'Lucrative Work-for-Free Opportunity'

This week Nate Thayer kicked up some dust after The Atlantic asked him to repurpose a previously published piece for our site. The editor here said that her freelance budget was spent, and that she couldn't pay Thayer:

Thanks for responding. Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can't pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that's not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested. Thanks so much again for your time. A great piece!

Thayer sent her the following response:

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free. Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them. Let me know if you have perhaps mispoken.

Thayer then took the e-mail conversation he'd had with the editor and published it, name and e-mail of the editor included. When asked about writing "for exposure" by New York magazine, Thayer said:

I don't need the exposure. What I need is to pay my fucking rent. Exposure doesn't feed my fucking children. Fuck that!" he continued, adding that he can't even afford to get online. "I actually stick my fucking computer out the window to use the neighbor's Internet connection. I simply can't make a fucking living."

When asked whether he'd warned the editor at The Atlantic before publishing her name and e-mail. Thayer said he had not, and then added:

 "I understand the position she is in and I do not know her and I am sure she is simply doing her job," said Thayer. "I would reject such a position on ethical and moral grounds, personally, which is maybe why I'm broke."
I've been watching all of this with some curiosity, mostly because, as Matt Yglesias notes over at Slate, I got my start at the online Atlantic working for free. In May of 2008 Matt wrote me a note entitled "Lucrative Work-For-Free Opportunity" with the following text:

Hey -- we don't know each other, but I've been reading and enjoying your blog since I read your great Bill Cosby piece in the Atlantic and I saw I'm on your blog roll, so I figure you probably know who I am and I might as well reach out. In part, just to say that I like your blog, but more selfishly because I'm trying to put together an elite roster of guest-bloggers to help me out the week of Memorial Day (May 27-30) when I'll be on vacation. The idea is to get a bunch of people so that nobody in particular is expected to produce much volume. I'm not in a position to offer any compensation, but I think it is a good opportunity for a newer site to get introduced to a wider audience and build traffic, and self-promotional posts about a new book aren't out of bounds. 

What do you say? 
Effectively Matt was asking me to work for exposure, much like the Atlantic editor was asking Thayer. In 2008, I was not some young fresh-faced college kid. I was 32. I had worked in print for twelve years, virtually my entire adult life. I had been on staff at the Village Voice and TIME magazine. I'd freelanced for the New York Times Magazine and had begun dipping my toe in the online water by freelancing for Slate and blogging on my own.

I made very little money freelancing. Indeed, when Matt wrote me I had just published a freelance piece for The Atlantic's print magazine. The piece paid me $16,000 -- the largest amount of money I'd ever been paid for a story. It sounds like a lot until you factor in that I had worked the story since late 2006 when I was still at TIME. I was laid off in early 2007 and spent most of that next year doing more reporting, and finishing my first book. That $16,000 was basically all I made in that one year period. 

To put it bluntly, I was -- like most freelancers -- hurting. My wife had been unerringly supportive. My son was getting older. I was considering driving a cab.

Here is what I wrote back:

I say I'd love to do it, but I need a day to juggle some things and make sure I can. My main concern is I've got a couple pieces do right around then, and I need to make sure I'm not over-committing. You and Andrew post a TON, whereas a good day for me is probably, five or six posts. What would you be looking for from each person, in terms of daily post rate? And wouyld I be able to cross-post from my blog or would you want exclusivity? 

The compensation is a non-issue for me.
Matt agreed to cross-posting and I did it. And it was delightful. It was especially delightful because there other professional journalists there with me -- Kay Steiger, Kathy G, Isaac Chotiner, and the awesome Alyssa Rosenberg.

I agreed to write for Matt because I wanted exposure. I was not a "young journalist." This was not my chance to break into the profession. What I was was a product of a time when you could be brimming with ideas and have no place to say them. People who talk about "gate-keepers" have mostly had the good fortune of living inside the castle walls. I lived outside. I had a style and voice that had never seemed to fit anywhere (except my first job at Washington City Paper.) 

I could not convince editors that what I was curious about was worth writing about. Every day I would watch ideas die in my head. When I was laid-off from TIME, the lack of a job was bad. But what hurt more was that this story, which I felt in my heart to be so important, was going to die. What the internet offered was the chance to let all of those ideas compete in the arena, and live and die on the merits. And Matt was offering a bigger arena. I was ecstatic.
Matt wasn't the only person to ask me to "work for exposure." Earlier that same year Talking Points Memo had done the same, and I was ecstatic. I was ecstatic any time anyone took my ideas seriously enough to offer them a platform. Most people never get that. 

Over the years I've had writers come here and "work for exposure" with some regularity. My friend the historian Jelani Cobb has done yeoman's work, some of it based on actual reporting. Judah Grunstein was nice enough to allow me to publish an e-mail, which I thought had a lot of substance, as a piece. Aaron Schatz from Football Outsiders has been here. The great historian Thomas Sugrue has come into this space and done awesome work. So has Adam Serwer. So has Brendan Koerner. So has Ayelet Waldman. So has Mark Kleiman. So has Michael Chabon. So has Shani Hilton.Last year we brought historian Kate Masur, film critic A.O. Scott and writer Tony Horwitz together to discuss Lincoln. None of them were paid. 

And lest you think The Atlantic is somehow unusual, ask yourself how often you've seen writers/thinkers/historians/intellectuals etc. in online "conversation." Ask yourself how often you've seen guest-bloggers at sites like The Daily Dish. Do you believe these people to be paid? Do you believe them to not actually be doing work? Tomorrow I will go on television, a prospect that I try (lately unsuccessfully) to avoid. I try to avoid it because it is work. I have to prepare information that I hope to provide. I have to think about what I'm saying. I have to make sure I know what I'm talking about. I have to tell my nervous self to shut up. No one pays me--or any other guests--for these contributions. We work "for exposure."

Nate Thayer wrote a long reported piece and was being asked to chop down that piece, and provide it for this platform. He was asked to do this for free. That would have been work. All journalists have had to chop down longer pieces into something shorter. Some of us have had to do it for whole books. I assure you that the time it takes to cut 5,000 words to 1200 words is nowhere close to the time it takes to blog here twice a day for a week. And as someone who's done straight reporting, as well as opinion writing, I can also assure you that the notion that doing one well is "less work" than doing the other well is very wrong. The Lincoln roundtable was hard. We had to consider each other's thoughts and criticisms and engage them seriously. Each time Kate, Tony S., or Tony H. wrote I felt the game getting harder, and each piece after became harder. When I write op-eds for the Times, I often start writing a week in advance, and spend hours each day getting myself closer to what I want to say. Often I have to consult with historians or with other books. It's work.

Writing is always hard. I understand why someone might not want to do it for exposure. I've certainly had professional journalists like Thayer turn me down. But those journalists have also taken the title of "professional" seriously enough to not print my e-mail address and all of my private correspondence without asking me. Indeed, it's the high morality and offense-taking which most puzzles me about all this, given that writers, all around us, are "working for exposure," given that every one of us is participating in a system in which they consume for free.

I think journalists should be paid for their work. Even here at The Atlantic, I think it would be a good idea to provide a nominal amount, if only as a token of respect for the work. But more than that, I want more jobs at more publications wherein journalists have the basics of their lives (salary, health care, benefits) taken care of. Whatever The Atlantic isn't, right now, the fact is that it currently employs more journalists than it ever has in its entire history. There are real questions about whether we will always be able to do that in this new world. But that is landscape on which all media currently tread. It's not perfect. But it never was.