FREE-lancing: the ethics and economics of paying writers
In 2013, the Magazine Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication sponsored a panel to discuss the “ethics and economics” of unpaid freelancing. Is it OK, the panel asked, for editors to ask journalists to give them stories in exchange for “exposure”? Is there ever a time when a reporter might want to make that bargain?
The panel was inspired by the freelance journalist Nate Thayer, as I explain in my introductory remarks below. I also invited Slate’s business and economics correspondent Matthew Yglesias; the editor of City Paper, Washington’s alternative weekly newspaper Mike Madden; and Kevin Stoker, an administrator at Texas Tech University and a scholar of media ethics. I thank them for their permission to post this transcript of the panel, which was held at the AEJMC 2013 conference at the Renaissance Washington Midtown.
- Matthew Yglesias, business and economics correspondent, Slate
- Nate Thayer, freelance journalist
- Kevin Stoker, Texas Tech
- Mike Madden, Editor, Washington City Paper
- Kevin Lerner, Marist College, moderator
Excerpts of transcript of August 9, 2013 panel discussion in Washington D.C. (For full transcript see http://presscriticism.com/2013/08/14/free-lancing-the-ethics-and-economics-of-paying-writers-with-exposure-and-a-byline-an-aejmc-magazine-division-panel/#comment-734)
Kevin Lerner: Hi everybody. My name is Kevin Lerner, from Marist College, and this is a sole-sponsored Magazine Division Professional Freedom & Responsibility panel called “FREE-lancing: the ethics and economics of paying writers—although the online schedule says “exposures,” which makes it sound like photography—and a byline. But I was not responsible for copyediting that. We’ve got a blockbuster panel here, and I’d like to start by introducing our panelists, who are all to my left. So, directly to my left, we have Matt Yglesias, business and economics correspondent for Slate. To his left, Mike Madden, who’s the editor of Washington City Paper, the alternative newsweekly. To his left, we have Kevin Stoker, an associate dean at Texas Tech and part of the Media Ethics Division here. And finally to his left, at the opposite end of the table from me, we have Nate Thayer, who is a freelance journalist.
So very quickly about where this panel came from. Some of you may know this story, and it all started with the man to my far left, Nate Thayer, who inspired this. So in early March of this year, Thayer had written a piece for NKNews.org, which is a North Korean specialist site, and North Korea is one of his specialities in reporting. He has over 25 years of reporting experience. He’s covered Cambodia, North Korea, Iraq. So an experienced freelance journalist, and he had written the piece for NK News. It had come to the attention of an editor at The Atlantic, and she contacted him and NK News and said, we’d like to rerun this piece, could you do a version of this for The Atlantic? And the piece was timely. You may remember when Dennis Rodman had been to North Korea. The article was about the history of “basketball diplomacy” in North Korea. And like any freelance journalist, he said yes, I would be happy to have the opportunity to have my piece on your site. And he asked the three questions that a freelance journalist wants answered: When is it due? How many words? And, How much are you going to pay me? And the answers came back: End of the week. 1200 words. And… We get 13 million viewers a month, but our freelance budget is gone, so I’m sorry, we’re not in a position to pay you.
And Nate put that up on his personal blog, the email exchange between him and the editor. And it took off. It hit MediaBistro and all of the usual media gossip sites and it created a discussion in the industry about what’s right and wrong about paying a writer. Is it ethical to “pay” just by saying you’re going to get 13 million people to see this? Is that OK? Is that something that a freelance writer might want to do? Is it different at the beginning of your career or the end of your career? When do you give your work for nothing?
So that’s the topic of this panel. I’ve asked the four panelists to have a little bit of an opening statement, to put their positions out there. Then I have a few questions. Then we’re going to open it up to you in the audience.
I’d like to actually ask Nate to start, since he started this whole thing, and maybe say a few words about the life of a freelance writer, since the post he put up was just called, very blandly, “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Writer, 2013.” Because it seems like half the time, a freelance writer is negotiating pay, and the rest of the time doing copyediting for corporations and public relations firms. So I’ll start with Nate. Just say a few words. I appreciate it.
Nate Thayer: Thanks, thanks for having me. Yeah, I should probably give a little bit of context to this, because believe me, I was as surprised as anybody else. I’m actually a Luddite; I’m a tech idiot, and I’ve been a journalist for 25 years. I was just saying to Kevin that you know, it was actually under two years ago before I actually even used a computer to research an article. I probably should have beforehand, but I just didn’t. My own personal focus in journalism is longer, investigative journalism, and much of my career has been spent overseas, much of it in countries where I didn’t even have electricity, or even less a telephone. And if you’re in the middle of nowhere, the fact is, the story doesn’t happen until you get back and file it, and it can be a couple of weeks later. I have to say that I acknowledge that I really am an idiot and behind the times on some of this stuff. So in the context of that, I do realize fully that the future is in this amazing, wonderful, borderless world of free flow of information. I’m not that much of an idiot. I do have a blog. It automatically puts it on Twitter and on Facebook, and that’s about as complicated as I get.
Anyways, the actual reality was that this conversation I had with The Atlantic was in fact a very civil, normal conversation. I’ve had the same conversation with several hundred people over the last decade, and every freelance journalist has. It’s the norm.
I wasn’t actually pissed off.
I was, you know, mildly annoyed enough to take the six-email exchange, cut and paste them, put a headline on it that said “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist.” I think I put one line at the top, another line at the bottom, and I pressed send on my irrelevant blog, which had less than 100 readers a day, mainly family and colleagues, and which I never promote, and I went to bed. I woke up in the morning and I had 25,000 emails in my inbox. I had made at that time exactly four tweets in my life. So I looked and I saw that within hours there were 100,000 people who had read this thing. It was a kind of odd day. In fact it kind of fucked up my day, and I really had no idea what really was going on. But I did find it fascinating. And 80,000 of these people came from Twitter, and another 50,000 from Facebook, and it took on a life of its own. But in fact it really had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t exactly a brilliant piece, in fact I didn’t even write it—it was an email cut and paste exchange. But it clearly hit a chord. Clearly, because by the end of the day, I had 500,000 people. I actually did the calculation: it was a 33,973% increase from the traffic the day before. So something had happened.
But I really should say that was the full extent with The Atlantic. It wasn’t David and Goliath. I didn’t have some fucking beef with The Atlantic. There was no Nate Thayer jihad against The Atlantic. That was the sum total of my communication with The Atlantic. I hadn’t talked to them since eight years before when the then-editor actually offered to hire me to go on staff for a considerable amount more than 13 million viewers reading my stuff. In fact it was $125,000 a year for six articles and I could write for anyone else. So I think the context of it is that the world has changed, as I think any freelance journalist knows. And I really don’t know how…
I still get over 100 readers a day to that article six months later. And I’ve gotten well over 200 personal emails from other writers, including six Pulitzer Prize winners who said The Atlantic has done the same goddamn thing to them, many of them in the same week. So the idea that this was a mistake and it wasn’t their policy? They’re really full of shit. That’s one reason it took off. Because you know, they certainly had a budget to hire a PR firm, which may be part of the problem, so that they could lie about what their policy was, and then really piss off journalists. Because if you really want to piss off journalists, lie to them.
Whatever happened, I still haven’t really wrapped my head around it. But it is interesting, and it certainly resonated with me and really almost with everybody else I know who’s worked as a freelance journalist. This happens all the time. The fact is we are now in this amazingly positive new world of borderless information, but no one’s figured out how to make any fucking money out of it. So, you know, until they come up with a viable business model—which someone will, soon, because there’s a demand for quality journalism, and it costs money. So someone’s got to figure out a way to make that happen, and they’re going to figure it out soon. I just hope they do it before I starve to death and get evicted. Which would be a plus. But it’s all really positive. But I think we’re in this abyss period between the combination of the downturn in the economy, the downturn in the metrics of the print publishing industry, and the rise of digital journalism has made it really, really difficult to make a living as a journalist. And not just as a freelance journalist.
I mean the fact is, and I’ll finish this off by saying, the one really true reality is that you really can’t believe anything you fucking read anymore. You can’t. You can’t believe anything on the Internet because they’ve fired all the editors, they’ve fired all the fact checkers, and really, the motivation is to get as many clicks and hits on your web site as you can, regardless, really, if it’s true. And obviously, I’m exaggerating for the point of debate, to a degree, but that’s really the larger reality.
So to me it’s a really serious problem. Obviously, it’s a serious problem because it’s making it hard to make a living, which frankly, three or four years ago, it never even crossed my mind. I have spent 30 years as a journalist, I’ve been very lucky, I’ve done well. It never was an issue. I never wanted to get rich, but I could always pay my bills. Now, that’s just not the case. So that’s one thing on a personal level, but on the, other, more important level, is the effect it’s having on the institution of the free press and free society. The quality of journalism that’s coming out now is horrific. It’s unacceptable. And the reason is because it costs money to do it and big media thinks they can get away without paying for it and still drive readers to advertisers. And some people are under the misimpression that people are going to accept substandard quality journalism in the stead of real reporting, and I’m absolutely convinced that they’re wrong, and that sometime, relatively soon, someone’s going to figure out how to create a model where everyone can make money in order to produce a quality product. So on that positive note, I’m also ten days late on my rent.
Lerner: Mike, could you take this from the point of view of an editor? You’ve worked as a freelancer…
Mike Madden: …..Although, I wanted to ask you [to Thayer] you were talking about the traffic you got on that blog post, and I know you prefaced that by saying you were a bit of a Luddite, but were you able to quickly set up a Google AdWords thing and you could have made some money off of the exchanges.
Thayer: I have not made a penny off it. I did not organize advertising. Although, since this whole thing, I have also looked more closely at how you can make money. And there are all kinds of ways out there. One organization I do work for is called NK News. We have the same problem everyone else does: we’re trying to figure out how to bring quality news on North Korea to people who have an unhealthy interest in North Korea. And we haven’t been able to figure it out. We’re losing money on it. But everyone’s trying, and I have not succeeded………
Yglesias: Absolutely, but I think that is in a lot of ways the most promising kind of free content that you get is along those lines. You go to someone who is at The Center for Global Development and you say—I mean a particular problem that we have is that there’s not a huge amount of audience interest in foreign affairs. But there isn’t zero interest. It’s not a toxic subject, but it’s not a killer for us the way the Dear Prudence advice column is. And at the same time, advertisers don’t love Dear Prudence’s weird questions about bestiality, and they also don’t love articles about depressing famines in North Korea. For similar reasons. So if you want to get coverage of these super sad, medium traffic subjects, it’s difficult to turn that into tons of revenue. But we want to do it because we believe in journalism, and we want to do it because there’s some audience there, and when you can find opportunities to get people—it might have been that in the days of yore, they would have been the sources for articles—if you can get them to be the authors of articles, then that’s a real advantage. That’s an advantage to the world. And I think what The Atlantic does, where they’re just kind of propositioning professionals, professional freelance writers who are established in their careers, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. I wonder how much success they have getting anyone to actually agree to that proposition. I think we try not to say things to people that are going to be insulting or ridiculous for them to do. That’s common sense. But I think that the sentiment that I sometimes hear from writers—that people shouldn’t be doing stuff for free—well, who’s talking to you for these articles? It’s people doing things for free.
Madden: Yeah. We don’t get a lot of rewrites for $25 or $50.
Lerner: Is that different from writing for free?
Madden: It’s not that different, no.
Thayer: It is different. It’s fundamentally different, and I think it goes back to what several people were saying. To me, anyways, it’s the fundamental problem of for-profit media companies as a central business strategy eliminating paying the producer of the product which they sell so that they can increase their fucking profit margin. That’s really what it is. I write for free all the time. I’ve written for free for 30 years. I’ve written probably 1000 articles for free. Because, for whatever circumstances, for non-profits, or people where I’m interested in the issue. My blog is for free. I use Facebook copiously as a professional tool. That’s all for free. I don’t have any objection to writing for free. And depending on your circumstances, it’s true for a lot of people.
There’s a couple things that have struck me here.
Slate still owes me $3000 for going to Iraq, for which they’ve never paid me, years ago in 2003 during which I am damn lucky I didn’t die. Now this is not something new for any journalist anywhere. It happens to everybody.
This idea of user-generated content, which I don’t know exactly what that means. There’s probably a more direct way of putting it. But the fact is that, and the issue of, ok, people do work because they are going to be quoted or contributed to the article, I don’t buy that at all. They’re interested parties.
Our job as journalists is basically, I’ve spent most of my life sitting in a hotel room, waiting for someone to come down and lie to me. And that happens all the time in various degrees for all the information you get. And your job is to sift through it and come through with something that’s as close to what’s accurate and balanced and in the public interest as you can. One of the things that really bothers me about the new business model is that sure, there are people who will write for free. But most of them have institutional support. They have real jobs. They’re academics, they’re scholars, they have people who pay their rent, who pay for the bills to live. So they’re not actually journalists. They’re trying to sell a book. I mean I was a scholar in residence at Johns Hopkins at SAIS down the street here for a year. They gave me a full salary to sit in my office and think.
Madden: But you were still a journalist when you were doing that. You weren’t not actually a journalist just because you had some other way of paying your bills.
Thayer: No, I took a year off from my paid job with the Far Eastern Economic Review because I got kicked out of the country I was working in, and that government was intending on killing me, and I needed some place to go, and they gave me this scholar in residence thing. And the thing that struck me was that all of these academics, if they could get quoted in the newspaper, that was really big for their resume. Or if they could even publish an article, that was really big. Now it’s standard but it’s being couched as legitimate news. It’s not legitimate news. They are an interested party, often, in the subject matter.
And so I object to that being a substitute for legitimate, quality journalism. I read the stuff all the time. I find it interesting; it’s interesting source material. But I know that there are not the internal standards of a news operation that has the whole sausage-making process that makes sure that when I send something in, it has to go through a very rigorous process to make sure that by the time it gets to print it’s not biased, it’s properly sourced, it’s corroborated, it’s accurate and so on and so forth. And that’s missing in so much, including the brand name former journalism outfits. There’s so much pressure to get everything out there quickly and to get page hits that the idea of quality news has taken a serious back seat, and that makes me very, very uncomfortable, and I don’t think it’s a substitute for quality news.
And actually, on our panel here, both Slate and the City Paper, which I’m a big fan particularly of—I’d be a bigger fan of Slate if they’d pay me the money they’ve owed me for ten goddamned years—
Yglesias: That seems fair.
Thayer: But the City Paper is an excellent paper, and the fact that they each pay something means that what we do for a living is worthy, and I believe, I will go to my grave knowing that what we do for a living is not only worthy, it’s vital to a free society and it needs to be defended, and it costs money to produce, and someone’s got to figure out a way to do it. The fact is that people who own these publications—and they have to be private businesses; they can’t be government, otherwise we’d be Pravda, right—they really don’t care whether they’re selling toothpaste or news to free people. If they make more money on toothpaste, they’ll sell toothpaste. So I think the question everyone agrees with here is that someone’s got to come up with a way to first recognize the value of quality news, see that we’re not getting it now, and figure out a way to make money in the process so that we’re able to have it.
……..Thayer: You [Yglesias] mentioned an analogy earlier that people don’t want to read about bestiality, but in fact, I bet you, if the City Paper, which runs a wonderful column which often focuses on bestiality…
Madden: Oh, people love reading about bestiality.
Yglesias: No, I’m saying that advertisers don’t want to be on that page.
Thayer: I’m saying that the page right next to that probably has a higher advertising rate.
Yglesias: No, no…
Madden: It does, but only among a restricted pool of advertisers.
Yglesias: Chrysler doesn’t like bestiality………..
Audience question: Someone mentioned musicians. I’m with a group of harpists, and someone will say, “Oh, play for my wedding, you’ll get tons of exposure.” Well, you can die of exposure, too. But yeah, they feel this just as strongly, always being asked to do stuff for free.
Madden: That’s a particularly nervy pitch. How many people at their wedding are going to be in need of another harpist?
Audience: Exactly. And somebody mentioned before about profits, and it’s really true. These people are making obscene profits. I was at an organization where the top people were making $200,000–$300,000 salaries a year, and we were lucky to be squeezing $50,000 a year, which is not much in D.C. And if you look at a place like HuffPost, Arianna is just raking in the millions. So does anybody have an answer for—Huffington Post is a great example: they’re rich, they’re oozing money. There’s staff in New York, and you know they’re not there for free. But they won’t pay…
Thayer: I have an answer: Don’t fucking write for them. Arianna Huffington’s entire business model is based on not paying the people who produce their product, so that they can make money. She just sold her company for $317 million, based all on people’s writing. When the Atlantic article came out, I was kind of impressed by their hubris, they called me up and asked me to come onto the Huffington Post TV station and talk about this issue. And I said, “I’d be happy to, but you’d be under a profound delusion if you expect me not to bring up the fact that the Huffington Post is the poster child of this whole problem. And make sure that your bosses are aware of that.” And I got a call back about an hour later, disinviting me……
Thayer: But they also have what is a fundamental problem: most of their stuff is people who have an agenda, a political agenda, a financial agenda. And it’s being couched and presented as news. It’s not……
Thayer: Actually, for The Atlantic, and I actually do know this because I have literally gotten several thousand personal communications from people. The Atlantic policy is not to pay people. You know the line they said, “We’re out of a freelance budget, but we have 13 million readers”? I have exactly 412 emails from people who told me the exact same quote, verbatim. So it’s not a matter of them being out. So that’s an Atlantic policy. I think it’s part of their business plan—because it works. And I don’t hold it against them because their job is to increase their profit margin. That’s what they do, and if they can get that product and they think that readers will be satisfied with it.
But I think there’s a Ponzi game going on around this, that people are under the delusion that they’re actually getting the same quality news that they were getting prior to this wonderful, positive transformation that we still haven’t figured out how it’s going to work out. That they’re still getting the same quality news that the brand names produced before we entered this period. That’s just not true. It’s not true withand what you get in print. It’s not true with the and what you get in the Washington Post, and they’re saying that it is, that they’re using the same internal standards. And I think that part of that—to address your question—I used to work for Dow Jones, which owned The Wall Street Journal and the magazine that I worked for, called the Far Eastern Economic Review, and most of their people went over to Reuters, and a similar thing is happening with Bloomberg. And what they’re buying is people with a name. And I was approached by several people several years ago where they wanted to pay me more money than I needed or probably deserved because they thought that I had a name. The bigger thing that that translates into, and that’s really a big shift, which makes me uncomfortable with being trained—and I did not go to journalism school either, I started out with the Associated Press for several years and a number of other publications—and it makes me very uncomfortable to market myself. I’ve now kind of gotten over that, because that’s really where we’re going, where people have to individually market themselves in order to make a living. But what a lot of these companies are doing is that they’re putting the bulk of their money, and offering big salaries—and Reuters did this when they had the big turnover a couple of years ago—they hired away all kinds of big name people for ridiculous salaries. And the journeyman workers at Reuters, who actually do very well because they have a very good union, get paid considerably less. So a big part of this money is going into the trend of people promoting themselves or where they think when people read the news, they look at who it is that’s writing the article—as opposed to what it used to be, and I’m more comfortable with, which is that when I pick up The New York Times, I know that there is an internal process, which means that whatever shows up in that paper has a degree of credibility. That’s why I buy that as opposed to, say, The Washington Times, or the National Enquirer. I know what I’m getting when I read it. And now I don’t know. And on the web you do not know what you’re getting at all. And in fact, a lot of what they say you’re getting, you’re really not getting at all. Because there is no vetting. There is no more internal sausage-making process.
I have a friend who is a Washington correspondent for a major news chain, who now pushes the send button when he’s sitting in Congress, covering a hearing. It doesn’t even go through an editor. That’s how much pressure there is to get stuff out quickly and what falls victim to that is the quality of news……….
Thayer: The Atlantic policy is—they’re actually on the record because they put out a press release after my ridiculous little post on my irrelevant little blog, saying that they do pay people and that this was a mistake by a new employee, and so on. That’s just not true. They don’t pay people. But what they do say is that what you read on The Atlantic, you can believe based on the credibility—and The Atlantic’s a wonderful magazine. I have no beef with The Atlantic. It’s a systemic problem. And certainly this poor woman, Olga—and I feel really bad because God knows what grief she got for this—she was just doing her job. But The Atlantic promotes itself as, when you read The Atlantic, you know what you’re getting based on their very high internal quality standards. My point is, in this new digital age, that’s all a lie. You don’t get that. The other transition period that we’re in is that people still believe that when you read The Washington Post online, or The Atlantic online, they’re getting the same thing that they got beforehand. And that’s just not true.
For the full transcript of the discussion with thoughtful, good arguments and points of view by Slate’s business and economics correspondent Matthew Yglesias; the editor of City Paper, Washington’s alternative weekly newspaper Mike Madden; Kevin Stoker, of Texas Tech University and a scholar of media ethics; Kevin Lerner, professor of journalism at Marist college; and excellent questions from an audience of journalism of scholars and academics, please go to Kevin Lerner’s excellent blog here: http://presscriticism.com/2013/08/14/free-lancing-the-ethics-and-economics-of-paying-writers-with-exposure-and-a-byline-an-aejmc-magazine-division-panel/#comment-734