When it comes to the recent online tussle between journalist Nate Thayer and the Atlantic Monthly, I find myself sympathizing with Thayer's point while still having my reservations.
This week, Thayer reprinted on his blog an exchange between he and an editor at the Atlantic (natethayer.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-freelance-journalist-2013) that set off a firestorm.
The basic story is that Thayer had written an article for NK News, which covers North Korea, that the Atlantic inquired about running a shortened version of -- whittled down from 4,300 words to 1,200. An exchange ensued that apparently was short on details -- this included a conversation on the phone with the editor -- and it was only in the final stages that compensation was mentioned.
The editor explained to him, "We unfortunately can't pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month."
To say that Thayer went ballistic is both an overstatement and a clear reportage of the situation. His tone was calm, but his action was to finger-wag the editor about how he can't pay bills and feed children by doing work for free, and then post the entire exchange, including the editor's name and contact info, online.
Now, I've been at this game for long enough to know that regardless of your gripe, that is not professional behavior. At all. And doing something like that undercuts the basic premise of your argument that a publication the stature of the Atlantic Monthly should either be prepared to pay for work or not ask. It's indeed the editor's fault for asking at all -- in the exchange she mentions that she has spent her freelance money. You have to wonder with no money in her pocket why she would ask for services that are normally paid.
On the other hand, there is something mentioned by Thayer that I find telling: He complained that just a few years ago, he was put on a retainer of $125,000 for writing six article in one year for the Atlantic. That popped off my screen and slapped me in the head. I barely know professional writers who make that amount in less than a four-year period.
That's when it occurred to me that Thayer's experience was one of a high-level freelancer who was suddenly struck down by a moment of reality. What he experienced is what many writers experience all the time. The Internet age has made access to work easier than ever before, but that's also widened the pool of available writers. That influx of freelancers has given publications and editors the opportunity to shop around to the lowest bidder, and therefore made the price of a written piece plummet. That's what happens with services -- the more people offering, the less it's worth.
It can be argued that what you're paying for with the highest compensation is professional, experienced writing. That's certainly true, but such an elitist argument doesn't always fly. I've known journalists who even after a couple decades aren't anything special, while extremely-gifted amateurs and beginners wait in line. This has especially stricken the field of reviewers -- the writing dream job that has been flooded with knowledgeable nobodies who know just as much about film, theater, art, and music as anyone who went to school for it.
The problem isn't that the Atlantic won't pay journalists like Thayer to do a stripped down article, the problem is that it's near impossible for someone starting in the profession to make a living very easily in the current world of writing. The median income for a journalist is currently at 34K, the average starting salary for staff is now $12 an hour.
For the 50 percent of journalists who make less than the median, there are a significant portion who make little money through multiple jobs and clients -- a lot of legwork for not a lot of income. At the beginning of that ladder, especially these days, is a lot of work for free in order to just build up your clippings.
Grim, honest career advice to you kiddies out there: If you're planning on a good, steady income that covers your living expenses and is proportionate to the amount of work you put into it, writing, especially journalism, may not be the job for you.
And so while I agree entirely with what Thayer says to that editor at the Atlantic, I see the issue as far more complicated than he lets on. There are plenty of us out here who cannot clear $125k a year yet keep at it and do our best. I'd like to see the Nate Thayers of the world advocate for the little guys more often.
John Seven is the Transcript's arts and entertainment editor. He blogs at blogs.thetranscript.com/arts.