Free is Not a Living: Journalism in 2013

Technology has upended journalism, as everyone knows. I’m as disturbed as anyone by the way the profession of journalism has been devastated—mass layoffs, falling wages, closed foreign news bureaus. In spite of that, I think it’s a lot more complex than getting on the “blame the Internet” bandwagon or laying it all at the feet of Google.

The media, particularly elite news outlets with large teams and resources and budgets, need to accept some of the blame. They’ve all been complicit in the race to the bottom. Which apparently has gone so low that even esteemed members of this profession who the system formerly worked well for are outing its dirty laundry in public.

I’m referring to Nate Thayer’s recent, much-discussed post, “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013” which the author posted on his blog. Just a few years ago, Thayer claims he was offered $125,000 a year by The Atlantic to write six articles over that period. This year, he was contacted by a staff member at the same magazine offering him “exposure” to publish a article he’d written and posted on another website, in an edited form (read the post here).

Thayer’s post packs such a punch because of its pants-down airing of emails but most of all because of its outrage—and the source of that outrage is its author’s sense of entitlement. The system was working for this guy, until it didn’t. Most writers just trying to break into journalism now have never known such entitlement, such high expectations of the value of their work. They may even be tempted to say “welcome to our world” and take some pleasure in his pain.

Are today’s young writers undervaluing their efforts, or is Thayer overvaluing his own? (Thayer himself has been accused of plagiarism.) Who decides—The Atlantic, the Internet, or “the market’? And what about the value of exposure? Thayer is probably undervaluing it—or has no concrete way to capitalize on it. And making exposure translate into pay is most definitely part of the emerging economics of Internet journalism.

The Atlantic should be embarrassed, not because they’re reblogging for less than they’d pay for an original piece, or expecting writers to include exposure as part of a value proposition. But because they’re not being leaders in establishing a new, equitable method of content production, one that makes the most of the democratic potential of the Internet while also giving writers what they need. Free is not a living, and content creators need to be able to make a living.

The cognitive dissonance between “$125,000 a year” and “we pay $100 a blog post, but sorry we’re over budget and can pay you $0” is enormous, and rightly signifies that something is deeply wrong. It would be much less jarring if it was even something like this: we’ll reblog for exposure, plus $300. If this was a market standard, racking up a few reblogs could pay the rent.

My instinct is that what is happening is this: there are people in the world of The Atlantic who are making the same comfortable six figures they’ve always made, and then there are people out in the cold. The disruption of the Internet is not being evenly distributed or experienced across the board. Something has to give.

I have a lot of respect for the New York Times’ decision to put up a paywall, metering usage and then forcing people towards subscriptions or apps. Creating content is not free, and established brands should be expected to take the lead in finding a path to sustainability in the 21st century: especially by risking unpopular or controversial moves that Internet blatherers will hate and flame, claiming that they’re “breaking” the Internet by interfering with its openness.

The established media outlets need to figure out which they’re going to be: HBO, or cable access. They’re trying to be both, and the result is a growing divide within the media world, between high-paid coveted staff positions and those begging on their knees for the chance to just practice their profession and still eat.

The leveling power of the Internet gives equal access to publishing to the starving nobody running a blog out of their bedroom and the venerable, established media company that’s been around for decades. The established media rightly sees that as giving an advantage to the broke, the amateur, and the start-up. It’s not an advantage they’re comfortable with, and why would they be?

In Thayer’s blog post, you can already see one of the solutions to this problem in action. Writers can “just say no” to working for free—especially to large for-profit media businesses. Learning when it’s smart to say “yes” is one of the new skills of journalism.

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