Nate Thayer, a well-respected journalist, has published a blog post roasting the Atlantic for asking him to provide a summary of a recent article for the Atlantic website for free. He didn’t like that idea very much.
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.
A lot of support has rolled in for Nate Thayer, and against publications that dare to ask writers to write for free. Another Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal has tried to explain the digital editor’s side of the story, only to be torn into by Wonkette, which accuses Madrigal of “man-splaining”.
It’s a pretty funny debate so far — well, that’s what happens when writers and editors get in the ring! But the implications of this argument can be serious, and I know that many of my own friends feel very strongly about the necessity of payment for writers. It’s not a position I always agree with myself.
I’m all for writers getting paid, and as a writer, I enjoy getting paid as often as I can. But sometimes the relentless drumbeat against publications that rely on free writing (like Atlantic, Huffington Post and thousands more) begins to feel like oppressive groupthink. It also may transmit a wrong-headed message to young wannabe writers who are trying to figure out their short-term and long-term plans.
I write a lot, and I guess that means I’m a writer. I mostly write on this blog, but I have occasionally written for other publications for payment. I’ve also written for publications that said they would pay me and never did, and I’ve also written for other publications for free. It was all fine with me. I’ve always been glad that anyone wanted to publish my words.
I’m not indifferent to getting paid for writing because I’m wealthy (far from it), but because I made a life decision a few decades ago to support myself as a software engineer. I work long hours in an office to bring in my paycheck, and I write in the mornings and at night. Sometimes I write when I’m at work — and sometimes I spend my nights working for my day job when I’d rather be working on my own stuff. It’s a very tough grind. But I’ve been keeping it up for decades, and it works okay for me.
I know that full-time writers who scrape by with a thin diet of magazine/website assignments, book contracts, grants, teaching gigs and occasional cubicle temp work are suffering just as hard as I am to make their livings, and they also need all the support they can get. Well, these professional writers do have my support, but that doesn’t mean I should disdain publications like the Atlantic or Huffington Post that rely on unpaid writers. They play an important role in the literary ecosystem, and deserve as much regard as publications that pay. Any piece of writing is more or less valuable based on the work itself, and not on the payment structure behind it.
I also don’t want to encourage any young literary wannabe to ever depend on getting paid well by websites and magazines, especially if they think their checks will fund their apartment shares in Brooklyn. The writing game is a hell of a game — nobody should show up at the table with a short stack. The biggest problem with the idea that writers should always get paid for their work is simply that it’s so far from the actual reality of how writers work these days. We all write for free a lot.
Do I think writing should be a profession? Of course, and I wish it could have been my profession. But there are also plenty of good reasons why a writer will write for free, and I don’t think writers who choose to do so should be belittled. Also, Nate Thayer did a good job of stirring up a lively discussion about the economics of writing, but his unwitting correspondent Olga Khazan, Global Editor at Atlantic Magazine, was not well-served by his blog post about their conversation.
An editor should not be afraid to ask a writer to write for free, so Thayer’s “I’m insulted” routine will cause some discomfort. I prefer to think that writers and publishers and editors, professionals and part-timers are all in this together, and hope that we support each other in many ways.
Another problem I have with the current emphasis of payment for writing is that it assumes the broader principle that money and literature should mix. In fact, the best writers never are and never have been high earners, not in Shakespeare’s time and not today. To emphasize the commercial aspect of writing is to buy completely into the rut of capitalism, the idea that money itself is important. I have never wanted to live as if money were important, and I prefer to search out ways to not buy into the rut of capitalism.
If I think about my favorite writers of the last hundred years, I see that most of them supported themselves with day jobs. T. S. Eliot was a banker and then an editor. Franz Kafka was an insurance agent. Jack Kerouac was a hobo. (I think being a hobo should count as a day job; it sure is hard work).
I guess it sometimes feels like we writers are all hobos, in one way or another. Hobos for love, for the regard of our peers, and for money too.