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

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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.

The vast, vast majority of magazine editors then were white. Before I placed my Bill Cosby story here, it was rejected by a major magazine. The magazine editor told me that the top editor would only want the piece if it was "a big-picture, intellectual take by someone like Skip Gates."

This note was written by someone who was actually advocating on my behalf. The person was not filled with animus, or a desire to prevent me from writing for the publication. The editor's job was to convince the top editor to invest in me and my vision of Bill Cosby. The top editor was only willing to do that if the investment was made in someone the magazine knew -- such as Henry Louis Gates. (You may also see in this why I don't want to be anyone's HNIC. Ever. I don't ever want my name raised in any conversation like that.)

Two things helped me break through. The first, being vouched for by someone in a position of power who had a relationship with someone else in a position of power. I met that person when costs of investment were low: I worked for David Carr at a rate of $100 dollars a week and ten cents a word for anything I published. The first summer I worked for him, I made $1,700. I did not consider myself underpaid. This was 1996. The New Republic had just told the world that black people had evolved to be stupid, and it seemed like every week they were saying something just as racist. I was at Howard University, surrounded by a community of brilliant black people, cut off from the Ivies. None of them had the contacts or the resources to reply. They just had to take it. I can't tell you how much that angered me. I was made in that moment. And when I got my first break in writing, I didn't think about being ripped off. I thought about whipping ass. I haven't changed.

The second thing was the destruction of the monopoly on publication by gate-keepers. When Yglesias wrote me, I didn't care a whit about payment. I cared about a world wherein writers wrote stories like this, and no black people were around to answer. Matt didn't have to ask himself whether I was worth investing in. He just had to like what I did. What we call "paying for work" in magazines is certainly that. But for those of us trying to break in, it also meant a system of soliciting sponsorship rooted in a finite budget. In order for me to fight with people, some white male had to believe enough to put up funds. Matt didn't have to put up any funds. And now everyone got to fight. Some of the writers I most admire -- Jamelle Bouie, Adam Serwer, Gene Demby -- advanced themselves, in part, by writing for free in the form of blogging. These people are warriors. And fifteen years ago -- under the system that is so lustily praised -- they would not have existed.

When I came to The Atlantic, I saw guest-posting as an opportunity, not just for black writers but for anyone who had something to say and had found themselves foiled by the sponsorship system. They too deserved to fight.

I am not saying that this is a perfect, or even ideal, system. On the contrary, an ideal system would be one in which people's labor was paid for -- regardless of color, regardless of whether they are writing "commentary" or "reporting," regardless of whether they are established or not. It would be paid for because their ideas deserve to be heard.

What I am asking you to do is to avoid an appeal to a more noble past. I lived there. It wasn't noble. It was fucked up. Like right now is fucked up. When you ask me to show solidarity with writers who aren't being paid, you should also ask yourself what solidarity white magazine writers have shown over the years with struggling black writers who could not break in. You are appalled that Nate Thayer was once offered $125,000 to write for The Atlantic, and was then offered nothing. Fair enough. Are you equally appalled that there were virtually no black writers who could have gotten the same deal?

Over the past few days, I have been told that I am the "exception," that I "won the lottery." No one thinks that Thayer won the lottery when he was offered his contract. No one sees the compromised ground underneath. I am sorry this new world is not fair. I am all for doing something to make it more fair. But while we are doing so, remember something: The old world was never fair. It was war. I am, indeed, an exception to the rule. But not the rule you think.

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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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