(Thayer has won just about every significant award in the business.)
Update 1: Jason Fry on when to work for free.
Update 2: The Atlantic's senior editor responds.
Here is an exchange between the Global Editor of the Atlantic Magazine and myself this afternoon attempting to solicit my professional services for an article they sought to publish after reading my story “25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy: Rodman trip comes after 25 years of basketball diplomacy between U.S. and North Korea” here http://www.nknews.org/2013/03/slam-dunk-diplomacy/ at NKNews.org
From the Atlantic Magazine:
On Mar 4, 2013 3:27 PM, “olga khazan” <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Hi there — I’m the global editor for the Atlantic, and I’m trying to reach Nate Thayer to see if he’d be interested in repurposing his recent basketball diplomacy post on our site.
Could someone connect me with him, please?
From the head of NK News, who originally published the piece this morning:
Hi that piece is copy right to NK News, so please engage us mutually.
From the Atlantic:
Sure. Thanks Nate and Tad…I was just wondering if you’d be interested in adapting a version of that for the Atlantic. Let me know if you’d be interested.
Give me a shout at 443 205 9162 in D.C. and I’d be delighted to see whether we can work something out.
From the Atlantic:
Sure, I’ll call you in a few minutes.
After a brief phone call where no specifics were really discussed, and she requested I email her:
Hi Olga: What did you have in mind for length, storyline, deadline, and fees for the basketball diplomacy piece. Or any other specifics. I think we can work something out, but I want to make sure I have the time to do it properly to meet your deadline, so give me a shout back when you have the earliest chance.
From the Atlantic:
Thanks for responding. 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.
Thanks so much again for your time. A great piece!
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. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free. 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. Let me know if you have perhaps mispoken.
From the Atlantic:
Hi Nate — I completely understand your position, but our rate even for original, reported stories is $100. I am out of freelance money right now, I enjoyed your post, and I thought you’d be willing to summarize it for posting for a wider audience without doing any additional legwork. Some journalists use our platform as a way to gain more exposure for whatever professional goals they might have, but that’s not right for everyone and it’s of course perfectly reasonable to decline.
Thank you and I’m sorry to have offended you.
Hi Olga: No offense taken and no worries. I am sure you are aware of the changing, deteriorating condition of our profession and the difficulty for serious journalists to make a living through their work resulting in the decline of the quality of news in general. Ironically, a few years back I was offered a staff job with the Atlantic to write 6 articles a year for a retainer of $125,000, with the right to publish elsewhere in addition. The then editor, Michael Kelly, was killed while we were both in Iraq, and we both, as it were, moved on to different places. I don’t have a problem with exposure but I do with paying my bills.
I am sure you can do what is the common practice these days and just have one of your interns rewrite the story as it was published elsewhere, but hopefully stating that is how the information was acquired. If you ever are interested in a quality story on North Korea and wiling to pay for it, please do give me a shout. I do enjoy reading what you put out, although 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.
I understand your dilemma and it really is nothing personal, I assure you, and I wish you the best of luck.
So now, for those of you remained unclear on the state of journalism in 2013, you no longer are…..
Update 1: Jason Fry on when to work for free--and not.
For young and/or new writers, I’d suggest these are exceptions worth considering:
* The platform’s good enough that being associated with it helps build my CV
* The platform’s good enough that I can introduce myself to a larger audience and build a lasting relationship with readers
* I really like this editor and think he or she can improve my writing and will be a great addition to my list of contacts
But be ruthless in asking yourself if the trade-off’s really worth it. Is the platform really that prestigious? Is the give and take with readers really that attractive? Is the relationship with the editor really going to be that hands-on? Lots of platforms are open to all comers, meaning they have no prestige. Lots of editors don’t actually edit. And so on. In such cases, just do your own thing.
And finally, the goal is to get paid as soon as possible. These are short-term strategies.
(Let me save you an email: I get the irony that I just repurposed my own paid article for free.)
Now, should more-experienced writers work for free? Your default stance should be “no,” bordering on “hell no.” But there are exceptions.
I’m 43 and have been a professional writer for half my life. I keep track of work I’ve invoiced, how much I need to make a day, and the day on which that math indicates I’ll be broke. But yes, I do write some things for free, and I’d be willing to write some more things for free.
* My posts on Faith and Fear in Flushing are uncompensated. I write there because I love the Mets, because writing alongside Greg Prince keeps me on my game, and because it’s fun. It’s also true that FAFIF got my co-blogger a book deal and helped get me tons of paid work.
* These musings are unpaid, because what the heck. They’re an effort to pay it forward, a promotional vehicle, and a tool for therapy.
* I’ve contributed free work to anthologies for friends of mine and people I admire and want to be associated with.
* I’ve written for free because I saw a chance to champion the work of writers I like.
* I’ve written for free because I didn’t have access to the audience that a piece of mine needed.
That last exception is the one I consider most often. I’d like to write more about music, travel and genealogy, but I’m not well-connected with those audiences. Would I write for free on those topics if you gave me a good editor and a respected platform for reaching those readers? I might — but with the expectation that such work would soon lead to getting paid, either by that publication or by someone else.
That’s the key: If you’re going to write for free, make sure a) it’s in service of a larger strategy; b) it’s a short-term arrangement; c) you aren’t just kidding yourself; and d) you’re really not just kidding yourself. What the Atlantic asked Nate Thayer to do fails that test. I get why he’s mad — I was mad on his behalf. But it might make sense in some other situation.
Update 2: Alexis Madrigal responds
The Atlantic magazine's senior editor Alexis Madrigal (who) has been very active in discussing the response: https://twitter.com/alexismadrigal.