Two Thoughts On The State Of Freelance Journalism

Journalist Nate Thayer kicked things off by published an e-mail exchange between him and an The Atlantic editor in which he was asked to rewrite an article he had written elsewhere for free. The editor also wrote that she could only pay $100 for original pieces.

Alexis Madrigal, of The Atlantic, responded pointing out that this was a new editor.

Andrew Sulivan points out the damage this does to The Atlantic‘s brand following the recent Church of Scientology sponsored content fiasco.

Paul Carr outlined some of the reasons that journalists need to get paid and called on publishers to reject advertising in favor of permeable pay walls and ad-free print editions.

A couple things that occur to me that I haven’t seen elsewhere:

1. There may be a certain amount of rosy retrospection going on here. I don’t doubt that it’s harder now for journalists, freelance or otherwise. But I’m not sure there’s any golden age to go back to. I’m too young to have any real perspective on this. But I do remember hearing an interview with Seymour Hersh on Democracy Now (though I can’t find the transcript for this episode) talking about how he actually had a hard time finding someone to publish his story on the My Lai Massacre. If I recall correctly, he’d already written the story. He wasn’t looking for someone to finance the story, just to pay him and publish it. Eventually the Dispatch News Service published it, a few newspapers picked it up and, as they say, is history. But I take it the Dispatch wasn’t exactly his first choice of publishers for the story that went on to earn him a Pulitzer.

2. Among the various reasons that journalists need to get paid — most of which are covered by Carr above — is the reason that we pay congress people so well. That is, you want them to be financially independent enough that they don’t need outside streams of income. Journalists shouldn’t have to choose between making rent or taking a side gig that might introduce a conflict of interest. No, a $60k a year salary sure as hell doesn’t guarantee that a journo won’t be temped by the opportunity to make some compromising money on the side. I’m sure Malcolm Gladwell has handsome salary at the New Yorker and that doesn’t stop him from earning big money giving talks to big corporations.

But if you can’t make rent or put food on the table, then you’ve got to find money somewhere. It could just be a good honest day job or moonlighting gig. But with every white paper for a political organization, every guest blog post for a tech startup and every corporate consulting gig makes you just a that much less independent of faction.

1 Comment

  1. While I can sympathize with Alexis Madrigal’s quandary, the fact remains the Atlantic and many other publications created their own Prometheus Conundrum. Of course publishers had to jump into the digital fray… or at least felt they had to, because everyone else was telling them to and they didn’t want to be left behind. Of course, then again, lemmings jump off cliffs too.

    Publishers have to decide if this digital model is really what they want. That is, a shadow of journalism. As Madrigal pointed out, the scenarios they are faced with to simply fill white pixel space, usually leaves them with an inferior product, unable to lick the boot heels of their print edition.

    So was the decision by publishers to dive into the digital domain from fear that their paper based edition would eventually disappear? Sure, many magazines have gone under and even Newsweek has succumbed to the internet black hole of words and images.

    On the other hand, I see no lack of magazines on the shelves of bookstores and newsstands. They may not make the money they used to, but they do still survive. In the case of some, like National Geographic, there’s just no way I’m going to view that on a Kindle.

    It begs the questions, “Is the digital magazine a failed model?” I think for some publications like Huff Post and Buzz Feed, they will probably work. After all they were made for it and Ariana Huffington held no allusions about what it would be. It wasn’t going to be the Atlantic, New Yorker or for that matter The New York Times. It’s an opinion sheet with some news here and there as a catchy header.

    It probably wouldn’t have surprised Nate Thayer if the Huff Post had asked to reprint his work for free… but the Atlantic? Really!?! Thayer’s reaction is no surprise when he first got the call from a publication with the credentials of the Atlantic, only to find they were wanted to “Huff” him. I’d be shocked too.

    This will probably work itself out over the next decade. Some publications will go back to what they were, others like Huff Post will still be online with no qualms about what they are and others like NSFWCORP may bridge the gap. Independent journalism may even survive in the meantime, but will the journalists?

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