Nate Thayer is an American freelance journalist who has worked all over the world and, in recent years, has focused more on North Korea. In March he wrote an article about basketball diplomacy in the country, following Dennis Rodham’s visit to Kim Jong Un for the website nknews.org. After the article was published, Thayer received an email from the global editor of The Atlantic asking if he would like to rewrite the article to make it suitable for publication on their website. Thayer replied with the normal questions a freelancer would have: When is it due? How many words? And how much will you pay me? The response was: The end of the week, 1200 words and “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month”.
Now, as a nobody student trying to start out as a freelancer, I would take the 13 million pairs of eyes on something I’d written any day. But that’s the point. With the move online and everyone’s inability to make money from it, huge publications like the Atlantic are taking advantage of the situation and simply telling freelancers that no, they’re not going to pay you but look! 13 million people will be reading your work! Thankfully, people like Thayer are there to take a stand against this kind of practice. Here’s a few choice quotes from the email exchange he posted on his personal blog:
“I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.”
“Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them.”
“I don’t have a problem with exposure but I do with paying my bills.”
“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.”
Thayer, however, has 25 years experience as a freelancer and was once even offered a job at the Atlantic – US$125,000 a year for six articles, and he could write for whoever else he liked – so he’s in a position where he can say no. Someone else will definitely pay him for his work because a) he’s got skills and b) he’s made a name for himself over the past quarter of a century.
The problem, however, lies with the next generation of freelancers like myself – and with the number of graduate jobs in decline, there are only going to be more of us – who have no reputation, little experience and therefore no leverage with scary, faceless editors who almost never reply to our emails. We need someone to take a chance on us and to publish our stuff, which makes us vulnerable to simply accepting offers of ‘exposure’. This in turn feeds an unsustainable cycle which, in the long run, hurts journalism as a whole.