Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Writing For Free

I guess I am really late to this conversation but I really want to throw my hat in the ring when it comes to debates about writing for free. As someone who writes for free a lot my views are pretty typical. Writing for free is great! It is obviously a huge boon for journalism and human society in general and if you are interested in doing it you totally should. If you refuse to do it out of some strange sense of solidarity with with privileged white professional journalists or because you'd rather watch TV or go for a bike ride, well nobody is forcing you to write for free and you can totally watch TV or go for a bike ride instead of writing that blog post.

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.


  1. I agree completely. I went from $180k a year on staff at GQ to...nothin'. I now make a living writing books and freelancing online. I write lots of stuff for free.. So, well, said.

    1. Don't get me wrong, I'd much rather work as a professional journalist in the 70's than today. But I'd much rather read the news today then back then. Simply put technological change will always create winners and loosers in a dynamic economy. There used to be a lot of mom and pop video rental stores, they are all gone now. That sucks for people who used to own them or work in them, but it's not like them going away is anyone's fault. It's just the nature of technological change since the Industrial Revolution.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Deleting, but thanks for the read and writing that comment for free!

  3. So your solution to starving journalists is they should just make sure they can feed their children in another way? Are you kidding? Sure, we don't need professional journalists, let's just rely on a bunch of amateur blogger idiots to maintain some semblance of a well informed public and keep our circus of a democracy afloat. Good thinking.

    1. First of all thank you for reading my post and commenting for free on my blog. You’ve helped to make money for the people who own blogspot, and in exchange you’ve received zero dollars. As to your comment:

      “So your solution to starving journalists is they should just make sure they can feed their children in another way?” You seem to be ignorant of the journalism industry; there are literally tens of thousands of paid staff journalists all over the country that can feed their children. Mr. Thayer was offered one of these jobs by none other than the Atlantic. He refused the offer and stayed in an economic niche that has all but disappeared. I have no idea why he’s made these choices and they certainly seem very foolish to me but that’s the reality of the situation.

      “Sure, we don't need professional journalists, let's just rely on a bunch of amateur blogger idiots to maintain some semblance of a well informed public and keep our circus of a democracy afloat.” Again there are tens of thousands of staff journalists in this country that are doing this work. I’d also say Thayer’s and your take on how our economy works appears to be based on a massive category error. In a capitalist economy people are not paid for intangible idealistic reasons, they are paid for the value added that their labor power can produce. An online piece does not produce a lot of value in the form of advertising dollars, so it doesn’t make business sense to pay writers of online pieces by the word like how things used to be back in the “sell pieces of trees” days. Since editors can get content without paying anyone for it, by writing it themselves for example, they sometimes get someone to do it for free. We can argue about whether this is morally right or wrong (it's right by the way) but that's kind of pointless. The economics of the situation dictate the outcome.

      If you’d like to contribute to the discussion feel free to do so, but if you insult me again I will be removing your comments because this blog has been created by me and thus I am in charge.

  4. Sadly, in life, you get what you pay for. Most free stuff isn't very good.

  5. “Most free stuff isn't very good.” Oh yes I’d agree that there’s terrible stuff out there, but some free stuff is really good and some of the paid stuff is awful. Here’s an example from 2010. Jonathan Bernstein wrote a great take-down of a terrible Matt Bai “news analysis” piece about Michael Bloomberg running for president. Bai, the professional journalist (one of the most prominent political journalists in the country) managed to basically screw everything up. And I’m not talking about the differences between then and than.

    As he put it:

    “Yes, it's important to note that Matt Bai is completely wrong about what he calls "the rise of independents" -- we're living through a very partisan time, and there is no growing number of true independents.

    Yes, it's important to note that Bai is completely wrong about the relationship between Tea Parties and the Republicans, and MoveOn and the Democrats. He's completely wrong, too, that Barack Obama somehow proved that an independent candidate could raise lots of money; we don't know what percentage of Obama's money came from people firmly inside the Democratic Party network, but it was presumably a fairly high percentage.

    Yes, it's important to note that Bai really doesn't seem to understand what political parties are and what they do, and he doesn't understand why and how third-party candidates sometimes thrive, to the extent they do. Nor does he understand why they don't win.”

    Here the “amateur blogger” knows what he’s talking about while the “professional journalist” hasn’t a clue.

    Thanks for the comment btw.