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"Exposure Doesn’t Feed My Fucking Children!"
March 5, 2013 7:02 PM   Subscribe

A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013. Summary. The Atlantic responds.
posted by lalex (196 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I realize Thayer is disgusted and angry about this, and I agree with his stance, but his reaction makes me lose sympathy for the guy. I work with professional writers all day long. Because of this I refuse to ever take unpaid writing jobs. I'd be pissed if they started doing tech support for free, so I don't step on their toes.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:13 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Crap.

. for journalism.
posted by localroger at 7:16 PM on March 5, 2013


I agree with Thayer's general position and I empathize with his frustration but the woman who he was in correspondence began by stating that she understood if he would have to refuse, considering their inability to pay him.

I think I would have more sympathy for him if he had taken the time to write a blog post using this as an example of how this has become the accepted way of doing business in the journalism field after politely refusing her offer.

Instead he was rude to this person. I would bet she would be thrilled if The Atlantic paid him, it just happens to be her job to inform him that they can't. My guess is that the unfortunate state of journalism as a business model hasn't made her career any more fun either.
posted by sendai sleep master at 7:18 PM on March 5, 2013 [17 favorites]


Asked if Thayer alerted Khazan he would be posting the e-mails, complete with her name and e-mail address, The Atlantic said he did not.

I'm really sympathetic to Thayer here - asking someone to edit a more than 4500-word piece down to 1200 words counts as real fucking work, thank you very much - but the fact that Thayer couldn't even be bothered to give Khazan a heads-up that he now considered her private emails to him public is a huge strike against him. I'll bet that move has more unintended consequences for his future ability to work effectively than any other element of this thing.
posted by mediareport at 7:18 PM on March 5, 2013 [22 favorites]


He's got a point, but it's buried so far beneath his desperate, accusatory and self-aggrandizing demeanor that if the situation is that "he's fucking broke!!!!111!!" I don't see him being able to set himself up as being reliable in the future to any other outlets.

If the Atlantic doesn't want to pay him for this repurposing job, a simple "No" would do just fine.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 7:20 PM on March 5, 2013


but our rate even for original, reported stories is $100.

This, from the Atlantic editor, was pretty surprising to me. (I am obviously not a freelance journalist.)
posted by lalex at 7:23 PM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


He's broke, so his anger is understandable.

He has skills, The Atlantic likes the piece, but they don't want to pay him a decent rate for his work. He has every right to be pissed.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:26 PM on March 5, 2013 [19 favorites]


cjorgensen: I'd be pissed if they started doing tech support for free, so I don't step on their toes.

This is kind of funny, since every technology-literate person I've ever met is conscripted into doing free tech support for friends and relatives.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:27 PM on March 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


Agreeing with much of the above. A petty move on Thayer's part, or at least a petty means of starting (continuing) this conversation.

Though I'm surprised the editor in question would not have done a quick, easy search—on, say, Wikipedia—to determine whether or not this was someone who needed "exposure" badly enough that they would work without a fee.
posted by mcoo at 7:28 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Be sure to read Thayer's original piece about basketball and North Korean diplomacy, by the way. I'm halfway through and it's completely fascinating. If nothing else, Olga Khazan has great taste in poaching articles.

- but our rate even for original, reported stories is $100.

- This, from the Atlantic editor, was pretty surprising to me.


Yeah, I laughed when editor-in-chief James Bennet overruled Khazan on that one: "Our freelance rates vary." My first thought was "damn, he must have realized that seemed really low."
posted by mediareport at 7:29 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is all a bit whatever but she ought to have done some full disclosure at the outset.
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 7:29 PM on March 5, 2013


So the guy was rude. Burying the lede here. It was a point worth making.

If you can't pay your writers decently and make money with a readership of 13 million people, maybe you shouldn't be in business.
posted by dry white toast at 7:29 PM on March 5, 2013 [29 favorites]


Did I miss something?

He seems to indicate that he turned down an offer to make 125k a year to write 6 pieces? And he wouldn't be getting paid anyway for the blog piece so why not put it out there for exposure?

Maybe I'm jealous because i have to get up early, put on pants and do something I often don't particularly feel like doing to be able to pay my rent...but I really don't understand his outrage.

Nor his decision to post publically what was a private email conversation. I think he is making himself look much worse than he wanted to make The Atlantic look.
posted by bquarters at 7:31 PM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Whoa, $100 for an "original, reported story" is really really skint, unless the writer can knock something together in an hour. And do that five times a day, every day, for a week.
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 7:31 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


mediareport - what makes you think the editor was worried the rate was low? he was probably thinking it was too high to be quoted.
the fundamental problem with content on the internet is that everyone expects it to be free. or nearly everyone. some papers actually have hundreds of thousands paying to access the content.
but for the most part, the trend is that we'll have to watch an ad before we gain access to free content.
posted by TMezz at 7:32 PM on March 5, 2013


Possible error on my part from reading just the summary first- looks like he didn't 'turn down' the offer of 125k. Apologies for misreading.
posted by bquarters at 7:34 PM on March 5, 2013


bquarters: Maybe I'm jealous because i have to get up early, put on pants and do something I often don't particularly feel like doing to be able to pay my rent...but I really don't understand his outrage.

Contacting someone and offering them the ability to work for you for free, when you are a for-profit enterprise, is insulting. It's particularly insulting when they've been in the business for a while.

She deserved the response she got.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:35 PM on March 5, 2013 [29 favorites]


I like the phrase, "We unfortunately can’t pay you". As if it were caused by some accident and not that they made a business decision to not pay people for their work.
posted by octothorpe at 7:36 PM on March 5, 2013 [64 favorites]


He seems to indicate that he turned down an offer to make 125k a year to write 6 pieces?

It was a retainer agreement, and that must have been at least 10 years ago since the offer was extended while Michael Kelly was still the Atlantic's editor.
posted by lalex at 7:37 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


mediareport - what makes you think the editor was worried the rate was low?

Faith in the basic goodness of humanity?

Ha, no, I'm just guessing the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic is often looking to land big journalistic fish, and a general perception that his rag only pays $100 for an original reported story won't be helping much with that.
posted by mediareport at 7:37 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


In what way was Thayer rude? I thought he was exceedingly polite:
Hi Olga: No offense taken and no worries. I am sure you are aware of the changing, deteriorating condition of our profession and the difficulty for serious journalists to make a living through their work resulting in the decline of the quality of news in general. Ironically, a few years back I was offered a staff job with the Atlantic to write 6 articles a year for a retainer of $125,000, with the right to publish elsewhere in addition. The then editor, Michael Kelly, was killed while we were both in Iraq, and we both, as it were, moved on to different places. I don’t have a problem with exposure but I do with paying my bills.

I am sure you can do what is the common practice these days and just have one of your interns rewrite the story as it was published elsewhere, but hopefully stating that is how the information was acquired. If you ever are interested in a quality story on North Korea and wiling to pay for it, please do give me a shout. I do enjoy reading what you put out, although I remain befuddled as to how that particular business model would be sustainable to either journalism and ultimately the owners and stockholders of the Atlantic.

I understand your dilemma and it really is nothing personal, I assure you, and I wish you the best of luck.
posted by letitrain at 7:39 PM on March 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


Yeah, the nymag story does not make it clear where the harsh language came from, but it sounds like they interviewed him for the story and he spoke pungently there; not in his correspondence with the Atlantic.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:42 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's the public posting of Khazan's email to him without permission or notification that's the rude part.
posted by mediareport at 7:43 PM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Everything is free now, that's what they say
Everything I ever done, gonna give it away
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:44 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Atlantic is the same low-quality website that took paid ads for a dangerous cult and disguised them as editorial content. There is (or was) a decent literary magazine that is part of the same company, but the website has become a content farm and ad-filled piece of bullshit.
posted by Nelson at 7:44 PM on March 5, 2013 [23 favorites]


Exposure is how you solve the problem of having to feed your children in the first place, isn't it?
posted by uosuaq at 7:45 PM on March 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


Yep, I saw the writing on the wall in the publishing industry back in 1993, and went into telecom and networking as a career when the opportunity rose. While I sometimes regret leaving the field I loved at one time, tales I hear from old friends and colleagues of moving from editorial staff, to freelancer, to being unable to find a reliable source of income, let alone benefits or job security, leads me to believe I made the right choice.
posted by Blackanvil at 7:47 PM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Exposure is how you solve the problem of having to feed your children in the first place, isn't it?

I think the point is that after 25 years of doing something professionally, we're not exactly talking about "in the first place" here.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:48 PM on March 5, 2013


I think the point is...

I think the joke is a little darker than that.
posted by pompomtom at 7:51 PM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


I freelance for various places, including, once or twice, Atlantic Online. Yeah, $100 is really low, even by current freelance standards, and I wouldn't do it again.

On the other hand, Huffington Post once wrote and asked me if I wanted to write there free -- the idea being that the "exposure" would make it worth it.

Yes, I understand that to some extent this is the equilibrium the market forces on us.

But I also understand that this might mean the market is going to force the whole online world to look like the Huffington Post.

Bad market! Bad!
posted by escabeche at 7:53 PM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think the joke is a little darker than that.

Hmm, perhaps it was. Can't really tell. But, yeah, I took uosuaq's comment at face value and didn't assume it was a joke...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:54 PM on March 5, 2013


Felix Salmon: The Problem With Online Freelance Journalism
posted by lalex at 7:54 PM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


One of my standard replies to the "it's good exposure" line (yeah, we musicians get plenty of that, as you might imagine) is this: "You know, you can die of exposure."
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:55 PM on March 5, 2013 [27 favorites]


Also, the Atlantic's wording, "Thayer stridently refused", is something of a sneak attack in itself, implying that he's hard to work with. It looked to me like he more or less politely declined, not "stridently refused."
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:56 PM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


I guess it is a little rude to post the emails publicly. Tough. Businesses are screwing workers left and right everywhere. I'm not going to waste my empathy feeling bad for motherfuckers who offer a writer $0 for a 1200-word story.
posted by scose at 7:56 PM on March 5, 2013 [58 favorites]


Generally when one works in a profession that is going down the drain, it's considered more of a winning strategy to switch professions, although I suppose complaining impotently about how you deserve $125000 a year is certainly another alternative tactic.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:57 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I realize Thayer is disgusted and angry about this, and I agree with his stance, but his reaction makes me lose sympathy for the guy.

"I don't like your tone, young man."

Fuck that noise. Nobody is under any obligation to be polite about an insult that devalues work they take pride in.
posted by mhoye at 7:57 PM on March 5, 2013 [38 favorites]


The Atlantic's "We're sorry we offended him" response is snide bullshit.
posted by mattbucher at 7:58 PM on March 5, 2013 [15 favorites]


I agree with Thayer's general position and I empathize with his frustration but the woman who he was in correspondence began by stating that she understood if he would have to refuse, considering their inability to pay him.

No, she didn't begin that way. She only mentioned it after spending a while talking with him.

I don't understand all this concern about him posting the emails. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he got her permission.
posted by John Cohen at 7:59 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


(pompomtom was right, for the record)
posted by uosuaq at 8:04 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


So yeah, I read Nate Thayer's post earlier, right after I'd coincidentally just had a tough discussion with two of my fellow editors about working within the limits of our publication's freelance Web budget. And honestly? It's incredibly hard for both writers and editors to make ends meet these days. I have incredible sympathy for those trying to make their living as freelance writers (having been there myself, and currently working with a lot of freelancers on a regular basis as I manage my publication's freelance editorial budget). But while that's the case, and Thayer's entitled to his opinion, I think his calling out an editor like this is just ill-conceived on his part.

I doubt she had malice in mind when she solicited him—or that she has much say at all in her publication's business model, for that matter. Her email reads more like just a one-off, "Why not email this guy and see what he says?" kind of thing, and her editor later confirmed that that's what it was. (To me, his response simply sounds realistic, not snide.) Maybe I'm just from Ask Culture, rather than Guess Culture, but simply asking doesn't seem like a big deal to me, much less an insult. I guess she found out what Thayer would say, in any case.

Thayer claims he wasn't offended by the solicitation, but his entire overreaction to her email smacks of offense—or of just massive ego on his part. One way or another, Thayer's response comes off as fairly disingenuous.

How was he over the top, you ask? His response to the editor could've been written much more succinctly and politely, for starters: "Hey, sorry, I can't do this for free, but thanks for thinking of me! Best, Nate Thayer." And then he could've refrained from posting the whole exchange on his blog and moved on with his life, and this editor could've moved on with hers, without all this dust-raising. That would've been the classy thing to do. He could've even posted about the issue in his own words, rather than by reposting the email conversation in slash-and-burn fashion. (But I guess that would've been writing new content for free...)

Anyway, here's the thing: Unless this editor just has no soul at all, I bet she feels nearly as bad to have had to even ask him for this for free in the first place. Blog editors these days are being asked to pull in more and more hits—at some publications, they're even subject to quotas of hits, not blog posts—even as their budgets are being slashed and many of them are being asked to put in insane hours writing more and more themselves. So yes, maybe they're sometimes a little desperate for content! Would that we could all be so comfortable as to never ask someone to do something for less money than they might like—or than we might like to pay them!

Thayer was free to say no, and he didn't have to deal with it this way. After seeing how Thayer (mis)handled this, I would never email or otherwise message this guy directly—much less solicit him to do work for me. How could I ever trust that we could have a mutually beneficial working relationship if I knew he was ready to broadcast anything I said that he didn't like?

Now, all of that said, I will say, learning that that's what even The Atlantic pays for blog posts is pretty sad—it made me think, as someone who was just compiling a freelance Web budget myself this morning, that we really must have hit bottom as a profession in some sense, because that's not far from some of the rates I've seen in the Midwest, and I thought things were bad out here! But a blog post like this isn't really any way to go about trying to change that—if in fact Thayer had any interest in making a substantive point beyond trumpeting his own offense.
posted by limeonaire at 8:05 PM on March 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


I don't understand all this concern about him posting the emails. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he got her permission.

Read the links, John. The 2nd one has this:

Asked if Thayer alerted Khazan he would be posting the e-mails, complete with her name and e-mail address, The Atlantic said he did not.
posted by mediareport at 8:05 PM on March 5, 2013


Corporate bosses set the rules about what to pay and then send their editors out to try to wheedle copy out of freelancers at the lowest possible price.
I'm betting the $100 applied to the website, not print.
And while I appreciate his pushback because he's right, publishing emails without notification and giving her full name is rude. It's certainly made me realize I shouldn't speak freely with our freelancers. Not a good move.
posted by etaoin at 8:05 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


We rarely do this outside our established partnerships, but we were enthusiastic about bringing Thayer's work to a larger audience – an outcome, I guess, we have now, backhandedly, achieved. We're sorry we offended him.

So, the Atlantic is butthurt.
posted by benbenson at 8:07 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


(pompomtom was right, for the record)

Check!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:08 PM on March 5, 2013


Thayer was not rude at all. If you go to his actual blog post, you can see that he is polite, professional, and goes out of his way to tell Khazan in the letter that he "will refrain from being insulted."

I'm bothered by how this has incident been misrepresented. Thayer told reporter Joe Coscarelli, "Exposure doesn't feed my fucking children!" Not The Atlantic. And the suggestion is that, by standing up for yourself, you are somehow "rude" and "unaccepatable."

Is it really so rude and unacceptable to tell people in the strongest possible language how such working conditions are unacceptable? (And if you think this incident doesn't matter because you don't work in journalism, consider how standing up for any form of labor now makes you a "troublemaker." Look up guys like Walter Reuther to witness the kind of integrity and fortitude that Americans now casually condemn.)

Long-form journalism takes weeks, often months, of work. You have to know everything you can about the subject you're writing about. You have to read books, talk with people at length, and get the lay of the land. You have to track down sources and persuade them to talk. You have to confirm facts. You have to sift through documents. You have to synthesize everything so that the article is a compelling and coherent narrative. And you have to persuade editors that the whole enterprise is worth while. The editors, in turn, have bean counters breathing down their necks. Much of this involves time, expenses, negotiation, and shoe leather. This is not something that you necessarily do sitting in front of your computer. And it's not something that you should be paid $100 for.

If one cannot shout to the high heavens how fucking ridiculous this is, then the war has already been lost.
posted by ed at 8:09 PM on March 5, 2013 [65 favorites]


Did I miss something?

He seems to indicate that he turned down an offer to make 125k a year to write 6 pieces?


Yeah, you missed the bit where the guy who made the offer got killed in Iraq before the deal was done. I'd be pretty insulted to get an offer of $100 after a previous offer of over $100k.

I understand the position. I had a regular writing gig, one day the editor told me he wanted to republish one of my old blog articles. He never told me until after it ran, that I'd get a flat rate since it was a previously published article. So hey surprise, bill us for $200 instead of $2000. Never mind that I did a complete rewrite, provided rare 30 year old photos from my personal collection, and took it on as a serious $2000 job.

Fuck you, pay me.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:10 PM on March 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't think anyone is saying the tone of his emails is rude. I think people are saying that publishing her email address without warning or permission was rude.

It was also shortsighted. What editor would contact the guy now - even for a paying gig?
posted by 26.2 at 8:12 PM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I'm pretty shocked people here are sympathizing with the Atlantic and calling Thayer an asshole. This dude clearly has encountered this sort of bullshit before and it's been going on for many years now, and he had obviously had enough. If I were an established journalist, had that much correspondence with a pub about a possible story, and finally when it came down to making the deal they said "oh by the way, it pays nothing" I'd have flipped my shit too.

That's like completing a series of interviews for a prestigious company before finding out it's actually an unpaid internship, but they have the fucking nerve to tell you how "invaluable the experience is". Oh, but they said they understand if you need to turn down the opportunity, so technically they were polite? Fuck that.
posted by windbox at 8:13 PM on March 5, 2013 [40 favorites]


I got a request recently for a photo of mine - it came from someone at Food&Wine and said, basically, "We're doing an article on Famous Personality's travels and want to feature a shot of Famous Restaurant and your image here on Flickr fits the bill. Mind if we use it? Great, let us know how to credit you (full name and URL)."

and then proceeded to say in the smaller print, "and of course this means we have permission to reproduce it anywhere we want on the web, in print, in any of our other publications, and / or anything else in the entire American Express Publishing Empire. Thanks!"

I tried to respond politely, and I think I succeeded. This is not my first experience with the Online Editors of the world trolling the creative commons uploads for free shots. They find Joe Blow with My First SLR and he's flattered to be "published" and they just got their image without paying anyone.

But man, Thayer's not a Joe Blow, and I can't believe The Atlantic tried to pull the same crap with him. I'm not insulted when it happens to me but I don't blame him for his reaction. I'm impressed with the civility with which he responded.
posted by komara at 8:22 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Being quiet and polite and never ever rocking the boat or commenting stridently on ceaselessly shrinking wages has been working so very well for most of the US lately, hasn't it? How dare a veteran journalist with an impressive career behind him speak up when offered this incredible chance to work for free? Doesn't he know that you need to toe the line and keep your mouth closed?

My sympathies are not with the Atlantic.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:22 PM on March 5, 2013 [33 favorites]


Publishing the emails was an incredibly unprofessional move. This was private business correspondence.

The publisher has to feed his family too. How much traffic is the 1200 word article on Basketball Diplomacy with North Korea going to generate? Basketball isn't a high competition keyword and there is unlimited inventory; so the adwords profit potential is low. The writer doesn't have any books in print, so there is no Amazon affiliate links. They are not going to make $100 on this article.

Published reports indicate that Thayer has made some significant sums at times in his journalistic career. Like the $350,000+ he got from ABC news for footage of the time he spent with Pol Pot. If he's having trouble feeding his family he must have fallen on some hard times.
posted by humanfont at 8:23 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I freelanced for a couple of years in the early 2000s but ultimately couldn't make a go of it, financially. It's really sad that a time when small-time writers got a buck a word is now, apparently, the good old days by comparison.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:25 PM on March 5, 2013


Yeah, I'm pretty shocked people here are sympathizing with the Atlantic and calling Thayer an asshole.

Well, some of us are actually sympathizing with Thayer and adding that he pulled an asshole move that's only hurt his mostly legitimate case. It's not difficult to keep both things in mind at the same time.

etaoin: I'm betting the $100 applied to the website, not print.

Yeah, probably. Which raises a whole other set of questions about why original reporting is worth less when it's published online, which has less overhead than print. Perhaps we should leave those to another thread.

humanfont: How much traffic is the 1200 word article on Basketball Diplomacy with North Korea going to generate?

Whatever. Just make sure you read it. It's really interesting stuff, a fantastic documentation of the backstory behind the surface idiocy of mainstream coverage of Rodman's visit.
posted by mediareport at 8:26 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Would you go to a gas station, and ask them to give you free gas? slyt
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 8:29 PM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


sigh.

i didn't go into journalism for the money, and although it did keep me alive for a couple of decades, the reason i mostly do other stuff now is because of the money. in the race to the bottom, the rates being offered these days add up to starvation wages. i understand his anger and want to thank him for it.
posted by ecourbanist at 8:34 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Fuck that noise. Nobody is under any obligation to be polite about an insult that devalues work they take pride in.

Under no obligation at all unless you want to continue to be seen as a professional.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:35 PM on March 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


It was also shortsighted. What editor would contact the guy now - even for a paying gig?--26.2

Why wouldn't they if he's a good writer? I would guess that he responds very positively to editors who pay him. Or do editors not only not pay their writers but blackball anyone who complains about it?
posted by eye of newt at 8:35 PM on March 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


Well… frankly, being a well paid writer these days is a pretty rarefied field.

There's a reason beyond "sheer, unconscionable greed" that writing rates have collapsed. It's super shitty, but in this case in particular being indignant about it isn't going to change anything.

We're not getting screwed by a monied class; the business model is collapsing before our eyes.
posted by pmv at 8:37 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


If I were an established journalist, had that much correspondence with a pub about a possible story, and finally when it came down to making the deal they said "oh by the way, it pays nothing" I'd have flipped my shit too. That's like completing a series of interviews for a prestigious company before finding out it's actually an unpaid internship, but they have the fucking nerve to tell you how "invaluable the experience is". Oh, but they said they understand if you need to turn down the opportunity, so technically they were polite? Fuck that.

See...I've been screwed before as a freelancer myself. I've put in hours of work for a publication, only to be paid for just half of what I invoiced for. On other occasions, I've put in hours of work on things that ultimately were significantly changed or didn't see publication. This is not that. This was a brief email conversation, and conversations don't always have to lead to a mutually satisfactory outcome—or any outcome at all.

Being quiet and polite and never ever rocking the boat or commenting stridently on ceaselessly shrinking wages has been working so very well for most of the US lately, hasn't it? How dare a veteran journalist with an impressive career behind him speak up when offered this incredible chance to work for free? Doesn't he know that you need to toe the line and keep your mouth closed?

Well, I'm certainly not saying people should never rock the boat or push for better wages. I support the cause of higher wages for freelancers—and that's actually part of why I'm irked, because by firing off a salvo like this, I think Thayer is hurting that cause.
posted by limeonaire at 8:37 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Publishing the emails was an incredibly unprofessional move. This was private business correspondence.

Agreed. But asking Thayer to work for free was also unprofessional.

The publisher has to feed his family too.

Seriously? Boo fucking hoo. The Atlantic is a company; it has no family to feed. Further, The Atlantic is making money. A lot of money. And it's getting more profitable, largely spurred on by digital.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:40 PM on March 5, 2013 [9 favorites]



This is kind of funny, since every technology-literate person I've ever met is conscripted into doing free tech support for friends and relatives.

No. I work for beer. If you can't be arsed to run to the store and grab a twelver, I can't be arsed to fix your porn pop up problem. Anyone who does shit for free is a sucker.

Can't get mad at people for asking though - we're all just squirrels trying to get a nut.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:40 PM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


sendai sleep master: "I think I would have more sympathy for him if he had taken the time to write a blog post using this as an example of how this has become the accepted way of doing business in the journalism field after politely refusing her offer.

Instead he was rude to this person.
"

This Olga person was clearly outside her depth. If you took any other field, and asked somebody who had the acclaim and accolades of Nate Thayer -- Pulitzer Prize nominated, Peabody Award refusing, dictator-unearthing Nate Thayer -- and asked them to do piecework for $100, I think they'd be equally, if not more, indignant.

"Hey, yo, Nobel Prize winning Economist Alvin E. Roth! I need to get my finances in order! Can you whip up a budget for me? I can pay you one hundred wing-wangs! Also I'll tell my customers you're great at budgeting!"
posted by boo_radley at 8:41 PM on March 5, 2013 [21 favorites]


Under no obligation at all unless you want to continue to be seen as a professional.

Professionals get paid.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:41 PM on March 5, 2013 [19 favorites]


26.2: "It was also shortsighted. What editor would contact the guy now - even for a paying gig?"

again, Nate Thayer isn't some crank journo school asshole. He spoke out against Pol Pot and reporting from Cambodian combat zones. You'd contact him because he's got a distinguished and principled pedigree of reporting excellence.
posted by boo_radley at 8:45 PM on March 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


And you'd also make sure to start all your emails with "This is an off-the-record correspondence."
posted by mediareport at 8:50 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm in agreement with him bringing up this issue, but yeah, he should have stuck to generally summarizing the e-mails rather than republishing them.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:54 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


And you'd also make sure to start all your emails with "This is an off-the-record correspondence."

I'm not sure that would have prevented the publication of the emails in this case. Thayer was obviously angry enough to ignore common practice and courtesy (i.e., informing the Atlantic editor that he was going to publish the emails).
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:56 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Does The Atlantic run advertisements for free for companies that desire exposure?
posted by ridogi at 9:09 PM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Common practice and courtesy" would have been asking permission *before* posting the emails. That he didn't even bother informing her he was about to do it without asking goes way beyond that.
posted by mediareport at 9:11 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, but there are tons of great writers who are looking for work. Why would an editor choose to work with one who's a loose cannon?

I absolutely understand his anger. I am doubting that this expression of his anger will yield more paying work.
posted by 26.2 at 9:11 PM on March 5, 2013


"Common practice and courtesy" would have been asking permission *before* posting the emails. That he didn't even bother informing her he was about to do it without asking goes way beyond that.

I personally think it would have been fine to publish the emails in full, provided he didn't name the editor in question and removed the email address. It was unprofessional not to. But, then again, it was unprofessional of the Atlantic to ask for work without payment.

IMO, fault on both sides, but more of it lies on the Atlantic's.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:18 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Olga Khazan joins us as editor of the Global Channel for TheAtlantic.com. [...] Her first day is February 25.

Ouch...tough first week.
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 9:18 PM on March 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


Yeah, Nate Thayer's probably not too concerned with burning bridges to the theatlantic.com.

Man. The screwups just keep piling up.
posted by notyou at 9:36 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Atlantic might have made less than $100 dollars off of the original article, but the money generated by his response will be considerably more for someone (judging by amount of overall buzz and the number of links to Thayer's blog that are running adds on their sites).
posted by DaddyNewt at 9:39 PM on March 5, 2013


"Outside her depth". Good grief and damn this smart phone.
posted by boo_radley at 9:43 PM on March 5, 2013


My partner recently had an 'article' published in the Australian newspaper, which was taken from a book she had written…they ripped a chunk out of the book and edited it into an article. She didn't know this had been done until a friend mentioned having seen it in the paper. The publisher forgot to mention they'd been approached, and obviously my partner didn't get paid - the Australian presumably justified it as promoting my partner's book. But even then, the connection between the article and the book wasn't clear.

I've had similar things happen myself, but never anything quite that blatant and cheap.
posted by chrisgregory at 9:44 PM on March 5, 2013


Shouldn't it have been "Exposure won't fucking feed my children"?
posted by srboisvert at 9:49 PM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


The only thing the US manufactures and exports any more is media, and for some reason we're racing to the bottom here too. When I ran a design firm, clients saw value in our expertise. They looked at our portfolio, and if they liked our previous work, they hired us to come up with ideas for them, and paid us again to produce the finished pieces. Now, thanks to crowdsourcing, the ideation process is valueless, and artists who go to school for years to hone their craft have the super dope awesome opportunity to compete to win a chance to be PAID, yo!

Now I'm in the animation industry, where the average cost to produce a finished broadcast piece requires a team of dozens and an average budget of about $10,000 per finished minute (e.g. a 30-minute piece costs about $300k). Lots of people are involved in the process, from writers to storyboard artists, editors, execs... As the world starts consuming media on the small screen, online networks pay about $1000 per finished minute for a 4-minute piece, which, as you can imagine, isn't as well-written and doesn't look quite so nice, largely because they're produced by teams of one in ridiculously short timeframes.

For some reason we're all still buying the premise that "the internet is gonna be big some day." Come on, man. YouTube made BILLIONS in ad revenue last year. If every artist in the world refused to work for free, the media might actually be forced to pay for quality work.
posted by eatyourlunch at 10:08 PM on March 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


Yeah, $100 is really low, even by current freelance standards, and I wouldn't do it again.

Eh, I'm paying about ... 8 cents a word for some fairly decent technical writing. For $100, that would get me ... 1,200 words.

I've got a few offers from companies for less, much less, some under 1 cent/word. For 1 cent/word, I could get 10,000 words for $100. There are a LOT of places that pay like $10-20 per "article" (admittedly low quality).

I'm not going to claim I'm any better for seeing the obvious impact of the Web and getting out of writing as a career, but I do think I made the "smart" choice. It doesn't make me happy, but it definitely helps pay the bills. :|
posted by mrgrimm at 10:14 PM on March 5, 2013


If every artist in the world refused to work for free, the media might actually be forced to pay for quality work.

You're trying to collectively organize ... the whole world?!

Bless you.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:16 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The best advice I ever got was that doing work for "exposure" and "experience" is for chumps. It took me years (and a few instances where I fell into the trap of working in exchange for "experience"), but I finally learned my lesson.

As pointed out above, the problem is not just asshole employers who pull this tactic. It's also naive employees who fall for it so often that it becomes viable to pull.

Thayer's response was awesome.
posted by Old Man McKay at 10:19 PM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


The publisher has to feed his family too. How much traffic is the 1200 word article on Basketball Diplomacy with North Korea going to generate? Basketball isn't a high competition keyword and there is unlimited inventory; so the adwords profit potential is low. The writer doesn't have any books in print, so there is no Amazon affiliate links. They are not going to make $100 on this article.

It's a quality story. The Atlantic might benefit from the exposure.

But if they're in the game for high competition keywords and affiliate links, I could hook them up with a nice porn site...
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:43 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Whoa, $100 for an "original, reported story" is really really skint, unless the writer can knock something together in an hour. And do that five times a day, every day, for a week.

I stared at that for a few minutes trying to figure out why it felt off, and finally realized what rubbed me wrong. Almost two decades ago, I tried to make a go of it as a young freelance writer. Obviously, I was a new kid and times have changed, but the grim payscale was what most freelancing looked like even before digital knocked the ladder out and mobile kicked it while it was down.

Most publications employed staff writers that handled the lion's share of their content. If you didn't already have a good track record with the publication's editors, you often had to work on spec. You'd research the story, cold-call an editor and pitch it, then write it, submit it, and possibly even edit it before the editor had to make a commitment. Publications that were easy to break into often paid in free copies. The next rung up the latter was pennies per word, and well-known publications could go as high as 10¢ per word or so. Only industry-focused niche journals could afford crazy rates like $1 per word because they presented a juicy, focused demographic for advertisers.

Feature articles in large, well-circulated magazines were prestigious (National Geographic, for example) but those opportunities were hotly contested and still only paid a couple thousand dollars for what could easily amount to weeks of research, writing, editing, pitching, and re-editing.

Knocking out 1000 words five times a day, every day, for a week was how freelance writing worked. Successful freelancers learned how to turn research work into multiple articles pitched to different markets -- one story that could be told with different spins for different audiences, for example, or a topic meaty enough that multiple articles could be justified. Financially successful reporters weren't necessarily ones who had reported on important things, but ones who had figured out how to parlay their recognition into syndicated columns; who'd decided to focus primarily on dull but comparatively lucrative corporate copywriting or technical editing; who'd turned a big story into a book that sold well; or who established enough conections and credibility to become a fixture in a particular industry.

I interviewed celebrities, I pitched ideas to the local newspapers, I pored over each year's Writers Market and wrote for free to build my portfolio. I tried to parlay every bit of research into multiple pitches and cold-called editors. I started doing DTP and eventually web work on the side to pay bills, and (successfully!) pitched technical stories to computer publications. I managed to get a column in one, netting me a predctable $300 for 1500 words each month.

I was lucky enough to have a couple of mentors who had done well as freelancers; they showed me the ropes and assured me this was the "dues-paying" part of the writing life. However, after a couple of years of doing web stuff "on the side" while I wrote, it became clear that tech work was turning into my Real Job while writing was something I simply enjoyed. I'm sure if I'd been a better writer, or stuck it out, I could've climbed slowly but steadily. On the other hand, I now build the tech infrastructure for newspapers and magazines trying to survive in the digital age. I love doing what I do, and I still get the occasional chance to write for real.

The explosion of completely free high-quality content by people who simply want to write and have a platform thanks to the Internet makes competition rough. The shift to web and then to mobile has gutted ad revenues, leaving crunched editors with anemic budgets for freelancers. While Nate Thayer is totally within his rights to say, "Thanks but no thanks," what he describes sounds a lot like… well, like freelancing.
posted by verb at 11:01 PM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Common practice and courtesy" would have been asking permission *before* posting the emails. That he didn't even bother informing her he was about to do it without asking goes way beyond that.

I'm a journalist. An editor is fully aware when talking to a writer that nothing is off the record. Journalists are whisteblowers and bean-spillers. The Atlantic has to give its writers the opportunity to get a story, even if it means republishing, without permission, something that the author wishes would not be published. They cannot want that for their writers and then expect other writers not to republish Atlantic things they wish would stay unpublished.

If you don't want it published, you don't say it in the first place. Especially when talking to a journalist.

The fact that The Atlantic pays writers nothing for reprints and $100 for original reporting is news. And nowadays sometimes the only place to publish news is on a blog. 90 percent of what appears in any newspaper was not cleared with the source before it went to press, except, sometimes, to fact check -- not only is that not a common courtesy, but doing so can actually compromise a story.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:11 PM on March 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


Thanks for that, Bunny Ultramod. I stand corrected re the 'common courtesy' thing.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:17 PM on March 5, 2013


The fact that The Atlantic pays writers nothing for reprints and $100 for original reporting is news.

I didn't catch the details, but didn't the editor's email imply that original web reporting was what she normally paid $100 per piece for? Budget for print and budget for web are different arrangements, and if I understand correctly, a big part of The Atlantic's recent financial success has revolved around its willingness to make web editors responsible for running tight ships, cultivating their own content and talent, and generating their own traffic.
posted by verb at 11:18 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guarantee this will be on On the Media this coming week, by the way.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:19 PM on March 5, 2013


Words I live by:

"If you're good at something, never do it for free." - The Joker
posted by phaedon at 11:19 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Having said that, I want to point out that in the photography world, magazine jobs are well-established as low-to-no paying, but involve maximum exposure. The idea is that the exposure leads to commercial work.
posted by phaedon at 11:21 PM on March 5, 2013


"If you're good at something, never do it for free." - The Joker

Volunteering and charity are for suckers? Got it!
posted by mrgrimm at 11:29 PM on March 5, 2013


I have cried openly and recently over the stress of the web content/journalism situation, and truly believe we are all fucked unless things change soon. We as a society are growing slowly illiterate and plagiarizing ourselves of unverified and/or fabricated spam farm content back into the Stone Age, and starving all the way there - morally, socially, financially and literally.

Without money to pay for as much content as you are required to produce to keep your job, you theoretically might have no other choice but to write for free sometimes - with no byline - and work up to 14 hours a day in addition to your regular duties as an editor. Try keeping that pace up for 7-10 years and see how you feel. I should probably just be quiet now.

Until they kick me screaming out the door, I will keep trying to be a good writer and editor and have integrity with everyone I do business with. But goddamn if it doesn't get harder every day... literally.

And I will damn sure never do it for free, but the content world is more labor-intensive than many people realize (web AND print).
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:36 PM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Volunteering and charity are for suckers? Got it!

When they're done for the benefit of a private, for-profit firm, they absolutely are.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:54 PM on March 5, 2013 [22 favorites]


Charity isn't done for free. It's done for the sake of the charity.
posted by Goofyy at 12:02 AM on March 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


I don't understand the handwringing over "he published the e-mails!". How is this different than verbally describing a very crude offer that was made to you by a stranger, or even taping it as is legal in many states?

The editor was dumb, stuck her foot in her mouth with the $0 offer and really jammed it in by caving to $100. Other prospective writers, Atlantic readers, even journalism students deserve to know the state of affairs.

And if you think your business transactions are sacrosanct because they're in e-mail, please consider consulting a good IT person and a lawyer. Unless you're talking trade secrets you're generally not protected (even NDAs are more work to enforce than they are worth). Most environments don't have the mod banhammer which makes sharing e-mails so socially unacceptable on MeFi, but in the real world this action is totally unremarkable.
posted by SakuraK at 12:18 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is pretty much how I managed to talk my little brother out of his dream of being a journalist.
posted by moorooka at 1:39 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thayer's anger is misplaced, and he's fighting a tide that started a long time ago. I have sympathy for him, though, and it's insulting to find out that the vocation you've dedicated yourself to, and are good at, isn't worth that much. Worse still to have some naive, young hack break this to you as if they are doing you a favour.

Information is cheap. Publishing information is cheap. The digital revolution has made it a trivial exercise to publish, made it simple for people to find information, and enabled anyone with an internet connection to publish their story, opinion or report.

This is the same trend that is killing the newspapers industry and the knock on effect is that, with limited exceptions, the market value of journalism has plummeted. Because newspapers and magazines have limited exclusivity, either in terms of their positioning in the market, distribution or the time between when they break a story and when everyone else reports on it.

Nick Davies covered an angle of this thoroughly in his book Flat Earth News, a chronicle of the race to the bottom by British newspapers, in which original content has gradually been replaced by puff pieces, rewrites and hastily written crap - a direct result of business decisions made to improve the bottom line of media businesses by both cutting staff and aiming for sensational stories in a bid to find or retain readership. The writing has been on the wall since the late 1980s.

As the supply of news and opinion has proliferated, so the economics of publishing have changed radically. I still meet publishers who refuse to believe this, or who have patted themselves on the back as they've saved a lot of cash by going from print to digital but can't see that the improved margins are temporary, illusory and must be plowed back into media businesses that are genuinely unique and valuable to the market, and which have some built in barriers to entry. These guys can see the publishing industry change in their P&Ls, their readership data and their competitive maps. Journalists like Thayer aren't dumb, but they are typically one step removed from being able to observe how the business model is changing. They experience the economics differently, and at the hard end of things.

To put this in context: I was doing some due diligence on a specialised area of publishing recently: where there used to be 2 or 3 class leading sources of information and 50 or so smaller specialised ones, now there is a mass of 250-300 digital publishers, several thousand blogs covering the area and lots of other organisations who also publish information in the space. I am familiar with one of the class leading publications: its editorial team is a quarter of the size it was in its heyday 10 years ago. It still makes a fat margin because its costs have fallen away, but only until the tipping point when its diminishing client base walks away from another price rise. It will, if left unchanged, be dead within 10 years.

Publishers reaped a short term boost when the cost of publishing dropped but they still had their readership. This was true for big newspapers in the late 80s and early 90s, before consumers switched to reading on the internet. And, for the past 10 years it has wreaked havoc on specialist media as cheap or free blogging and CMS platforms and Twitter create entire domains of content that not only divert eyeballs, but also divert energy: lots of us spend more time interacting online rather than just being passive consumers of information.

So back to Thayer, and the tens of thousands of professional journalists and subject matter experts like him: the media landscape has changed. Either you own the channel (like Andrew Sullivan et al), or you syndicate your content to several publications, or you accept that the economics of publishing to one media outlet exclusively are not favourable.

These things go in cycles, of course. I confuse the Atlantic with other publications because after a while they often tend to look and sound the same. There will be a shakeout. The signal to noise gets too much that people will start converging back on fewer publications - the ones that mine their niche well, that deliver first, or most competently, or reliably; the ones that have the scale to pay the premium for quality, properly original content, or name brand contributors.

But we aren't going back to the days of well-paid journalists across the board. The news market is shrinking in dollar terms in places like the US. After a shakeout there will be other cycles of disruption, new technologies and platforms. There are, and will be more, new laws to protect the media: daft, counterintuitive laws that artificially protect publishing exclusivity under the guise of copyright. But fundamentally, yes, Mr Thayer - it will be harder for you to Feed Your F*cking Children doing things as you were, in the way that you were.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:39 AM on March 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


I can relate to this guy's troubles like you cannot believe. I was a freelance journalist for years, until a couple of years ago when 3 papers I wrote for all went out of business within six months and I suddenly found myself a broke, middle-aged person with no employment prospects within journalism, and a very weird, unpromising resume for any job outside of journalism. I can relate to his frustration and his anger and his despair. I get it.

But he was being totally unprofessional (and kind of dick-ish) to post this woman's info online and single her out like that, especially after he told her "no offense taken and no worries" and she had every reason to think the matter was settled. Journalism is in such dire straits that this woman is probably struggling herself, trying to hang on to her own job, working with an ever-shrinking budget and following the sometimes-callous dictates of her bosses. If he had told this story without specifically naming her or the publication she worked for, it could have been a valuable look at the miseries of the freelancing life. As it is, he's made himself look a lot less sympathetic and quite possibly a lot less attractive to potential employers.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:46 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Journalism is in such dire straits that this woman is probably struggling herself, trying to hang on to her own job, working with an ever-shrinking budget and following the sometimes-callous dictates of her bosses.

You're being a bit hyperbolic. She's the global editor of The Atlantic, which as a few people in thread have noted, is making a healthy profit. She's doing just fine.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:13 AM on March 6, 2013


If the Atlantic doesn't want to pay him for this repurposing job, a simple "No" would do just fine.

A simple "no" would not have raised the issue to the point where I, a disinterested party (but an important part of the equation; i.e. a consumer of journalism) would be made aware of this regrettable situation.

I recall that this same point was rather more difficult to hammer home when Amanda Palmer tried her hand at the free labor market. I guess "journalist" is easier for folks to accept as a profession than "musician."
posted by ShutterBun at 2:16 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Eh, I'm paying about ... 8 cents a word for some fairly decent technical writing.

Out of curiosity, how much are you paying the person who decides what constitutes "fairly decent"?

I've written some "technical articles" that were considered "excellent" by my employers, but which were in fact written by a complete novice who was being paid by the word, and had less knowledge of the subject than a snake knows about tennis shoes.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:26 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Journalism is one of those things that's too important to trust to capitalism.
posted by EatTheWeak at 2:40 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


A buddy of mine sold an Op-Ed to the New York Times last year. He was paid about enough to take his family out to a restaurant, and also given the "but it is great exposure" line.
posted by zaelic at 2:58 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Under no obligation at all unless you want to continue to be seen as a professional.

To paraphrase an old Rebecca West quote about feminism, I get called unprofessional whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:17 AM on March 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


"She's the global editor of The Atlantic, which as a few people in thread have noted, is making a healthy profit. She's doing just fine."

I'll confess, I didn't read all of the comments. But I've known editors at some publications you've probably heard of, and you'd be amazed just how grim things have gotten behind the scenes. Given the paltry rates the Atlantic is paying, I assumed this was another one of those deals where the editors are stuck doing sleazy stuff because they can either do that or get the hell out of a collapsing industry.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:23 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm just glad that we all get paid for our contributions here on MetaFilter....

Wait... What.....? Well damn!!!
posted by HuronBob at 3:46 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've known people who got paid about this much for writing a quick 500-word piece spinning the two days they spent in Venice for a local Chinese mag that has a circulation of about 180,000 on its best week. And no, as an immediate public good, it's important to get these rates out in the open; right now, there's an information asymmetry that's in favour of publishing houses. The only way for freelancers and journalists to get a upper hand in this is by getting the enough information out.

Thayer apparently is the kind who'd help out with information. He gets a pass in my book.

The Atlantic's offer was beyond contempt, as is their disgusting non-apology, where they still aren't apologizing for low-balling the piece, but that Thayer felt offended.
posted by the cydonian at 3:56 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


For most of its existence The Atlantic has been a money losing operation. The publishers continue to do it for the exposure. The Atlantic Media group has managed to turn a small profit the last couple of years, but it is my understanding the revenues mostly come from their conferences and events, not the magazines or web journalism sites.
posted by humanfont at 3:58 AM on March 6, 2013


I hope somebody hires Thayer to do some real longform work.
posted by flippant at 4:15 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe I'm jealous because i have to get up early, put on pants and do something I often don't particularly feel like doing to be able to pay my rent...but I really don't understand his outrage.

Would you be insulted if you were asked to get up early, put on pants and do something you don't like to do for free, or the promise of "but it'll look good on your resume"?

Yeah. It's like that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:27 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


On the other hand, the post itself clocks in at about 900 words. Granted, it's basically re-purposed prose (and much of it not his own), but the pay is the same and it has gotten him some great exposure.

Me, I'd never heard of the guy before this kerfuffle.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:36 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is pretty much how I managed to talk my little brother out of his dream of being a journalist.

My god, you didn't. Please don't talk people out of their dreams, and in particular stop discouraging smart people from careers in journalism. At the very least, you should read lalex's link to Felix Salmon's The Problem With Online Freelance Journalism, which, funnily enough, describes how journalism is working just fine in some online environments. Send it to your brother to make up for your bad advice:

But there’s something bigger going on at the Atlantic, too. Cohn told me the Atlantic now employs some 50 journalists, just on the digital side of things: that’s more than the Atlantic magazine ever employed, and it’s emblematic of a deep difference between print journalism and digital journalism...The job putting a website together, by contrast, is much faster and more integrated. Distinctions blur: if you work for theatlantic.com, you’re not going to find yourself in a narrow job like photo editor, or assignment editor, or stylist. 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. Cohn didn’t give me hard numbers, but some back-of-the-envelope math would indicate that more than 95% of his total editorial budget is spent on staffers, rather than freelancers...

The fact is that freelancing only really works in a medium where there’s a lot of clear distribution of labor: where writers write, and editors edit, and art directors art direct, and so on. Most websites don’t work like that, and are therefore difficult places to incorporate freelance content...in general it’s much, much easier to get a job paying $60,000 a year working for a website than it is to cobble together $60,000 a year working freelance for a variety of different websites.

The lesson here, then, is not that digital journalism doesn’t pay. It does pay, and often it pays better than print journalism. Rather, the lesson is that if you want to earn money in digital journalism, you’re probably going to have to get a full-time job somewhere.

posted by mediareport at 5:38 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't know what his problem is. Think of the exposure! If he had let The Atlantic publish his piece he'd be drowning in offers to work for free!
posted by Legomancer at 5:38 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


One more thing: check the accusation in the update at the bottom of Salmon's piece:

*Update: In another layer of irony, it turns out that Thayer’s piece itself was deeply indebted to — and yet didn’t cite or link to — Mark Zeigler’s 2006 story on the same subject.
posted by mediareport at 5:42 AM on March 6, 2013


I don't know what his problem is. Think of the exposure! If he had let The Atlantic publish his piece he'd be drowning in offers to work for free!

Pardon my ignorance of contemporary journalism, but it's often my impression that when you tell journalists/writers/bloggers that writing for free for your publication is great for exposure, wouldn't you just run into more and more people offering you the same thing, without any potential for future income? Do you mean the system is like an ouroboros, eating its own tail? A vicious cycle? Because that's what I think of every time a publication feeds writers the "hey, it will be crazy huge exposure!" line.
posted by Kitteh at 5:55 AM on March 6, 2013


Information is cheap.

What? No, it isn't - not good information. Information that is the result of investigative journalism is especially not cheap, certainly for the reporter doing the investigating.
posted by rtha at 6:23 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is all so frustrating. Full disclosure: I am an editor for the Atlantic, and a colleague of Olga's (though I haven't met her yet, as I don't work in the D.C. office). I run their photo site, and like all of the other editors I know there, I try really hard to put together quality stories with what I have available. In my case, nearly my entire budget is dedicated to contracts with news photo agencies. When I wish to put together an impactful photo story on, say, autism, news agency photos don't have nearly the impact that personal photos would. So I go out on Flickr, or Facebook, and, if I find a photo that has been shared publicly that I think is high quality, I just might reach out to the owner and ask if I might run it - stating up front that I have no budget, but explaining the story I'm trying to tell, and showing them an example from my site.

It's a simple act, asking, in a complicated framework (profitable corporation asking individual for free content). I hate to ask, for any number of reasons, but there it is, I only have what is allotted to me to work with. 95% of the time, when I ask, the owner of the photo is delighted to help and/or get the exposure. The other 5% have either ignored me, politely declined, or even tried to politely scold me for asking - while praising me for making the effort to ask at all. I have no expectation that content come my way for free, nor am I offended when people decline - in fact, I totally understand.

I know my situation is not completely analogous to Olga's, but I don't speak for her, or for the Atlantic. Just a MeFite (mostly lurker these days) trying to add to the conversation.
posted by kokogiak at 6:30 AM on March 6, 2013 [12 favorites]


Perhaps I missed it, but how has no one mentioned that Thayer compared this to slavery/indentured servitude according to the nymag article?!
I would be frustrated and pissed if I were him as well, but that's just ridiculous.
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 6:37 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps I missed it, but how has no one mentioned that Thayer compared this to slavery/indentured servitude according to the nymag article?!
I would be frustrated and pissed if I were him as well, but that's just ridiculous.


The state of various industries is that the worker is losing individual power and has to agree to whatever terms the employer gives in order to get...what, paid? At least slaves were given some food, clothing and housing for their enforced work.

The metaphor may be a bit overwrought, but it's also getting painfully close to a historical definition of slavery
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:42 AM on March 6, 2013


Maybe indentured servitude would be more apt for kids these days, coming out with loans they can't hope to pay with the level of employment available, the return of debtor's prison, etc.

If we get to the point where a company sells your labor to another company and you have no say then the slavery analogy would be more apt.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:51 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


What? No, it isn't - not good information.

Funnily enough, when you put "good" in front of lots of things they aren't cheap either.

As a rule, content is cheap because most people are used to cheap and don't necessarily need or want to pay for quality. Paying a high premium for lots of research and/or a skilled person to do it is a risk, assuming the publication has the budget in the first place.

Hence a) Flat Earth News and b) the future shakeout in favour of publications that "mine their niche well, that deliver first, or most competently, or reliably; the ones that have the scale to pay the premium for quality, properly original content, or name brand contributors."

.... AS I WROTE IN THE COMMENT YOU SNIPPED FROM!
posted by MuffinMan at 7:21 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am very curious to hear about whether Thayer ever reached a settlement with ABC regarding the Pol Pol trial footage. Considering that he sued them for 30 million dollars in compensatory damages, it's surprising that I can't find record of an outcome there. Even if he only made the $350,000 that ABC says was agreed upon, that's still half a million by today's standards. How did that end up getting resolved?

The reason I mention this is because Thayer specifically mentioned journalists being "slave labor," and I seem to recall that slaves were whipped. I think this is relevant because if somebody manages to blow through half a million in a lump sum payment without investing it in their future, then complains about their poverty, I would very much enjoy seeing them get whipped soundly, simply for their inexcusable lack of foresight. So Thayer's comment momentarily got my hopes up.

Of course, as I recall, the payment was entirely contingent on Thayer signing the contract with ABC, since such is the nature of settlements. Ancient articles I found with google suggested that initially he balked at this, preferring "integrity" to signing a settlement. (Though filing a $30 million dollar lawsuit over an unconfirmed "verbal agreement" sounds a bit shady to me.) Did he ever go through with a settlement, or is he still fighting it? (If it's the latter, then perhaps I have judging him too harshly - I assumed that his initial reluctance to settle was because they were lowballing him, but if it's a genuine ideological stance then that's certainly deserving of respect.) Still, I'd be interested in knowing how much money Thayer ultimately received from this and how it was resolved, since I think it certainly would provide some insight into his character.

Does anybody have more information in that regard?
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:38 AM on March 6, 2013


"Please don't talk people out of their dreams, and in particular stop discouraging smart people from careers in journalism."

I honestly wish somebody had talked me out of journalism back in the 90s. If my daughter told me she was going to be a journalist, I would beg her to do almost anything else.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:48 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


And I will damn sure never do it for free

I don't understand this sentiment at all. Does not a dentist treat his friends for free? Does not every besieged Web developer have to build a shitty little site for one of their relatives? Haven't you ever wanted to support a worthy organization that can't afford your services?

it's insulting to find out that the vocation you've dedicated yourself to, and are good at, isn't worth that much.

Ha. Tell it to the guy playing the didgeridoo (or didgeridon't?) on the bus the other day.

I'm just glad that we all get paid for our contributions here on MetaFilter....

Ha II. Somebody has to hit those relevant keywords to serve up those front-page ads. The whole conversation here is incredibly ironic.

I think this is relevant because if somebody manages to blow through half a million in a lump sum payment without investing it in their future, then complains about their poverty, I would very much enjoy seeing them get whipped soundly, simply for their inexcusable lack of foresight.

Good lord, it's like bizarro metafilter? (I suppose the crowd has always been big on vengeance and wrath...) Also, lawyers are not free.

A buddy of mine sold an Op-Ed to the New York Times last year. He was paid about enough to take his family out to a restaurant, and also given the "but it is great exposure" line.

Link? I mean, it is exposure. Even I know writers need exposure.

Full disclosure: I am an editor for the Atlantic, and a colleague of Olga's

Fwiw, I wouldn't disclose too much on here. I'm just a shitty corporate drone, but I know my upper management wouldn't be happy if I were talking about our company online outside of PR. Of course, they must be paying you peanuts, eh? (I joke.)

The state of various industries is that the worker is losing individual power and has to agree to whatever terms the employer gives in order to get...what, paid? At least slaves were given some food, clothing and housing for their enforced work.

"At least." This is a darn funny thread.
posted by mrgrimm at 7:55 AM on March 6, 2013


.... AS I WROTE IN THE COMMENT YOU SNIPPED FROM!

Dude, chill. You said information was cheap, and you didn't exactly qualify that. Then you you quoted back to me a thing you said that seems to perfectly describe the Atlantic and the reporter - they've got a niche to mine, they've got a guy who knows what he's doing and has been internationally recognized as such, and this is a thing that they will pay for! Except they're not, and The Atlantic is not some broke-ass blog with twelve readers and no advertisers. They're treating information as if it were cheap - not a fluff piece on some celeb that can be written based solely on info gathered from other puff pieces on the celeb, but information that takes skill and time to gather, formulate, and write about. Just because publishers don't want to pay a writer for the work doesn't make that work cheaper for the writer to produce.
posted by rtha at 8:01 AM on March 6, 2013


Does not a dentist treat his friends for free?

Not in any world I've lived in.

Does not every besieged Web developer have to build a shitty little site for one of their relatives? Haven't you ever wanted to support a worthy organization that can't afford your services?

Is Thayer a personal friend of Olga? Is the Atlantic a worthy organization that couldn't afford Thayer's services?

No on both counts, so I'm not sure why you're bringing this up.

Also: From Mefi's Own jscalzi. Discussed as an FPP previously.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:03 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


wolfdreams01: "I think this is relevant because if somebody manages to blow through half a million in a lump sum payment without investing it in their future, then complains about their poverty, I would very much enjoy seeing them get whipped soundly, simply for their inexcusable lack of foresight. "

He made $350,000 sixteen years ago -- why does that mean he should he stop getting paid work? If he got $30 million from his lawsuit, why does that mean he should he stop getting paid for his work? I think working pro-bono for the Atlantic would be the inexcusable lack of foresight here.
posted by boo_radley at 8:06 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Please understand I'm not taking the piss, but in light of this thread, I actually am curious about the answer to some questions I have.

I totally get that journalists--especially ones who expend a lot of legwork and research--should be paid what they're worth, and even up-and-coming ones deserve payment too, but how does this apply to people who write movie/music/pop culture reviews? Because I get the feeling that there is a massive amount of people out there who want to do so or already do so on their blogs. Where does the line get drawn in terms of being paid for writing? What writing qualifies as being a legitimately payworthy? Is it all journalism, or do journalists see guys writing movie reviews on blogs or your local weekly as brothers-in-arms?
posted by Kitteh at 8:19 AM on March 6, 2013


He made $350,000 sixteen years ago -- why does that mean he should he stop getting paid work? If he got $30 million from his lawsuit, why does that mean he should he stop getting paid for his work? I think working pro-bono for the Atlantic would be the inexcusable lack of foresight here.

Why do you assume that I'm arguing against Thayer? I admit that my instinctive tendency is to mistrust the guy who files 30 million dollar lawsuits based on unconfirmed "verbal agreements", but I haven't chosen sides yet, and I'd prefer to have more information before committing to whom I favor in this situation. I asked a simple question that I feel is relevant - why are you bothered by it?

As for why I think it's relevant, it's because Thayer's past journalistic triumphs mean absolutely nothing - they're like Lindsay Lohan's nonsensical claims that she's still a great actress who deserves to make a lot of money, simply because she used to have real talent back in the day. The bottom line is that the market pays what it thinks you're worth - if you don't like it, find a different market. I'm just curious regarding Thayer's "poverty" claim, since it doesn't add up based on the evidence. I think that's an angle to the story worth examiningly more closely. After all, if we're discussing journalistic integrity, shouldn't we should look at the entire context of this story?
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:19 AM on March 6, 2013


What editor would contact the guy now - even for a paying gig?

An editor who understands that he doesn't work for free. An editor who values the quality of his work. An editor who is willing to treat him like a professional. I.e. not somebody like Khazan. It's a net benefit for Thayer, from my perspective.
posted by disconnect at 8:22 AM on March 6, 2013


Thayer has a legitimate gripe, and as one who, in an unrelated industry, has had my share of folks try to convince me I should provide free products and services in exchange for "great exposure" I absolutely sympathize with his position.

But at the risk of bringing up the dreaded "tone argument", his aiming all of his anger and vengeance at this one editor who has been at her job for less than a month (which, in fairness, Thayer may not have known) and is likely not the person responsible for setting The Atlantic's freelance budget, makes him come off, at least to me, as overly aggressive and off-putting. His missive reminded me a little of the folks you occasionally see at fast food places who scream and yell at the cashier over corporate policies he or she clearly did not set and has no power to alter.
posted by The Gooch at 8:34 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Where does the line get drawn in terms of being paid for writing?

Anybody can string a bunch of words together. The question is what the writing conveys. If someone is just spouting an opinion about a movie, what is there to pay for? Everybody has opinions. If the review gives me insights that come from a wealth of knowledge about film production distilled from years of study, that's a higher level of writing that probably is worth some money. If the writer got off his ass, talked to other people and did some research beyond typing key words into Google, that's actual journalism. It deserves compensation.
posted by Longtime Listener at 8:40 AM on March 6, 2013


wolfdreams01: "Why do you assume that I'm arguing against Thayer?"

Because you quickly constructed a scenario where he deserved to be flogged.

wolfdreams01: "it's because Thayer's past journalistic triumphs mean absolutely nothing - they're like Lindsay Lohan's nonsensical claims that she's still a great actress who deserves to make a lot of money, simply because she used to have real talent back in the day."

This is a fatuous claim. Thayer produces high-quality work. I'm not aware of him suffering a slide in quality output as Lohan has. That is, a person could track Lohan's career and point to a number of incidents where her quality got worse. I'm not sure you could do that with Thayer. I'm also not sure where the claim where Thayer is claiming poverty comes from.
posted by boo_radley at 8:50 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Then you you quoted back to me a thing you said that seems to perfectly describe the Atlantic and the reporter - they've got a niche to mine

Actually, I don't think they mine their niche well. And therefore don't have the budget to pay for premium content. This is precisely the problem with the commoditisation of publishing - it's made it that much harder for publications to find and defend niches, and hence why there are lots of sites that all seem to be doing similar type things.

This is besides the point of whether they should be paying top whack for good content.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:56 AM on March 6, 2013


Somewhat relevant to this topic is Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media by James Fallows which contrasts the quick and dirty publishing of new media journalism to venerable institutional journalism of old. I'm not choosing one over the other, but there certainly was a time when journalists were paid quite well to do long-form investigations that history could have easily done without.
posted by destro at 9:10 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Suppose Thayer was an adjunct professor or grad studnent in East Asian Studies and he got the same offer.
posted by humanfont at 9:14 AM on March 6, 2013


Thayer produces high-quality work. I'm not aware of him suffering a slide in quality output as Lohan has. That is, a person could track Lohan's career and point to a number of incidents where her quality got worse. I'm not sure you could do that with Thayer. I'm also not sure where the claim where Thayer is claiming poverty comes from.

The claim comes from the fact that Thayer, in his post and followups, has said he's too poor to afford his own internet connection and steals wifi access from his neighbor by holding his laptop out of his window.

I guess I just developed a very jaundiced view of what freelancing is like. Freelancers are almost always used to fill in gaps in staff writing; the 'payoff' is in establishing a good relationship with an editor so that their future budget will be used on you rather than another unknown person, landing a recurring gig like a column, or landing a job as a staff writer. There are lots of quality writers out there -- for an editor, how easy a writer is to work with and whether they consistently nail deadlines are distinguishing characteristics.

Is it unfair? Maybe. But the slush pile is deep and there are very few hours in the day. Thayer's anger isn't about The Atlantic, it's about how publishing now works. The posters in this thread who are saying that the editor's behavior was shocking or embarrassing or reprehensible just confuse me. Have they ever done freelance writing?

That's not a snark, just trying to figure out if my and my friends' experiences were uniquely difficult and "normal" freelancing is lucrative and friendly.
posted by verb at 9:18 AM on March 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm not choosing one over the other, but there certainly was a time when journalists were paid quite well to do long-form investigations that history could have easily done without.

Yeah, but those have long been the exceptions to the rule. Freelancers who pitched stories like that almost always had to do expensive leg-work before they could successfully pitch those stories, or simply amortized the cost of investigation and research by doing it piecemeal over the course of their other writing work.

It's one of the reasons I'm tentatively hopeful about e-publishing shorts (Kindle Singles, and similar programs). A writer who can produce consistent long-form features, in the 4000-10000 word range, and knows how to promote them, can make more at 99¢ per digital download than most newspapers or magazines are willing or able to pay. Short pieces are still screwed, and need the aggregation power of a larger brand, but the long-form stuff has different possibilities available to it.
posted by verb at 9:23 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hey Wolfdreams--why is Thayer obligated to stoically endure the slings and arrows of "whatever the market will bear" in regards to compensation to his work; but can only apply that logic to the settlement of a lawsuit at the risk of betraying poor character? Isn't it just another transaction that he should maximize or not complain about?
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:28 AM on March 6, 2013


wolfdreams01: "Why do you assume that I'm arguing against Thayer?"

Because you quickly constructed a scenario where he deserved to be flogged.


True. But I also contructed a scenario where he deserved our admiration, in the very same comment.

I'm also not sure where the claim where Thayer is claiming poverty comes from.

Well, the title of this FPP seems relevant to that claim. Citing the need "to feed my children" as opposed to the need "to make compensation more in line with my illustrious career, such as $125k per year" certainly sounds like an attempt to gather sympathy by pleading poverty.

But look, none of this is answering my question - what happened to that money? Nobody seems to know the answer to that question. Mrgrimm attempted to answer it by saying "lawyers aren't free" but he's absolutely wrong - plaintiff lawyers are free, unless your case is so weak that you are forced to hire a lawyer who will work on retainer rather than a contingent fee. (And if his case was so weak, that fact itself raises questions.) So this definitely piques my curiousity.

I hope this doesn't sound rude, but I think our conversation is becoming rather circular at this point, so unless you can help me get the information I'm interested in, I'm going to disengage. I think you're being very polite but it does seem like you're looking for an argument to some degree.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 9:28 AM on March 6, 2013


What in the hell does any of that have to do with the Atlantic's policy, and the issues confronting freelance writers in the digital world? Why does Thayer need to pass your arbitrarily concocted credibility check for us to have this discussion?
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:32 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


wolfdreams01: "I hope this doesn't sound rude, but I think our conversation is becoming rather circular at this point, so unless you can help me get the information I'm interested in, I'm going to disengage. I think you're being very polite but it does seem like you're looking for an argument to some degree."

I appreciate your desire for politeness and it does not sound rude. I don't think I'm looking for an argument, but I am trying to understand what your assertion is. I'm not sure the details of the man's financials are available to the public.
posted by boo_radley at 9:39 AM on March 6, 2013


I would very much enjoy seeing them get whipped soundly, simply for their inexcusable lack of foresight.

This is perverse.

Also, did Thayer say that he was impoverished, or that journalists as a whole are largely impoverished?

But look, none of this is answering my question - what happened to that money?

I dunno. Why does it matter again?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:57 AM on March 6, 2013


This is like reading a complaint from the monocle salesman grumbling that people won't pay for his well crafted lens as he bothered to make a lens and his children must eat. Journalism is sort of worthless these days. You know stuff, are vaguely articulate and have a computer. So is everybody. Supply increases. Demand falls. C'est la vie. Specialise. The best paid journos I know write about automotive logistics, pension law and industrial rubber processing.
posted by Damienmce at 11:00 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know stuff, are vaguely articulate and have a computer.

Damienmce,

You know, Thayer infiltrated North Korea and interviewed Pol Pot. He's not just somebody typing away at a computer.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:03 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, so much here.

First, his righteous anger and indignation seems waaaaay overblown. We get it - you're not happy - but it's not the end of the world (his or ours).

Second, publishing the emails verbatim was kind of tacky, too.

Third, this comment above: "I totally get that journalists--especially ones who expend a lot of legwork and research--should be paid what they're worth, and even up-and-coming ones deserve payment too."

Well, sure - but that's the catch, isn't it? Paid "what they're worth" isn't exactly a simple formula.

"Oh, you spent four hours driving around the county to gather information about this...and then you spent about three hours talking to people about the facts of the matter. Ah, and then you spent about seven hours online, researching documents and public databases, I see. OK, and then you spent...hmmm...looks like about six hours actually typing up the story. Well, then, let me whip out my handy calculator...*tap tap tap*...and it looks like you should be paid $500 for this article!"

But it just ain't so. What that effort is worth in terms of payment is not what it was worth 10, 20, 40 years ago, no matter how "unfair" it might seem to some folks.

Also: my initial thought about this Thayer guy was that he was a young-ish journo who hadn't learned his way around...was quite surprised to see his resume and credentials and find out that he's a few years older than me.

DUDE: if the inability to make a living doing this is jeopardizing your ability to feed your family, you need to find another line of work. Seriously. Being able to do "what you love" or earn a living via your hobby/passion is wonderful, but if it isn't paying the bills, well...fair or not, you've got to find something else.

One last thought: why doesn't he have ads on his blog? Might generate some cash for him, especially given his traffic the last few days.

Come to think of it - why doesn't he have a "hire me" page on his blog (none that I could see, anyway)?
posted by davidmsc at 11:07 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


You know, Thayer infiltrated North Korea and interviewed Pol Pot. He's not just somebody typing away at a computer.

I did not and I stand corrected. If he is an authentic subject matter expert doing on the ground reportage, he has a beef. I has mistaken this for the one of the regular 'oh, the plight of entitled generalist who got a (insert subject) degree and believes they're owed work' .
posted by Damienmce at 11:11 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Journalism is sort of worthless these days. You know stuff, are vaguely articulate and have a computer. So is everybody.

Next time someone asks what happened to The Fourth Estate, well, here you go.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 11:16 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps worth noting that Thayer worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review, which sadly folded in 2009. (I was a freelance writer in Asia myself from 2001-2004 and had friends who wrote for FEER, which was a great venue for both novice and accomplished journalists.)

Of my friends who were then journalists/writers I don't know of any who still are. Most of us ended up in tech or education or some combination thereof.

My credo was always (still is) Samuel Johnson's "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money" (present experiment with MeFi excluded, of course). So to that extent I'm with Thayer on this, though I agree with previous commenters that he could have perhaps been more politic about it.
posted by seemoreglass at 11:25 AM on March 6, 2013


My credo was always (still is) Samuel Johnson's "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money" (present experiment with MeFi excluded, of course). So to that extent I'm with Thayer on this, though I agree with previous commenters that he could have perhaps been more politic about it.

It feels like there are contradictory arguments being made here by various people. If journalism is some kind of societal good/important calling, there are going to be individuals who do it just because. If writing is simply a thankless task to be done because the money is right, then our current problem is due to a supply glut and the market will eventually sort it out.

Medicine and plumbing -- two example professions people have compared writing to in this thread -- are noteworthy in that artificial supply barriers have been set up around the work.
posted by verb at 12:06 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is like reading a complaint from the monocle salesman grumbling that people won't pay for his well crafted lens as he bothered to make a lens and his children must eat.

How on earth can there be so much in this thread along these lines? The reason the monocle maker's kids can't eat is that no one wants a monocle. Not because wealthy companies who do want lots and lots of monocles expect to get something for nothing, many times over, that the stacks of cash other people's work brings in to them might be maximally thick. No. That's entitled and out of line. If something is worth selling, it ought to be worth buying.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 1:40 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Mrgrimm attempted to answer it by saying "lawyers aren't free" but he's absolutely wrong - plaintiff lawyers are free, unless your case is so weak that you are forced to hire a lawyer who will work on retainer rather than a contingent fee. (And if his case was so weak, that fact itself raises questions.)

This is an utterly ridiculous statment. The vast majority of lawyers do not work on spec. That you even think that spec = free indicates you have utterly no idea about what you are talking about.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:45 PM on March 6, 2013


Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, responds: A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013
posted by lalex at 3:26 PM on March 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


HST would have driven to the Atlantic office and set loose a crate of rats and angry badgers in the breakroom before blasting the editors desk with a fire extinguisher. If he was in a particular generous mood.

I don't think the dude was rude at all and showed genuine restraint.
posted by shockingbluamp at 3:27 PM on March 6, 2013


A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013

Could someone take a sec and knock that down to 1200 words? TIA.

(I keed, but damn that is one long series of deeply buried points.)
posted by mediareport at 3:48 PM on March 6, 2013


But The Atlantic doesn't have stacks of cash. Those days are gone.

Also minor correction Thayer did not infiltrate North Korea. Pol Pot was not in North Korea. He went to Cambodia where he did amazing work.

He seems to be a pretty good at the writing side, but bad at the multimedia skills, social media management and business side required to make it in digital journalism.
posted by humanfont at 3:55 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think the monocle argument works exactly. Here one which is closer to the truth. In one of my early jobs I was a coder. I was good and I worked really hard, but that job is now done by someone on another continent at half the price. When the market rate for what I did collapsed, I found something else.

He wants to be paid what he believes he's worth. The market no longer values his offering as greatly as he does.

The fact that you're good and you work hard doesn't protect you if the market falls apart.
posted by 26.2 at 4:23 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Could someone take a sec and knock that down to 1200 words?

First prize in Atlantic Online editors' traffic gen contest is a Cadallac El Dorodo. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is your fired. Some guy wrote something interesting on the Internet, he'll give it away for free. The traffic is just sitting there go get the viral clicks. You think that's abuse, how you going to handle the trolls in the comments section. ABC always be clicking. AIDA attention, interest, decision, action. Do I have your attention, I better because its fuck or walk. Interest are you interested in the content. Decision did you decide to give us so e free content. Action did did the Internet view your article. Good writer; fuck you be Stephen King. See this watch. This watch cost more than Andrew Sullivan's car. Olga was going to put your content on the Atlantic as a favor but the real favor would have been to ignore your email after you first inquired about getting paid because a dead tree dinosaur freelance print journo is a loser.
posted by humanfont at 4:24 PM on March 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


Super interesting conversation (with editors, freelancers, etc.) via The Awl: How Much Should A Writer Get Paid?
posted by youandiandaflame at 4:27 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just give me the good linkbacks, Humanfront. The GoogleNews-GoogleAds linkbacks. Not this Associated Content shit. No one can get followers with that shit.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:33 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm of the opinion that writers, musicians, actors, comedians, entertainers of any ilk should be able to make a living wage and have access to the village shaman if they are at all decent. As a tribe we need to exempt these folk from hunting and gathering of food because they make the workaday drudgery the majority of us go through bearable. They do not get to be at a higher level than the chief, they do not get to displace the gods, they do not get to look down on the people who bring them their meat.

I developed this worldview when that fuckhead from Metallica raided Napster. I sold my discs and haven't gone to see a live show since and those guys are dead to me. I put them on an iceflow and watched them die.

Now, I hold journalists in a different light than I do your average writer. I haven't quite figured out how to make sure we exempt them from the depravations of the wolves chomping at the tribe. Considering I am a journalism parasite (or symbiote) it's in my best interest to see these folk survive. I want them to become more nimble, faster, adapt and thrive.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:40 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Olga was going to put your content on the Atlantic as a favor but the real favor would have been to ignore your email after you first inquired about getting paid because a dead tree dinosaur freelance print journo is a loser.

Cute. I like it. But let's not forget, humanfont, as we all bask in the Atlantic staff's righteous fury at Thayer's indefensible publishing of private email, that the head of Atlantic Digital, Bob Cohn, told Felix Salmon that Olga fucked up by asking Nate to do a substantial edit for free - rather than simply offering to cross-post/syndicate the original piece:

I spoke to Bob Cohn, the head of Atlantic Digital, today, and he said, echoing editor in chief James Bennet’s formal apology to Thayer, that this was a mistake. It would have been OK, probably, to ask Thayer if the Atlantic could cross-post, or syndicate, the original piece, with no more work involved on Thayer’s part...

I don’t think that Thayer would have been offended by a simple cross-posting request: that can be dealt with with an equally simple yes or no. Instead, however, he was asked by the Atlantic to cut 4,300 words down to 1,200 words — something which involves a substantial amount of work, and often a substantial amount of rewriting. For that, the Atlantic should have offered to pay him. Or, more realistically, they shouldn’t have asked him to do that in the first place: there is value to reprinting the original story, and there is value in quoting it and linking to it, but there’s not a huge amount of value in editing such a thing down — not when your medium has no space constraints.


Is that not your read on the situation, humanfont, or the read of the rest of the Atlantic staff? That Olga actually did screw up there? I mean, I'm sure she's a nice, talented person who didn't deserve the shitty move Nate pulled, but admitting that she made a mistake in the way she approached him is hardly an unfair attack, is it?

Anyway, others still interested might enjoy the cute move the Atlantic just made in actually - gasp - paying Stephanie Lucianovic to repost last week's "Why I Write for Free" essay at their site in the wake of the current imbroglio. "This piece was originally published on Avidly (for free) before appearing here (for pay)."

Is that a new policy? If so, great! If not, it kinda reads like a pissy stunt. Cute - and great for Lucianovic - but temporary.

Oh, and here's a response at Avidly, posted earlier today: Why I Don't Write for Free* (*Except Right Now)
posted by mediareport at 7:37 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


All that said, Thayer's most recent post is frankly a bit bizarre. Instead of bothering to address the legitimate criticism of his ugly decision to make private email public without permission - surely the most important thing he can talk about right now if he wants to continue acting like the outraged party - he spins a yarn about Susan Brownmiller facebooking him today to offer her support and thank him for his past help.

Why this is relevant to the ongoing conversation and the many questions it's raised is left unexplained, although the post does kind of reinforce the impression that Thayer isn't totally at home in the oh-so-hurly-burly online world, which is perhaps a slightly more gracious way of putting it than humanfont managed above.
posted by mediareport at 7:46 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Paying for previously free work is not unprecedented. I published Mortal Passage for free at kuro5hin, but because the publisher liked it he paid me the reprint rate of $0.01/word to publish it in Bull Spec #5. Substantially below first rights of course, and appropriately so, but an offer of some money is always a nice gesture when you want to position someone's content in your venue.
posted by localroger at 7:52 PM on March 6, 2013


Mrgrimm, when I said I'd damn sure never do it for free, I mean this:

I of course have written hundreds of pieces for friends, for free, including re-doing everyone's resumes, guest blog posts, short stories, poems, website copy, artists' bios, press releases for entrepreneurs, etc. Those were for friends and family, and people tend to ask for and even expect it (I'm sure you deal with this, too). But if one more person asks me why I haven't written a book yet, I'm going to fucking scream. After two months of 10-14 hour days (including weekends), finding time for laundry and feeding myself has become a luxury; the idea of writing MORE when I get home is... actually, reading this thread and the comment I'm writing now is the most I've done since getting sick on Christmas Eve. Eyestrain is becoming a problem, too. (Thank you, amazing husband, for taking care of me when I have to cover for people on maternity leave and fill in the gaps when handfuls of people quit at once. Without you, I would smell bad and the house would be filthy. You are the greatest human being I know.) So for right now, sorry, no more freebies from me.

A couple years back, I worked for 4 months straight on an investigative journalism piece about statewide teen pregnancy rates and how they related to sex education in public schools (which included 3 rounds of revisions, interviews with 5 different psychologists, public health agencies, loads of conversations with nervous parents and their children, etc.). And after all those revisions and a signed contract promising a certain dollar amount, I got paid a $50 kill fee. so, yeah... what does that break down to, exactly? .0007 cents an hour? Freelancing doesn't give you health insurance, and that's why I can't do it. That's probably true of many (most?) American writers/journalists/editors; add in the cost of electricity and a computer to write on, rent/mortgage costs for a home office space, etc. and statements like "I need to feed my children" doesn't seem quite so hyperbolic to me. I'm willing to write at night and on weekends and even leave my sister's wedding to make a freaking deadline, but that's because I'm salaried and love my job. If I didn't, I would never, ever put myself through that kind of hell, and it makes me sad that it's not only expected of freelancers, but that ignorant people ridicule their hard work and think WiFi access and a few Google searches are all that's needed to win the Pulitzer these days.

So, much like you yourself have already done, I am trying to learn where to draw the line... my love of the work means that I probably won't ever walk away from it completely, but I understand going corporate. I really, really do.

And wow, who knew there were so many full-time employees at The Atlantic's digital branch? That sounds like heaven to me.

I've seen digital magazines out there publishing on a weekly schedule and syndicating content to other sites with fewer than four employees, so yeah. Digital media is a very chaotic, stressful environment, with plenty of variances in quality and target demographics and advertisers and affiliate sites and so on, all of which are constantly changing.

Kitteh, to answer your question re: movie reviewers, et al being brothers in arms, well, to a degree... yes. I was a music writer/reviewer for a newspaper back in the day, and it's still work. But it's not nearly the same thing as covering the John MacAfee meltdown for Wired or documenting the discovery of where love lives in the brain via fMRI and how it correlates to behavioral and sociological studies about relationships for National Geographic. But lifestyle writers and reviewers still have to sit through N movies or Y hours of live gigs, going deaf and being occasionally bored, before they can write something (theoretically, unless they're just making shit up). The quality of writing does, of course, vary, but those pieces also have the lifespan of a mayfly.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:32 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Paul Carr, former TechCrunch writer and founder of NSFWCORP, weighed in with a post on PandoDaily.com announcing that publications have to "pick a side" in the future of journalism. The stuff he's doing for NSFWCORP sound interesting, but seems a little disingenuous when he rails on the evil, filthy, race-to-the-bottom influence of digital ads... on a site that's ad-funded.
posted by verb at 11:16 PM on March 6, 2013


snuffleupagus: "Just give me the good linkbacks, Humanfront. The GoogleNews-GoogleAds linkbacks. Not this Associated Content shit. No one can get followers with that shit."

The good linkbacks? You want the good linkbacks? If you can't sell with associated content from valued partners across the web, then you don't deserve the good linkbacks! That's why you drove here in in Ford Focus and I drive a Tesla Model S.
posted by boo_radley at 9:36 AM on March 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Mediareport put that coffee down! Coffee is for Klout scoreers.
posted by humanfont at 9:57 AM on March 7, 2013


Eh, less cute this time. Again, would you mind answering a simple question, humanfont? Do you agree with Bob Cohn that Olga screwed up in the way she approached Nate?

That said - and good lord, humanfont, just answer the question - Jeremy Dun caught and ran with that update Felix Salmon posted, linked above, about Thayer's piece being "deeply indebted to — and yet didn’t cite or link to — Mark Zeigler’s 2006 story on the same subject."

Dun's analysis: Nate Thayer is a plagiarist - is interesting, documenting Thayer's late insertion of links back to Ziegler only after questions started being raised, and suspiciously similar quotes from officials first contacted in 2006 by Ziegler. NY Mag also posted a look at the plagiarism accusations. Thayer and his original editor at NK News responded, with Thayer outraged, to Columbia Journalism Review:

The editing process created “numerous attribution errors,” Farrell said, and Thayer pointed them out after the story was posted. The mistakes were fixed, and this, Farrell said, accounts for why Duns noticed that links to the Union-Tribune piece were added in later.

The more interesting accusation centers on the similar quotes; it'll be interesting to see if anyone follows up with Thayer's sources to see if he did actually interview them recently, instead of just lifting old quotes they'd offered in Ziegler's 2006 piece.
posted by mediareport at 5:59 PM on March 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


It was fun reading through this because Olga is my SO. So that was a fun way to start the day when this "broke". The phone conversation (that he ended quickly) and the rapid fire emails that followed to this end reveal a few things:

a) the Atlantic doesn't pay freelancers all that much, so if you can't write your story in 1-4 hours you probably aren't going to want to do one for them

b) Global Post just quoted the hell out of his story and published it that way. My girl wanted to take the higher road and give him a byline. Shame on her?

c) Freelance anything is a risky career choice, even if you established yourself 15 years ago it doesn't amount to a hill of beans.

It's fun to read all of this stuff and definitely schadenfreude to hear of the plagiarism debacle now.

FWIW Olga is a tough mofo and she will keep publishing the best stuff she can get for cheap or for free. :D

She got a ton of exposure from this and dozens of "I'll write for free!!!!!" emails from around the globe.

Oh the economics of journalism.
posted by nutate at 8:20 AM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


Olga didn't do anything wrong. Editors are supposed to push writers so hard they have a breakdown and then the senior editor swoops in and soothes things over. If he did plagiarize the story, shame in him. Sure I might occasionally remix a monologue written by David Mamet for the film version of Glengary Glenn Ross, but that is used in an obvious parody fashion under fair use.
posted by humanfont at 12:15 PM on March 8, 2013


Well, I'll just agree with the head of Atlantic Digital on that one, humanfont: Olga made a mistake in not first offering to reprint the piece as it was, without asking an established journalist to do a major edit for free.

nutate: FWIW Olga is a tough mofo and she will keep publishing the best stuff she can get for cheap or for free. :D

That's awesome to hear. Good for her for surviving this intact. I hope she rethinks the way she asks folks to repurpose their work for the Atlantic in the future, though. To think there's nothing in this episode for her to learn would be a strange position indeed.

Re: the plagiarism accusations, Sara Morrison at CJR has a new post today; for some reason she decides to generally absolve Thayer ("understandable mistake" rather than direct quote lifting without attribution), even though she herself admits there remain a couple of quotes still in question, and says Thayer gave her the wrong number for one of his sources and hasn't gotten back to her with the right number yet.
posted by mediareport at 6:02 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


But the head of Atlantic Digital drives a Hyundai and I drive an $80,000 BMW.
posted by humanfont at 7:16 PM on March 8, 2013


Yeah, ok, you don't really care, it's stupid to engage you, blah blah. Thanks for the notification.
posted by mediareport at 8:36 PM on March 8, 2013


And, just to keep things rolling, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates weighs in with the story of how he broke in:
I agreed to [guest blog] for Matt [Yglesias] because I wanted exposure. I was not a "young journalist." This was not my chance to break into the profession. What I was was a product of a time when you could be brimming with ideas and have no place to say them. People who talk about "gate-keepers" have mostly had the good fortune of living inside the castle walls. I lived outside. I had a style and voice that had never seemed to fit anywhere (except my first job at Washington City Paper.)

I could not convince editors that what I was curious about was worth writing about. Every day I would watch ideas die in my head. When I was laid-off from TIME, the lack of a job was bad. But what hurt more was that this story, which I felt in my heart to be so important, was going to die. What the internet offered was the chance to let all of those ideas compete in the arena, and live and die on the merits. And Matt was offering a bigger arena. I was ecstatic.

...

Writing is always hard. I understand why someone might not want to do it for exposure. I've certainly had professional journalists like Thayer turn me down. But those journalists have also taken the title of "professional" seriously enough to not print my e-mail address and all of my private correspondence without asking me. Indeed, it's the high morality and offense-taking which most puzzles me about all this, given that writers, all around us, are "working for exposure," given that every one of us is participating in a system in which they consume for free.
posted by verb at 8:48 AM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thayer has a Klout score in the low 60s and barely a thousand twitter followers. This is also after a huge amount of attention in the last week. His entire twitter history is a few hundred tweets. His blog is not very visible in google searches and doesn't appear to be linked by other blogs or journalists. I didn't see anything in his site about recent speaking engagements, upcoming conferences, panels or other activities where he could be earning a living off his expertise. His only book is currently out of print. Also no Flikr, YouTube or Instagram
posted by humanfont at 8:20 PM on March 9, 2013


Klout ... twitter ... blog ... other activities

Maybe he'd rather do actual, you know, journalism instead of puffing himself on social media? Is the Big Ben twitter account that goes BONG BONG BONG every hour more valuable than Thayer just because it's LOL FUNNY and has 400,000 followers?
posted by localroger at 7:51 AM on March 10, 2013


Maybe he'd rather do actual, you know, journalism instead of puffing himself on social media? Is the Big Ben twitter account that goes BONG BONG BONG every hour more valuable than Thayer just because it's LOL FUNNY and has 400,000 followers?

I'm all in favor of mocking Klout (its algorithm rewards relentless, value-neutral hustling, but that's a separate story). But categorically dismissing social media as "the Big Ben twitter account that says BONG BONG every hour" is like summarizing newspapers as "cartoons and want ads."

Blogging was dismissed in the same way for years, until suddenly every journalist was expected to have one or be treated as a dinosaur. For better or worse, 20% of Americans use social networks as a primary news source today. print subscriptions industry-wide are at less than half their 2006 levels. If news matters, it should be where people are.
posted by verb at 11:00 AM on March 10, 2013


If news matters, it should be where people are.

What the ICIJ said about Thayer when they gave him an award for his interview with Pol Pot:
"He illuminated a page of history that would have been lost to the world had he not spent years in the Cambodian jungle, in a truly extraordinary quest for first-hand knowledge of the Khmer Rouge and their murderous leader. His investigations of the Cambodian political world required not only great risk and physical hardship but also mastery of an ever-changing cast of factional characters."
This is what Thayer does, and it's important even if the people are more inclined to hang out on icanhazcheezburger than Newsweek.

I get your point, but what it says to me is not that Thayer is somehow missing a boat because he doesn't write pithy 140-character snark or whore himself out for likes on Facebook. It says that our priorities as individuals and as a society are fucked up if we think those things are even remotely comparable to the efforts and writings of a man who has spent a lifetime learning to present the complexities of an alien culture in long-form journalism.

If nobody among us finds it worthwhile to reward Thayer adequately for exercising his hard gained talent, then our poverty is far greater than his as a result.
posted by localroger at 11:29 AM on March 10, 2013


Not every twitter feed is just some snarky bullshit or cat gifs. One can actually use Twitter, YouTube , Facebook and these other social media tools to connect with an audience, develop sources and find leads. If people on the Internet find your information useful, they share it and rewards flow back to you. Look at Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan. In 2004 Marshall got his readers to send him to New Hampshire and cover the election, from there he's built Talking Points Memo, and actually employs many journalists. He isn't posting cat gifs and snark. He's doing serious journalism, breaking scandals like the mass DOJ firings.

His Pol Pot interview was in 1997. He was well paid for it. Since then the job of a journalist and the publishing industry has changed dramatically. There are many other great journalists out there and new ones coming up everyday. I'm not unsympathetic to his plight, but I see it as a result of his personal failure to adapt, not a failing of society or The Atlantic.

Klout and Twitter followers may be bullshit, but it is part of the job today. I reject your proposition that in this era of information wealth we are diminished because one journalist can't be bothered to update his career skills.
posted by humanfont at 4:37 PM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is what Thayer does, and it's important even if the people are more inclined to hang out on icanhazcheezburger than Newsweek.

No one is saying that Thayer should start posting sepia-tinted interweb pictures of his brunch sandwiches.


I get your point, but what it says to me is not that Thayer is somehow missing a boat because he doesn't write pithy 140-character snark or whore himself out for likes on Facebook.

That's not what I wrote, by any stretch of the imagination. The link in my earlier post was to Poynter's 2012 State Of The News Industry report, not a cat meme. A large and rapidly growing percentage of adults get their news from social networks, period. That doesn't mean that news has to be condensed into 140 characters, any more than the existence of headlines makes long-form journalism impossible.

A decade ago, People Who Mattered dismissed blogs as worthless drivel -- high school poetry and illiterate journal-scratchings by people who didn't have the talent to really write and get published. Today, Thayer has a blog and posts regularly -- he appears to use it to promote his writing when it's published in other locations, and to comment on his own work. I disagree with the earlier implication that he's some sort of dinosaur if he doesn't have a Twitter or Facebook account, but what Real Journalists do in those forums is no different than what Thayer does on his own blog.


If nobody among us finds it worthwhile to reward Thayer adequately for exercising his hard gained talent, then our poverty is far greater than his as a result.

Professional journalists at their best do important work that makes the world a better place. Just like software developers, plumbers, doctors, musicians, teachers, architects, plumbers, and so on. That does not mean, however, that they are exempt from the basic mechanics of doing their job. Thayer may be a good writer, but freelancing is more than the simple act of researching and writing.

Thayer has chosen to be a freelancer (by his own admission, he turned down a job as a staff writer at the Atlantic). That means that he has assumed the responsibility of marketing himself to editors and publishers, promoting his work, networking, building an audience for his writing, and so on. I'm sympathetic about the difficulties, as I've mentioned upthread -- freelancing is hard. What's baffled me through this whole affair is the number of people who don't seem to realize that it is and always has been hard.
posted by verb at 4:48 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've followed TPM since before they hit it big. TPM became TPM when neither Facebook nor Twitter was a thing. TPM is about medium-form journalism, mostly aggregated at first but now of course they have the resources to do more original stuff. TPM has a presence on Facebook and Twitter nowadays, sure, because you're supposed to and they have employees so they can, but TPM is not a Facebook or Twitter phenomenon and never was. I expect TPM to still be going when everyone realizes Facepalm has turned into Myspace 2.0.

You cannot do real journalism on Facebook, much less Twitter. TPM might have a twitter feed but it links back to their actual website, which predates both Twitter and Facebook as a viable entity. You can kind of sort of do it on a blog but that abuses peoples' notions of how long a blog post should be.

I reject your proposition that in this era of information wealth we are diminished because one journalist can't be bothered to update his career skills.

When by "update his career skills" you mean "waste his time whoring for likes and keeping up a stream of witty tweets" we are diminished, because what Thayer does (and did both before and after the Pol Pot interview) is detailed long-form journalism of the kind we need so that we can understand the world we live in.
posted by localroger at 4:51 PM on March 10, 2013


You cannot do real journalism on Facebook, much less Twitter. TPM might have a twitter feed but it links back to their actual website, which predates both Twitter and Facebook as a viable entity. You can kind of sort of do it on a blog but that abuses peoples' notions of how long a blog post should be.

You're choosing a really, really weird hill to make a stand on. It's like saying that you can't do journalism on telephones, so it's unacceptable to expect journalists to have them.

Literally no one in this thread has suggested that Thayer should be writing 140-character-long articles. Perhaps you're misunderstanding what a couple of the earlier posts were saying.
posted by verb at 5:01 PM on March 10, 2013


Literally no one in this thread has suggested that Thayer should be writing 140-character-long articles.

Of course they have. They might not have been suggesting that he do nothing else but the implication has been that because Thayer hasn't got with the Twitter and Facebok programmes it's his fault nobody will pay what it costs for him to write something important.

That's not what he does. He's not a marketing guy. A marketing guy probably wouldn't be able to do the kind of journalism Thayer does because they are completely different and in some ways mutually exclusive skills. Thayer's marketing is that he's a fucking world-class journalist with a million word portfolio of quality work. What is he supposed to do in 140 characters that means more than that?
posted by localroger at 6:11 PM on March 10, 2013


Whores do not give it away for free or exposure. I'm fairly certain that if a junior editor at the Atlantic emailed a whore offering free exposure the whore would have had the same reaction as Thayer. No one is whoring themselves out by putting up regular tweets on subjects that matter to them. Having the skills to market yourself and your work is pretty critical to surviving as a freelancer. Not everyone can do it, which is why many people try to get a staff job somewhere. Thayer is a freelancer, and if he wants to make it, he will need to get with the program. It isn't a suggestion, it is just how freelancing works these days.

Ezra Klein also had some great stuff to say in today's post
But behind this debate lurks an uncomfortable fact: The salaries of professional journalists are built upon our success in convincing experts of all kinds working for exposure rather than pay. Now those experts have found a way to work for exposure without going through professional journalists, creating a vast expansion in the quantity and quality of content editors can get for free.
posted by humanfont at 8:20 PM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


> Literally no one in this thread has suggested that Thayer should be writing 140-character-long articles.

Of course they have.


No. They have not.

I get that you hate social media, but your statement here is simply untrue. If we can't agree on the plain and simple fact of what has and hasn't been said in the relatively short thread present on this very page, there isn't really any point in carrying on. Which is a pity, since there are plenty of fascinating issues tangled up in the Thayer story.


They might not have been suggesting that he do nothing else but the implication has been that because Thayer hasn't got with the Twitter and Facebok programmes it's his fault nobody will pay what it costs for him to write something important.

I can't speak for anyone else in the thread, but that's certainly not what I was getting at. I was implying that you don't know (or deliberately misrepresent) how contemporary adults consume news and use social media. I offered what I thought was a helpful link to statistics about how much news publishing and social media now intersect, and you went off on a tear.


That's not what he does. He's not a marketing guy. A marketing guy probably wouldn't be able to do the kind of journalism Thayer does because they are completely different and in some ways mutually exclusive skills. Thayer's marketing is that he's a fucking world-class journalist with a million word portfolio of quality work. What is he supposed to do in 140 characters that means more than that?

Look, Nate Thayer is a journalist with a solid track record of interesting reporting on significant issues. Turning him into a Christ-figure -- painting him as someone too pure and noble to sully himself with base pursuits like marketing his work -- is ridiculous. Suggesting that he is some sort of journalist savant, too profoundly gifted to be constrained to headline or dek-length statements, is similarly ridiculous. He is a freelancer. He convinces editors that his words are worth money, takes money from them in exchange for his words, and gets angry when people ask to use them without giving him money.

That is not bad. I am not attacking Nate Thayer when I say that. But deifying journalists -- haughtily announcing that they're too precious for our crass, lucre-stained world -- will not change any of the problems Thayer brought up. It isn't even compatible with what Nate Thayer says about himself.
posted by verb at 8:59 PM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Eh, I'm paying about ... 8 cents a word for some fairly decent technical writing.

Out of curiosity, how much are you paying the person who decides what constitutes "fairly decent"?

I've written some "technical articles" that were considered "excellent" by my employers, but which were in fact written by a complete novice who was being paid by the word, and had less knowledge of the subject than a snake knows about tennis shoes.


Exactly. Quality is not the top concern. Money is. By no means would I call this writing "excellent." "Fairly decent" and "cheap" is the requirement. You have to accept publishing some garbage. C'est la vie.

I'm a journalist. An editor is fully aware when talking to a writer that nothing is off the record. Journalists are whisteblowers and bean-spillers. The Atlantic has to give its writers the opportunity to get a story, even if it means republishing, without permission, something that the author wishes would not be published. They cannot want that for their writers and then expect other writers not to republish Atlantic things they wish would stay unpublished.

If you don't want it published, you don't say it in the first place. Especially when talking to a journalist.


What? Even private correspondence?! No way. You would publish someone's private email (and personal info) without telling them for a story?! Maybe I'm way off, but that seems more than tacky--it seems unethical to me.

Also, in real journalism, IIRC, fact-checkers check quotes for accuracy.

Sure, the $100 offer was offensive, but not nearly as offensive as publishing the emails and address. LOSE LOSE.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:15 AM on March 11, 2013


And yeah, that Ezra Klein piece was an interesting angle.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:17 AM on March 11, 2013


I'm a journalist. An editor is fully aware when talking to a writer that nothing is off the record. Journalists are whisteblowers and bean-spillers. The Atlantic has to give its writers the opportunity to get a story, even if it means republishing, without permission, something that the author wishes would not be published. They cannot want that for their writers and then expect other writers not to republish Atlantic things they wish would stay unpublished.If you don't want it published, you don't say it in the first place. Especially when talking to a journalist. 

By logical extension, never date a journalist. It's totally okay for them to "kiss and tell."
posted by wolfdreams01 at 9:44 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Charles Pierce: Ezra Klein Gets It Very Wrong
posted by homunculus at 2:19 PM on March 11, 2013


I can assure you, Ezra, that out there in the wide world of journalism, reporters are now being required to do entirely too much work for free...

Tell it to the teachers.

Most sources are not in it for the exposure. No whistleblower in state government, or in some agricultural conglomerate that's poisoning the groundwater with pig dung is in it so that one day people will know who they are and what they've done.

Certainly some are. And how many news stories are about whistleblowers and pig dung in groundwater and how many are about the "latest scientific research."

I was a little disappointed in Pierce's counterargument because I think there is a better counterargument. His response is "most sources aren't in it for the exposure." I'm not going to take his word for it, but regardless, the fact still remains: the grunt work (visiting the crime scene, talking to the cops, checking facts, calling parents, etc.) is important, but not nearly as important to journalists as sourced and privileged information.

I mean, look at Nate Thayer. Yeah, he busted his ass in Cambodia, but the only reason he got his big break is because the Khmer Rouge wanted him to:
THAYER KNEW THAT THE KHMER ROUGE had staged this show for him and McKaige: "It was put on specifically for us, to take the message to the world that Pol Pot has been denounced. They had reported on their radio, on June 19, that Pol Pot had been purged. No one believed them. After five years of lying over their radio, there was no reason anyone should take what they say credibly. It was clear to them that they needed an independent, credible witness to show what was happening."
which, not surprisingly, affected the reception of his coverage:
Other critics of Thayer's stories don't use the word "patsy," but they do point out that some of his work seems to uncritically disseminate the official line of the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot's fall, according to Thayer, spells the demise of the Khmer Rouge. But Thayer's critics disagree; some argue that he is "too soft" on the movement.
They wonder why, for example, were Khmer Rouge spokesmen allowed to promote the idea that by purging Pol Pot, the organization had renounced its bloody past? In his Review articles, Thayer wrote, "The fall of Pol Pot underlines the view that the Khmer Rouge movement that ruled Cambodia in the 1970s essentially no longer exists." Comments Magistad of NPR, "That's certainly what the Khmer Rouge would like people to think, because it's the best card they can play to try to end their pariah status and work their way back into a position of power. But Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan, and Nuon Chea all still hold top positions in the group- -and all played a central role in forming and carrying out the policies that killed up to two million Cambodians. How, then, is this suddenly a different movement?"
Anyway, I thought Klein's article was interesting, even if the logic may be slightly flawed.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:47 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


From Pierce's article:
Once upon a time, there was a craft called journalism — or, less fancifully, reporting. People went into it as a kind of calling. People also went into it to earn a living. This was occasionally difficult because the people who owned the vehicles through which the craft was practiced were cheap bastards who wore rubber raincoats to facilitate the stealing of soup from blind beggars.
This kind of mythologizing annoys. It's no different than waxing poetic about the simplicity and certainty of the 1950s nuclear family, or the honor and virtue of prairie life. Journalism is a modern invention, and it's always been tied to commerce and politics and power. That doesn't mean it's "dirty" or that simply throwing up our hands and letting news and public relations become the same thing is a good move. But appealing to an imagined rosy past is just an exercise in intellectual laziness. It's dishonest and it does nothing to engage with the difficult problems of what has happened and is happening to modern journalism.
posted by verb at 3:33 PM on March 11, 2013


There is a dimension to this that is Gen-Y vs the Boomers. Established journalists in their 50s-60s vs a whole new wave of people who came up in the Internet / gamer culture. A whole generation has been raised to share and work towards status / achievements. Now they've become management.
posted by humanfont at 6:54 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is a dimension to this that is Gen-Y vs the Boomers.

*blink*

Where'd Generation X go???
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:30 PM on March 11, 2013


Gen-X is too busy trying to raise their kids and run the world to participate in this particular conversation.
posted by humanfont at 7:40 PM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thayer's marketing is that he's a fucking world-class journalist with a million word portfolio of quality work. What is he supposed to do in 140 characters that means more than that?

Something slugline.com something something GRAR

Where'd Generation X go???

To work. Finally.

...


I jest. Please leave my limbs attached.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:24 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


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