The whole thing started after Nate Thayer, a professional freelance journalist, wrote an epic series of posts about how outraged he is that some junior editor from the Atlantic had written him an email asking him if he would like to showcase a blog post he wrote (for free) on the Atlantic. She also pointed out that she couldn't cut him a check because her freelance budget was all tapped out at that particular time.
I feel Nate's pain, it really is hard out there for freelancers, but I think his response was profoundly unprofessional and kind of jerky. It also will probably lead this editor to think that trying to work with professional freelancers is a fool's errand and lead her to stop showcasing their work and paying them. From Nate's email:
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.Don't be afraid to tell us what you really think Nate!
Honestly I think the whole focus on writing “for free” or “unpaid labor” is a bit of a red herring. It’s not important to “be paid” so much as it is important to be paid enough to be able to support yourself if you want to be a full time freelancer. Looking back on The Great Nate Thayer Freakout of 2013, if that editor had replied with something like “oh Nate great news, I moved some money around and we can afford to pay you! Would you prefer a check for 12 dollars or 11 cents for every 1,000 unique visitor’s your piece generates here at The Atlantic?” Thayer probably would have gotten even more mad. Why? Because it’s not the principle that he’s not being paid anything, although I can see how someone who considers themselves a professional journalist could get upset by the principle here, it’s that Nate is not getting paid enough to, as he put it to New York Magazine “… pay my f@#$%^& rent. Exposure doesn't feed my f@#$%^& children. F@#$ that!”
So if I can be a white male privileged jerk here and get in some mansplaining: under the old “sell pieces of trees” model of journalism there was a niche for professional freelancers who would write for lots of places and get paid by the word. It was always a small privileged group, the gatekeepers were few and far between and a lot of people never made much money at it. Out of the model came much great journalism, and also a lot of garbage as well. But as publishing has moved online this particular economic watering hole if you will has basically dried up. So if you want to try and making a living as a freelancer you’ll probably not succeed and thus you should only do it if you are independently wealthy or have a spouse/partner who is willing and able to be the sole breadwinner for your family for long periods of time. You can however try and get a job as a staff journalist, or get a regular nine to five gig and write on the side. In fact, Nate even admits as much when he explains to the editor that, "Ironically, a few years back I was offered a staff job with the Atlantic to write 6 articles a year for a retainer of $125,000, with the right to publish elsewhere in addition..." Since Nate's screed about the evils of the Atlantic became a internet sensation, that even requited the freaking editor-in-chief to issue a statement defending the Atlantic, that offer probably doesn't still stand. But you sure showed that twenty-something junior editor Nate!
The new online model of journalism sucks and is cosmically unfair to professional freelancers who want to earn a decent amount for their writing, but it’s just the reality of how the new economics of the business work. As I see it freelancers should either go into this with both eyes open about this new reality or try another road. Or not, just make sure you can "feed your f@#$%^& children" in some other way.