Despite journalist’s outrage, Atlantic’s unpaid freelance request is not unique

The Atlantic apologized for offending veteran journalist Nate Thayer when an editor asked him to cut one of his articles for online publication — without pay. Global Editor Olga Khazan told Thayer that the magazine had depleted its freelance budget but suggested Thayer might benefit from exposure on The Atlantic’s website. Thayer vehemently refused, even though unpaid work is an increasing reality for digital freelancers.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 6, 2013

“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,” responded Thayer, according to the email exchange he posted on his blog.

While Atlantic Editor-in-Chief James Bennet said in a statement that Thayer’s situation is “unusual,” Khazan’s request perhaps shouldn’t have shocked Thayer (his response was even more agressive and explicit in an interview with New York Magazine). In fact, reader submissions on Who Pays Writers suggest that more than a few major publications don’t offer compensation when publishing digital freelance reporting, as Jane Friedman noted. This trend is unlikely to change as readers support websites such as The Huffington Post that rely on such models.

“If readers are happy to patronize media outlets that use writing they got for free, or writing they have aggregated and excerpted, there is precious little that freelance writers or any of us can do about it,” Mathew Ingram of paidContent wrote, adding that the supply of free writing is “infinite” and that an abundance of writers will accept alternatives to traditional compensation for publication.

Freelance budgets for online publications are shrinking. With digital operations relying on larger staffs to support the 24-hour news cycle, little money remains for freelance work. Felix Salmon of Reuters estimated that 95 percent of The Atlantic’s editorial budget is devoted to staff and emphasized that digital employees are expected not only to write but also to compile entire packages from start to finish. This operation runs so smoothly at The Atlantic that accepting freelance work might be more of a hassle than it’s worth, Salmon said. Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, confirmed this theory with a tweeted suggestion that that money is better spent on staff than on freelancers.

For this reason, publications shouldn’t be expected to change their policies and pay top dollar for freelance work. Instead, freelancers themselves must change their expectations of how they will make their livelihoods, Ingram said, suggesting writers should learn to depend on money from alternatives such as e-books.

Thayer’s hardly the first freelance journalist to complain about shrinking income: The Guardian reported that many journalists claim they earned more in the last millenium than they do today, despite increased effort. But Salmon said it’s time that journalists scrap ideas of depending on income from digital freelance. While a few publications will offer up to $1,500 per web article, it’s much more practical to accept a job at a website than to scramble to seek out the scarce opportunities for paid digital freelance work.

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