Freelancing In The Digital Age

Earlier this week, freelance journalist Nate Thayer publicized an attempt by The Atlantic to get him to repurpose one of his recent articles into a new post, an offer he vehemently rejected once he learned they were not willing to pay him for it. Felix uses the case to take a broader look at the online freelance journalism scene:

The exchange has particular added poignancy because it’s not so many years since the Atlantic offered Thayer $125,000 to write six articles a year for the magazine. How can the Atlantic have fallen so far, so fast — to go from offering Thayer $21,000 per article a few years ago, to offering precisely zero now?

The simple answer is just the size of the content hole: the Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week. When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down. …

[In digital], everybody does everything — including writing, and once you start working there, you realize pretty quickly that things go much more easily and much more quickly when pieces are entirely produced in-house than when you outsource the writing part to a freelancer. At a high-velocity shop like Atlantic Digital, freelancers just slow things down — as well as producing all manner of back-end headaches surrounding invoicing and the like. The result is that Atlantic Digital’s freelancer budget is minuscule, and that any extra marginal money going into the editorial budget is overwhelmingly likely to be put into hiring new full-time staff, rather than beefing up the amount spent on freelancers.

Alexis sees both sides of the freelancer coin:

[T]he truth is, I don’t have a great answer for Nate Thayer, or other freelancers who are trying to make it out there. It was never an easy life, but there were places who would pay your expenses to go report important stories and compensate you in dollars per word, not pennies. You could research and craft. And there were outlets — not a ton, but some — that could send you a paycheck that would keep you afloat. … I don’t like to ask people for work that we can’t pay for. But I’m not willing to take a hardline and prevent someone who I think is great from publishing with us without pay. My main point and (to be normative about it) the main point in these negotiations is this: What do you, the writer, get out of this?

But the fact is, a lot of people *do* get stuff out of it. They’re changing careers into journalism, say. Or they’re a scholar who wants to reach a broader audience. Or they’ve got a book coming out. Or they’re a kid who begs you (begs you!) to take a flier on them, and you have to spend way too much time with her, but it’s worth it because you believe she’s talented, even if you know the story isn’t going to garner a big audience.