This week, The Atlantic became the stage for some very interesting action in the journalism world. It all began with a blog post, written by a very well-established freelance journalist, Nate Thayer, titled “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist–2013.” The post shows an email exchange between Thayer and The Atlantic‘s new global editor, Olga Khazan, who contacted him to ask if he would like to reproduce a version of an article he recently wrote for a different publication. She politely asked for 1,200 words by the end of the week.
The catch? They weren’t going to pay him anything.
Thayer wrote back, pretty heatedly.
“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,” he wrote. “…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.”
Well, he has been in the business for 25 years. So he feels okay being frank. Though I am also a freelance journalist at this point in time (albeit a beginning one so there’s really no comparison), I wouldn’t dream of saying no an Atlantic request to republish my work. But honestly, Khazan’s emails to Thayer sounded sort of like she was speaking to a young, aspiring journalist at the beginning of his or her career like me, rather than a seasoned, award-winning one.
Thayer’s blog post went viral (check out Muck Rack’s collection of journalists’ Twitter musings here) and generated a lot of interesting debate over a) the state of journalism today and b) the practice of freelancing.
Both a) and b) have been on my mind a lot lately, as I’ve been desperately searching for any and all job openings, freelance opportunities and/or internships that will take me. Financial compensation for my work is the last thing on my mind. I’ve never had a paid internship, but I have had five unpaid ones.I’m currently writing part-time for a website that pays $5 per article. And I’m even considering taking an internship for which I would shell out 70 bucks to enroll in a local community college independent study class so that my potential employers could have some form of official compensation (I’m no longer a student, so they can’t give me course credit through my university and they definitely aren’t paying me).
Anyway, The Atlantic‘s senior editor, Alexis Madrigal, responded to Thayer in a piece posted on the magazine’s website this afternoon. He appropriately dubbed it, “A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor–2013.” It is incredibly interesting. He directly addresses Thayer’s blog post and explains how he had to go to bat for The Atlantic on Twitter. (His words: “I practically put in my old mouthgard from football practice.”)
He also talks about how journalism has changed, the struggle to make money, the actual economics of journalism and what the media’s digital transition means for editors, freelancers and everyone who still wants to be a part of the journalism world. The piece is so honest and gave me, as an aspiring journalist somewhat unsure about the world I want so desperately to be a part of and succeed in, so much insight into that world. I’ve been given a ton of advice on the topic but for some reason, it didn’t completely click until I read all of this tonight.
For anyone who cares or is even the slightest interested in the state of the modern media, Thayer’s blog post and Madrigal’s response are must reads. It definitely gave me a ton of food for thought (so much so that the second I finished reading I headed here to write about it). Kudos to Thayer for sparking the conversation and to Madrigal for taking the opportunity to write something truly honest and meaningful on the subject.
It’s a fucking rough world out there for journalists at all points in their careers. But that doesn’t make Thayer or Madrigal want to be a part of it any less. Or me.