There isn’t a single thing about the story of Nate Thayer and The Atlantic that doesn’t make me sad.
Thayer, a veteran journalist, was contacted by editor Olga Khazan of The Atlantic about a story he’d written for the NK News that she wanted to reprint. Over the course of several emails and a phone call, Khazan laid out what she wanted Thayer to do — primarily, to cut the original story by two-thirds — and what she wanted to pay him to do it: nothing. “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it,” Khazan wrote him in an email that Thayer has reprinted on his blog, “but we do reach 13 million readers a month.” Thayer wrote back to explain that he couldn’t support his family working for free; Khazan wrote back one more time saying that she was “out of freelance money” and “thought [Thayer would] be willing to summarize it for posting for a wider audience without doing any additional legwork.” Thayer did not and, frustrated at the state of things in the industry, posted the entire exchange on his blog, which quickly went viral.
His post prompted an official response from The Atlantic (“We don’t force anyone to contribute to us,” said editor-in-chief James Bennet) and an article by Atlantic senior editor Alex Madrigal that was less an apology than a justification for some of the institutional policies that might lead a venerated magazine like The Atlantic to ask someone to work for them for free. Times are tough for companies as well as for people, Madrigal argues, and budgets are extraordinarily tight. In the world of digital journalism, traffic is key. And you can’t get traffic without content. And if you can’t afford enough content to hit your traffic numbers, you’ve got to find it somewhere else. And you’ve got to find it on the cheap.
Film journalists know these issues all too well. Stick around in this business long enough and you’ll get asked to write something for free. Hell, you don’t even have to stick around that long; most film writers break in to this world working for little to no money. That’s how I did it.
I started writing about film in college. Four nights a week, I ran the on campus film programming at my school: booking movies, lugging film cans, selling tickets, flyering dorms, and even splicing prints when the projectionist ran late. I spent my downtime on the Internet. One of my favorite spots at the time was a popular message board on comic books. The board attracted an eclectic mix of pop culture fans, who engaged in wonderfully obsessive debates about comics and movies. As some of these fans began launching their own websites, they posted calls for submissions. With absolutely zero experience — not even an anonymous IMDb review of “Gymkata” on my resume — I applied to the first one I saw, which turned out to be a place called REACTOR Magazine. Its staff included another of my favorite comic book writers, Warren Ellis, which means I can (and, when drunk, often do) say that he and I were once colleagues, which sounds really impressive until I explain it. I pitched a column on comics and a column on movies. They told me they’d take both.
I made no money — but no one made any money, so we were all in the same leaky boat, one barely kept afloat by our feverishly passionate paddling. When the boat sprung too many holes and went under, I grabbed a life preserver and paddled to the next one. REACTOR went belly up; I wrote for The Mad Review. That folded; I found GrayHaven Magazine. That dried up, I moved on to Pop Thought. If you could get a dime for a dozen of these websites you were making out like a bandit. In the early 2000s there were a million of them; I probably wrote for at least half of them.
I was, as they say, “putting in my time.” And I enjoyed it. Now I had a resume — a mostly terrible one, but better than nothing. I went to graduate school. I interned at The Village Voice, where you worked the film desk for school credit, but you got paid the standard freelance rate for any reviews you wrote. I interned for the Independent Film Channel and wrote for their website; they liked my work enough to pay me a little bit each week to keep doing it.
That seemed like a reasonable path: work hard for peanuts for a few years, learn your craft, get that all-important “exposure,” build an audience, and progress to the point where people think your presence at their site is valuable enough to pay you for it. But as my colleague Alison Willmore astutely asked on Twitter when Thayer went public with his story, “if even outlets like The Atlantic don’t want to pay writers, what compensated work is all that “exposure” supposed to help one get? The whole point of that supposedly reasonable path was to use working for free as a stepping stone to places of prestige, renown, and (so we thought) budgets. Now those places want you to work for free too. Where do you go from there? Another field?
Aspiring critics occasionally email me asking for career advice. I have traditionally told them what my favorite undergraduate film professor told me: Write. Write every day. Find someone who will publish you, no matter who it is, and write. Follow your passion and write. If that means writing for free at first, so be it. For an aspiring critic, that comes with the territory.
For the first time, Thayer’s story is making me wonder about that advice. Writing for exposure is great when you have something to expose that will make money; a book or a television show to promote. But if you’re just a freelance journalist, then all writing for free exposes is your willingness to sell your services to the lowest bidder.
Next time someone asks, I will probably tell them that if you’re going to write for someone for free, don’t make a habit of it, or editors not paying you (or others) will start to become a habit too. If you’re going to do that you might as well start your own site. Use social media to build an audience. Instead of writing for free, write for yourself.