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.