Not Working for Free, But Thanks For Thinking of Me

Since I allude now and then to the rather straightened condition of the print/online journalism world these days–particularly for freelancers–I just had to give a shout-out to Nate Thayer for posting an exchange he had with a major publication interested in getting him to write a customized version of a background piece he had done on the Dennis Rodman excursion to North Korea.

After some preliminary back and forth by email, here’s how it went:

Hi Olga: What did you have in mind for length, storyline, deadline, and fees for the basketball diplomacy piece. Or any other specifics. I think we can work something out, but I want to make sure I have the time to do it properly to meet your deadline, so give me a shout back when you have the earliest chance.

best,

Nate Thayer

From the Atlantic:

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!

From me:

Thanks Olga:

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….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.

best,

Nate

From the Atlantic:

Hi Nate — I completely understand your position, but our rate even for original, reported stories is $100. I am out of freelance money right now, I enjoyed your post, and I thought you’d be willing to summarize it for posting for a wider audience without doing any additional legwork. Some journalists use our platform as a way to gain more exposure for whatever professional goals they might have, but that’s not right for everyone and it’s of course perfectly reasonable to decline.

I’m not passing this on to knock The Atlantic in particular, and in fact, this exchange was not at all unusual, as I can attest personally from my own experience as a freelancer. Aside from the particular agonies of the journalism profession, the lesson here is that in any economic context where employers have all the power, and the supply of workers is almost limitless, even the very nicest people on earth (much less those who are not so nice) feel no particular compunction about being unreasonable. This is why in a free market economy we need labor laws, unions, minimum wages, and a social safety net. The Randian concept of individual workers freely contracting with free employers and thereby establishing an entirely objective value for work is often just a cruel joke.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.