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March 13, 2013

Filed under: journalism»industry

Pay Me

They always want the writer to work for nothing. And the problem is that there's so goddamn many writers who have no idea that they're supposed to be paid every time they do something, they do it for nothing! ... I get so angry about this, because you're undercut by all the amateurs. It's the amateurs who make it tough for the professionals, because when you act professional, these people are so used to getting it for nothing, and for mooching...

--Harlan Ellison

Last week, Nate Thayer wrote a well-linked post about being asked to write for The Atlantic for free--well, for "exposure," which is free in a funny hat. It's gotten a lot of attention in the journalism community, including a good piece on the economics of web-scale journalism by Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal.

I read this kind of stuff and think that I have never been happier to find a niche within journalism that makes me marketable. I mean, not that marketable: I had to switch industries when I moved out of DC, after all. But inside the beltway, I didn't have to freelance anymore, and I would have had plenty of options if I decided to leave CQ and head somewhere else. Data journalism was good to me, and I can't imagine having to go back to the scramble of being just a writer again.

But beneath that relief, I feel angry. And the fact that Madrigal can write a well-reasoned piece about why they're asking people to write for free doesn't make me any less angry. The fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates, who I respect greatly, can write about how writing for free launched the best part of his career, doesn't make me feel any less annoyed. I'm getting older but I'm still punk enough that when someone tells me the system is keeping us down, my response isn't to say, "well, I guess that's just how it is." The system needs to change.

Let's be clear: I don't expect writers to make a lot of money. They never have. People don't get into journalism because they expect to be rich. But writing--serious writing, not just randomly blogging on your pet peeves like I do here 90% of the time--is hard work. The long-form pieces that I've done have been drawn-out, time-consuming affairs: research, interviews, collecting notes, writing, rewriting, editing, trimming, and rewriting again. People think that writing is easy, but it's not, and it should be a paid job. (Even when it's not paid, it's not easy: I've been editing this post for three days now.)

As Ellison says, when publications can get the work for free, it makes it really hard to be paid for your writing. I'm not sure I'd phrase it with the same antipathy for "amateurs" (let's be clear: Ellison is a terrifying human being that I happen to agree with in this particular case), but it's certainly true that the glut of people willing to write for free causes a serious problem for those of us who write (or have written) for a living. They're scabs, in the union sense: they take work that should be paid, and drive down the cost of labor (see also: unpaid musicians).

And journalism is an industry increasingly dependent on free writing labor (or, even worse, perpetual unpaid internships instead of paid staff). As Cord Jefferson (in, of all places, Gawker) notes,

All in all, the creative landscape is starting to look more toxic than it's been in our lifetimes: Artists with million-dollar checks in their pockets are telling other artists that they shouldn't expect to get paid; publications are telling writers that they shouldn't expect to get paid, either; and meanwhile everyone wonders why we can't get more diversity in the creative ranks. One obvious way to reverse media's glut of wealthy white people would be to stop making it so few others but wealthy white people can afford to get into media. But in the age of dramatic newsroom layoffs and folding publications, nobody wants to hear that.
When your publishing model depends on people writing for free, there are a lot of people who aren't going to get published. I couldn't afford internships during college, meaning that I had a hard time breaking in--but I was still relatively lucky. I worked in office jobs with flexible hours and understanding bosses. If I wanted to take an early lunch break in order to do a phone interview, I could. I had evenings free to work on writing and research. I could take jobs that paid 10¢ a word, because I only had a day job. A lot of people don't have that chance, including a disproportionate number of minorities.

It adds insult to injury when you look at some of the people who are published precisely because they could afford internships and writing for free. Sure, it's wrong to base an argument on a few highly-visible outliers. But it's hard not to be a little furious to see the NYT sending good money to Tom Friedman (the obvious travesty), or Roger Cohen, or David Brooks when the industry claims it can't offer new writers recompense. It burns to see The Atlantic insisting that paying people isn't sustainable when they gave Megan McArdle (a hack's hack if there ever was one) a career for years, not to mention running propaganda for the Church of Scientology. If you're going to claim that you're trying as hard as you can to uphold a long-standing journalistic legacy in tough economic times, you'd better make sure your hands are clean before you hold them out in supplication.

I am skeptical, personally, of claims that the industry as a whole can't afford to pay writers. I have heard newsroom financials and profit margins, both for my own employer and for others. The news is no longer a business that prints money, but it remains profitable, as far as I can tell--if not as profitable as management would often like. Perhaps that's not true of The Atlantic: I don't know the details of their balance sheet, although this 2010 NYT article says they made "a tidy profit of $1.8 million this year" and this 2012 article credits them with three years of profitability. That's an impressive bankroll for someone who claims they don't have the budget to pay writers for feature work.

That said, let's accept that I am not an industry expert. It's entirely possible that I'm wrong, and these are desparate times for publications. I can't solve this problem for them. But I can choose a place to stand on my end. I don't work for free, unless it's explicitly for myself under terms that I completely control (i.e., this blog and the others that I fail to maintain as diligently), the same way that I don't take gigs from paying musicians just because I like playing in front of an audience.

Coates may defend working for free, because it got him a guest spot at the publication where he now works. But to me, the most important part of the story is that he got that spot on the strength of his blogging, which drew the attention of other writers and editors. You want exposure? There's nothing wrong with making it for yourself. Please start a blog, and hustle for it like crazy. But don't let other people tell you that it's the same as a paycheck--especially when they're not working for "exposure." They're on salary.

Is there a chance that, as with Coates and so many others, that exposure could lead to better gigs? Sure, the same way that a musician might get discovered while playing folk covers at a Potbelly sandwich shop. But it's a lottery, and pointing to successful writers who came up that way ignores the order of magnitude more that wrote for exposure and promptly sank into obscurity. You can't pay your rent with publicity, and you never could. We're professionals, and we should demand to be treated that way.

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