The problem with online freelance journalism

By Felix Salmon
March 5, 2013

Nate Thayer caused quite a stir in the Twittersphere this morning when he published the email correspondence between himself and Olga Khazan, an editor at the Atlantic. Khazan had seen Thayer’s 4,300-word piece for North Korea News about “basketball diplomacy”*, and decided that it would be great to have a shorter version of the story at the Atlantic. After a bit of back-and-forth, she proposed this to Thayer:

Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.

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. At that point, he could have said yes or he no (or, in this case, he could leave the decision to NK News, which owns the copyright on the piece) — but he wouldn’t have been asked to work for free.

The cross-posting model can be a very healthy one: once a piece has been written and published, it can reach a much wider audience if it appears on a few different sites. To take one high-profile recent example: “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” did very well at its original location, getting 1,738 comments. But it did even better at HuffPo (15,220 comments, 1,269,516 Facebook Likes) and at Gawker (794,000 Likes, 3.8 million pageviews). That’s a special case, of course. But both professional and amateur writers tend to want their stuff to be read by as many people as possible, and (like me) normally say yes to people asking if they can cross-post.

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.

Also, there’s something a little disingenuous about the “13 million readers” thing. I can say that Reuters has 40 million readers every month, but that tells you nothing about the number of people reading my blog. It’s OK to ask people to do things for free, but it’s not OK to oversell yourself in the process: when Khazan tells Thayer that “some journalists use our platform as a way to gain more exposure”, she should be honest about the number of readers that Thayer’s post is likely to get, rather than citing huge numbers with very little relevance to Thayer. What’s more, at the margin, a large readership should by rights increase a publication’s ability to pay freelance contributors, rather than merely increasing freelancers’ desire to appear in that publication.

The exchange has particular added poignancy because it’s not so many years since the Atlantic offered Thayer $125,000 to write six articles a year for the magazine. How can the Atlantic have fallen so far, so fast — to go from offering Thayer $21,000 per article a few years ago, to offering precisely zero now? The simple answer is just the size of the content hole: the Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week. When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down.

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. In print magazines, the process of reporting and editing and drafting and rewriting and art directing and so on takes months: it’s a major operation. The journalist — the person doing most of the writing — often never even sees the magazine’s offices, where a large amount of work goes into putting the actual product together.

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.

Staffers come in, work hard at a multitude of jobs, and coordinate with each other surprisingly well; it also takes them very little time to understand how to create great web content quickly and internally, rather than relying on outsiders. Khazan had only just started her job when she tried to get Thayer to repurpose his article; my guess is that with a little bit more experience, she would have found it much easier to simply write a quick article of her own, linking to and blockquoting Thayer’s piece, driving traffic to him without having to negotiate with him at all. Look, for instance, at how David Trifunov of Global Post tackled the subject: he wrote a short but interesting post of his own, incorporating links to three outside stories, including Thayer’s, as well as another Global Post story. That’s the natural way of the web, and it doesn’t involve any freelancing.

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. The result is that it’s pretty much impossible to make a decent living on freelance digital-journalism income alone: I certainly don’t know of anybody who manages it. There’s still real money in magazine features, and there are a handful of websites which pay as much as $1,000 or $1,500 per article. But 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. Lots of people write content online; most of them aren’t even journalists, and as Arianna Huffington says, “self-expression is the new entertainment”. Digital journalism isn’t really about writing, any more — not in the manner that freelance print journalists understand it, anyway. Instead, it’s more about reading, and aggregating, and working in teams; doing all the work that used to happen in old print-magazine offices, but doing it on a vastly compressed timescale.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course — websites which still pay freelance writers decent sums. The New Republic, for one, seems to be carving out an impressive niche as a place to find carefully-edited, print-quality freelance content even when the piece in question doesn’t appear in the magazine. And when the web slows down, as it does at places like Matter, it’s quite easy to find in-depth journalism and reporting from well-paid freelancers. But in general, it’s fair to say that the web is not a freelancer-friendly place. Just be careful about extrapolating: there are lots of very good digital-journalism jobs out there, no matter how badly some freelancers get treated.

*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. (Although it does at one point mention “documents obtained by the San Diego Union Tribune in 2006″.)

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