise we would not use it. The spectacle of a major magazine achieving its profitability, in any part, by not paying freelancers for work on the Internet should concern its readers.

Let us take this out of the theoretical. I am implicated in this. As I've said before, I've asked several people over the years to guest-blog here. The work that they put in generally took longer than the work Thayer was asked to put in. I never once offered to pay them. I just went through my emails to check, and it never even came up.

They were not all academics with institutional support, a frequent argument for not paying writers. Some of them were freelancers like my friend Brendan Koerner, or artists like my buddy Neil Drumming. Others were commenters here, Breakerbaker or Andy Hall. And they worked for free, turning out excellent work. Yes, they were commentators, not shoe-leather reporters: "reporting" seems to have talismanic effect over the consciousness. But labor is labor. If you have a problem with Thayer not being offered monetary payment for his labor, then you should have a problem with every guest post you've ever seen on this blog.

And having discovered that you have a problem, you should think about how we might make things better. I would strongly urge you against the idea of nostalgia. It is not at all clear to me that the past was better. First, there are all kinds of ways I can make you work for free. I can sign you up to a contract for very little money (say ten cents a word) and then tell you I won't pay until the month after publication. I can then "forget" to send your check and make it so you won't be paid until you spend a great many hours effectively as a bill collector. You will then have to decide what is worth more to you -- the three or four hundred dollars I owe you, or the time you will spend chasing me to get it. And this is to say nothing of reimbursing you for expenses.

What I just described is very real situation of magazines in the past. There were (and are) magazines that existed seemingly wholly by not paying writers. And it's not always the case that the writers regard those magazines as vampires. When I freelanced for the Washington Monthly, I was told by an editor that checks were not cut unless the writer specifically called for his or her money. The thinking was that the Monthly was fighting the good fight, and many of the people writing for them weren't actually doing it for the money. At the time, that was generally true. The Monthly was one of the few outlets doing really good reported opinion journalism. And it was always struggling to stay afloat. As it happened, I needed whatever checks I could get. But I never held their payment policies against them.

That was at a time when I was still completely a creature of print, and the Monthly was the only place that really allowed me to do what The Atlantic allows me to do now. When my friend Prince Jones was killed, it was the Monthly that gave me space to take a hard, reported look at the police department. It was the Monthly that gave me its cover to consider the decline of Louis Farrakhan as a political force. The New Republic would not have done that. No other magazine I pitched was at all interested in anything about Farrakhan, beyond his anti-Semitism. They just did not care.

Which is to say something more -- they did not care about the political and cultural imagination of black people. They didn't care not because they were evil or scheming to keep black people out. They didn't care because they could not afford to care, or had decided they could afford not to. Magazine editors who agree to pay agree to invest in your thoughts and conception -- both when those thoughts and conceptions are rooted in reporting, and when they are not. When you bring them stories from a world they do not know, and when you are a writer in your 20s they do not know, there's very little upside in their investing in you or your ideas.

Theoretically, paying people to write is not just a moral good but a service to your publication. A budget forces editors to think hard about what they publish, since every article is an investment of resources. But in the crush of deadlines and work, there is great pressure to simply go back to the well of those you know can deliver. When I came into this business, those who could deliver were almost always white -- or those who got the chance to show that they could.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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