A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013

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. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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