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Freelance Journalism’s Downside Perfectly Captured [Update]

Nate Thayer, a veteran journalist, posted on his blog an email exchange between The Atlantic’s global editor — Olga Khazan — and himself, that is guaranteed to frustrate you if you’ve ever freelanced. Thankfully, Thayer deals with the emails in the best way possible.

It began with Khazan emailing Thayer to ask about republishing something he had written on The Atlantic. This part is great. Any freelancer would be ecstatic to have such a respected publication (or any publication, really) contact them. Typically freelancers are the ones doing the asking. But as the emails went back and forth, things quickly got depressing.

When Thayer asked for specifics about the piece, Khazan wrote that The Atlantic couldn’t pay Thayer for his work, “but we do reach 13 million readers a month.” Ah, the old, “We can’t pay you, but think of the exposure you’ll get as we make money off of your piece!” What a fantastic deal.

To his credit, Thayer shot back a brilliant response:

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.

That sound you hear is freelancers across the nation giving Thayer a standing ovation.

Update (4:30 pm):
We just received this statement, from James Bennet, editor of The Atlantic:

Atlantic staff journalists write most of the stories on our sites. When we publish original, reported work by freelancers, we pay them. Our freelance rates vary, depending on the kind of work involved. We do publish some unpaid pieces, typically analysis or commentary by non-journalists, if the work meets our standards and if, of course, the writer sees value in publishing with us. We don’t force anyone to contribute to us, and we are extremely grateful to the wonderful writers who do.

The case involving Nate Thayer is unusual. We did not ask him to report and write an original piece for us, but we did ask if he’d be interested in posting a condensed version of an article he had already published elsewhere, which we would have done with full credit to the original publisher. We rarely do this outside our established partnerships, but we were enthusiastic about bringing Thayer’s work to a larger audience – an outcome, I guess, we have now, backhandedly, achieved. We’re sorry we offended him.

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