The biz ain't what it used to be, but then again, for most people, it never really was.
Man, I feel everyone on how scary it is to be in journalism. When I made the transition from a would-be fiction career paired with writing research reports into full-time journalism, I nearly drowned in a sea of debt and self-doubt. I was writing posts on my own blog, which almost nobody read, but it did, with an assist from my now-wife, get me a couple gigs writing for some known websites. I got paid $12 a post by one. The other was generous, and I got $50. I was grateful as hell to have this toehold in the world. I remember walking down Bartlett Street in the Mission and saying to myself, out loud, "I'm a writer. I'm a writer! I'M A WRITER!" It was all I'd wanted to be since I was 16 years old. And I was making it.
Except I was not making it. Every day that went by, I was draining the little bit of money I had. I started selling anything I'd acquired to that point in my life that had any value. After the last Craigslist purchaser walked away with my stuff, I stood there in the living room of our apartment staring at the books and crying.
I had so little money and so much debt that any time I had to go to an ATM, I was seized with horrible anxiety. I practically could only do it drunk. You know those ATMs that display your balance EVEN WHEN YOU TELL THEM NOT TO? Well, I hate those ones. I would take my money and as it displayed my balance on the screen, I would carefully unfocus my eyes so I couldn't really tell how little I had. The credit crunch was happening and I didn't have any credit left. My loving, wonderful, brilliant parents were going through a rough patch, too, and they couldn't help, either. I was tortured by the idea that I'd taken on this new career when my family needed me. I asked myself whether I should have stayed at the hedge fund job that I took right out of college and hated so much I quit before the summer ended.
I sometimes hoped that the whole world would collapse -- it certainly seemed possible back then -- because my debt would be swept away along with the rest of civilization. My dad had once said, right during the credit crisis, "Don't worry, we'll all be potato farmers soon anyway." And I would think about that and it would *make me happy*. At least then I wouldn't worry that I was going to be torn apart at the seams by the demands of a work life that couldn't even keep me afloat in an expensive city. I really, really resented people who could count on financial support from places unknown. They didn't seem to get how hard it was to keep it together when you might drown under your own debt at any minute.
Like an idiot, I figured I could write a book and use the advance to pay off my debt. That kind of worked, though the process of doing the book melted my brain. I was so tired and my mind was so filled with words that I would forget where I was, almost coming to in supermarket aisles wondering why I was staring at mangoes. I hate mangoes. But at least the money gave me some breathing room. I could approach an ATM without feeling weak in the knees.
So, all this to say: I know the pressure these debts can put on you. I know how angry it makes you, at yourself, at other people, at the world. Why didn't I save more? Why did I buy that thing? Why did I have to pick up that tab when I didn't have any goddamn money? How could I support a family like this? Why won't the world recognize my talent is worth more!?
And so when Nate Thayer published emails with our newest editor (second week on the job), I can see how that might happen. How you might finish writing your last email, "No offense taken," and then staring at your blog's CMS that night, decide, you know, what? I'm tired of writing for peanuts, because fuck that. And if a young journalist in her first week on the job was part of the collateral damage, hey, the world just isn't fair, kid. Pay it forward.
I get it, but it was still a nasty thing to do.
I'm glad Thayer's post has garnered him lots of attention. He is a great journalist and I genuinely hope the spotlight gets him more work. Don't get me wrong. I'm still incensed by what he did, but I want journalists to prosper because I believe, like he does, that what we do is vital.
Let me show my colors here. I am an Atlantic person. I love this place. I feel it in my bones. If I open up one of our musty tomes at the office, I can get sucked in for an hour just looking at the ads, or marveling at the eloquence of W.E.B. DuBois. When I look back at old Ta-Nehisi posts or see Fallows in the halls, I can get emotional. I was watching Ken Burns' National Parks documentary, and he notes, offhandedly, how stories that ran in our magazine helped preserve Yosemite for future generations. He talks about how we published this wild holy man, John Muir, thereby promoting the idea of National Parks, which as Burns' rightly argues is one of the best and most populist ideas to ever become law in this country. These are my people. These are my colors. This is my institution, my connection to a legacy and a lineage. And if you come after one of us, if you come after it, I am not going to take it lying down.
And so ... Twitter was a contact sport yesterday. I practically put in my old mouthgard from football practice. Seemed like every reload brought another attacker and it was instinct, really, to keep them away from my QB, Olga. I know how to block. I know how to hit. You can just see me at my computer, sweating, steam (or is it smoke?) coming out of my ears. Bring it. And I hate that mode. I hate it. It makes me feel bad and say fuck a lot and I TYPE IN ALL CAPS. I want to do those pushups where you clap in-between because I just get so much something, emotion, intensity, adrenaline, running in my veins. (Much love to Becca Rosen, my brilliant, grounded lieutenant for telling me to put down the twitter and pet the kitty and go for a run. That was a good call, as always, BR.)
But that's not what this should all be about, if by "all," I mean the maelstrom kicked up by Thayer. Because the truth is, I don't have a great answer for Nate Thayer, or other freelancers who are trying to make it out there. It was never an easy life, but there were places who would pay your expenses to go report important stories and compensate you in dollars per word, not pennies. You could research and craft. And there were outlets -- not a ton, but some -- that could send you a paycheck that would keep you afloat.
Then the digital transition came. The ad market, on which we all depend, started going haywire. Advertisers didn't have to buy The Atlantic. They could buy ads on networks that had dropped a cookie on people visiting The Atlantic. They could snatch our audience right out from underneath us. And besides, who knew how well online ads worked anyway? I mean, who knows how well any ads work at all? But convention had established that print ads were a thing people paid X amount for, and digital ads became something people paid 0.10X for.
So far, there isn't a single model for our kind of magazine that appears to work.
And while advertisers paid less, there was always more stuff for people to read. All kinds of writing poured onto the web. The median post was much worse than a random story plucked from the top tier of magazines, but the best stuff was and is as good as anything. Drawing on that huge base, there is always a lot of "best stuff" to read now.
The main way to sell ads is to go "cross-platform" pairing digital with print and whatever else (events or video, say). This is what "the marketplace" is asking for. So you need ad inventory online. In some cases, like ours or Wired's, you need a lot of ad inventory online. It is a little more complicated than this, but that means you need page views, and if you want page views, you need people coming to your site. You need unique visitors.
If you can show me a way that this can be reversed for a large general-interest magazine, I would love to hear about it. So far, there isn't a single model for our kind of magazine that appears to work.
Seriously, though, what's a magazine like The Atlantic (or The New Yorker or The New Republic or Harper's or The New York Times Magazine) to do then? Could the print model -- smallish editorial staff, large writer pool paid by the word -- work online?
Let me give you this hypothetical. You are a digital editor at a fine publication. You are in charge of writing some stuff, commissioning some stuff, editing some stuff. Maybe you have an official traffic goal, or (more likely), you want to be awesome, qualitatively and quantitatively. A lot of people in this business are driven from the inside out, and you almost have to be given the daily demands. You have to want to be jacked into the Internet all day long, every day. This is not the life most journalists imagined when they were looking at 1970s magazines. In any case, you want to crush, as I would call it.
And your total budget for the year is $12,000, a thousand bucks a month. (We could play this same game with $36,000, too. The lessons will remain the same.) What do you do?
Here are some options:
1. Write a lot of original pieces yourself. (Pro: Awesome. Con: Hard, slow.)
2. Take partner content. (Pro: Content! Con: It's someone else's content.)
3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money. (Pro: Maybe good. Con: Often bad.)
4. Find people who are willing to write for no money. (Pro: Free. Con: Crapshoot.)
5. Aggregate like a mug. (Pro: Can put smartest stuff on blog. Con: No one will link to it.)
6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content. (Pro: Content. Con: You suck.)
Don't laugh. These are actual content strategies out there in the wilds of the Internet. I am sure you have encountered them.
Myself, I'm very partial to one and five. I hate two and six. For my own purposes here, let's say you do, too, and throw them out.
That leaves three and four, which I want to discuss here.
Let's stipulate two things: 1) I want people who want to make a living writing to be able to do so. 2) I do not think it is very easy to make a living writing freelance for digital-only publications for the reasons described below.
Most sites -- save the NYT, Drudge, and a handful of others -- can't send massive amounts of readers to stories. Traffic causality runs the other way: Individual stories live or die out there in the social world and that brings readers to theatlantic.com. A post has to succeed on its own, although a bigger brand, with more social tools and bigger homepage treatment can give it what I call "activation energy," the necessary but not sufficient first push into the web.
This is actually a great argument for long form and other quality pieces of analysis or reportage. People share them because they are definitive or delightful or interesting. And that brings good to the site.
But here's the weird thing: While the top six or seven viral hits might make up 15-20 percent of a given month's traffic, the falloff after that is steep. And once you're out of the top 20 or 30 stories, a really, really successful story is only driving 0.5 percent or less of a place like The Atlantic's monthly traffic. But that's the best-case scenario. In most cases, even great reported stories will fizzle, not spark. They will bring in 1,000 or 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 visitors. You'd need thousands of these to make a big site go.
I can already see some old-school journalists tearing up. This poor kid, he looks at the numbers and ergo, that's all he cares about. "Traffic," they spit. And I get it. The word has been used to bludgeon you into dumb shit. To put great stories on the shelf to build slideshows. To give up on quality and focus on quantity. I do get all that. But that's precisely why we (journalists) must understand the numbers! The business side of any publication knows them inside and out. If we don't understand how to tell good stories with our own data, who do you think wins any argument that involves data, which they all do? You can know money is important without succumbing to the idea that cash rules everything around you.)
Let me try to convince you of this: We can have binocular vision. We can understand these numbers. And we can know that the mission of a place like The Atlantic is to bring moral purpose, interesting ideas, great arguments, and excellent reporting to the world and to drive these stories as far as they will go into the public consciousness.
Furthermore, looking at the numbers teaches you about the social reality of the Internet. In a very real sense, unless you look at the numbers, you do not know what (the dynamic sociotechnical space that is) the Internet looks like. Your view lets you see its boulevards and parks, but it is like a photograph from the 1850s when the exposure times were too long to capture moving people. Your Paris is empty.
OK, sorry, I will wipe the spittle off my screen now.
What do the numbers mean for an editor's strategy?
Here are the basics:
One, you gotta take a lot of shots. Hypothetically, let's say you devote an entire month to one single story, betting the house on it. In the very best circumstance, a viral hit heard round the world with a big traditional media push, you'd do maybe 800,000 uniques. And then you'd have to do the same thing the next month. In practice, no one can do this. Because you can't predict that viral hit. While the best stuff tends to do far, far better than average, it is not always the best stuff that hits virally. You can't control all the variables of the world's attention and some dudes at Reddit who really like stories about legalizing pot seeing *your particular story* about legalizing pot. In practical terms in the social world, there ain't no levers to pull! We write, we hope, we pray, we tweet. And that's it. So, you need to post frequently to make luck more likely to strike you.
Second, you want to become a node. And to become a node, you need to do things that inculcate trust from your readers, and you need to keep doing that over and over. In the digital world, we build the distribution networks day by day, and if you don't feed them, they shrink. So again, you need some basic level of posts.
Third, you need to do great stuff. But hell, you're posting all the time! How do you do great stuff? You find ways to optimize between speed and quality. Everyone has their own coping strategies. And it's always gonna be a tradeoff. In my view, you want to do the fast things as fast as possible so you can slow cook the other stuff. You trust your readers to know which is which (because they get it).
And where do freelancers fit in all this? Think about all these numbers. You are going to need dozens of successful posts, and because you can't control precisely what succeeds, that means even a small blog, with one person at the helm, is going to need, say, 100-150 posts a month.
If you've got $1000, that means you can count on paying 10 people $100. That gets you about 10 percent of the way. And now you've got to edit and handhold 10 people and (probably) take a lot of shit from people who think they are (and in fact, are) worth more than that. Run this same scenario with $3,000 a month. Or $4,000. (Perhaps you would decide, as we have, to hire another staffer instead of devoting $48,000 in freelance money to get 40 percent of the way to what you want.)
Or you could pay one person $1000, or $1/word for a great reported story about something awesome that you are almost sure will be a hit. OK, now you're to, say, 5 percent of your traffic goal and you're out of money. BUT THAT ONE PERSON IS PSYCHED. Run this same analysis with more money again. You can never get there paying a dollar a word, no matter how you scale up the money. And, your frequency is declining rapidly. You are becoming a less important node.
You have to want to be jacked into the Internet all day long, every day. This is not the life most journalists imagined when they were looking at 1970s magazines.
Perhaps you try to cut a deal with two people to blog for you several times a week for $500/month. That's 24 posts. And that almost seems workable as you scale up the money. In fact, we do this at The Atlantic and so do many other publications. But my perception is that no one feels satisfied with this arrangement. It's all the pressure of a full-time gig without the rewards. And on the editor side, the production tends to be uneven. The worst part is: It's hard to make someone part of your editorial mission when they're in this kind of position. You can't tell them about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Truman Capote and have them feel that they are part of this tradition.
No matter how you slice it with a small freelance budget, paying people is going to get you a very small amount of the way to your own internal or external goals. And if you think it is the ad-supported model, look at how Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish is doing. They are going to support a staff of five with the money they collect.
And so we return to the main topic at hand: what about people who write for free?
Let me state two things here. One, this can never be the backbone of an editorial strategy. It just won't work unless you screw everybody, including your readers. Two, I have cut all kinds of deals myself on this topic. I don't like to ask people for work that we can't pay for. But I'm not willing to take a hardline and prevent someone who I think is great from publishing with us without pay. My main point and (to be normative about it) the main point in these negotiations is this: What do you, the writer, get out of this?
But the fact is, a lot of people *do* get stuff out of it. They're changing careers into journalism, say. Or they're a scholar who wants to reach a broader audience. Or they've got a book coming out. Or they're a kid who begs you (begs you!) to take a flier on them, and you have to spend way too much time with her, but it's worth it because you believe she's talented, even if you know the story isn't going to garner a big audience.
All this to say: As a rule of thumb, it sucks to take free work from people who are freelancing for a living. Agreed. But this is not a law of the universe and I would hate to see this imposed on me by anybody out of an obligation to a theoretical journalism where this hurts everybody. Can't we take it case by case?
Some people reading this might say: This new world of digital journalism sucks. Hey, I agree sometimes! Some days, I'd much rather be out reporting on the latest world-shaking event that I discovered. I'd love to take six months (or hell, six weeks) writing one story while pulling in six figures. SIGN ME THE EFF UP FOR THIS JOB.
But the economics of these jobs were always bizarre. Many magazines have been funded by wealthy people who were willing to take moderate losses. (Thank you to all of you.) Or Conde Nast could suck money out of its newspapers to feed into its glorious magazine operations. Nevermind that back at the newspapers they kept people working for nothing at podunk papers that also happened to make crazy bank with their classified ads. Any time I imagine the glamorous world of writing for The Atlantic or The New Yorker or Harper's in 1968 or 1978, I remember that most journalists were going to homecoming football games and writing about the king and queen. Most journalists were humping around the local garden show and talking about trends in petunia horticulture. Most journalists were doing things that no one really wanted to do, but they did it anyway for money and for a shot at the show which almost never came. I respect the hell out of those journalists working at those local papers. They were doing the stuff that, at least within certain empires, that let the magazine editors have lunch at Balthazar's (or insert actual appropriate New York lunch spot).
And as for the magazines themselves, they had relatively small staffs of people who stuck around for a long, long time. Who wouldn't? You could pay good money for great work from awesome writers, and your friends, and your friends who were awesome writers. They loved you for it. But who really got those jobs anyway? Looking at the staff rosters, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been me, back then.
So, yeah, the economics of our business are terrible in some ways. And like everything else, the worst of it falls on the workers, the people making the widgets, doing the journalism, making the beds. The money gets sucked upwards and the work gets pushed down.
But you know, even when you have a generous owner who is not trying to make a gazillion dollars and skim the cream, this game is still really, really hard. You still have limited funds. You still can't pay freelancers a living wage. The only strategy that makes sense is to hire some people. Then, you learn from each other (thanks, Megan Garber!). You work hard. You write good stuff. You comfort each other when people are huge a-holes in the comments. You catch typos for each other. You come up with jokes on Gchat. You figure out who has the golden touch with headlines (Derek Thompson is a certifiable genius at this). You make friends on the print side (Kate Julian! I know I owe you another Q&A candidate) and try to learn their game. You stare at Chartbeat and ask yourself, "Why am I doing this? It is two in the morning and I should be asleep and even my cat is giving me the stinkeye."
And then, you hope hope hope that this amounts to something sustainable. Because I owe it to this institution to help ensure its survival. I'll be damned if The Atlantic dies with my generation, if all that is left of it when I leave is some moldering books and cold servers. Quite possibly, I would get to the gates of heaven and Ida Tarbell would be sitting there like, "Wait, wait, *you're* one of those guys who let The Atlantic die?" And poof: trapdoor in the clouds, burning in hell for all eternity. Actually, strike that, I'd probably get stuck in purgatory rewriting press releases about corporate sustainability, forced to eat tuna sandwiches every day for lunch.
Anyway, the biz ain't what it used to be, but then again, for most people, it never really was. And, to you Mr. Thayer, all I can say is I wish I had a better answer.