Atlantic case raises question: When does it make sense to write for free?

This week’s controversy over the Atlantic asking a freelancer for an unpaid contribution has reignited a debate among journalists — when, if ever, does it make sense to write for free?

Jason C. Fry says that even a seasoned writer, like himself, may occasionally choose to write for free to help out a friend or to get a particular piece in front of a particular audience. But it’s especially tempting for young, unproven writers, he says.

Fry advises young writers they might consider writing for free if the platform is prestigious enough to bolster a résumé, big enough to reach a huge audience and build a lasting relationship with readers, or has an editor who can improve their writing.

But, he also cautions:

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.

Slate’s Matthew Yglesias stands up for the benefits of free writing: “We should all be happy that thanks to the Internet there are now lots of people writing for free. Some of them are publishing for free under the umbrella of an established media brand. Some of them are publishing for free on Twitter. Some of them are writing Tumblrs or blogs. But everyone’s doing it and it’s amazing — it means there’s way more content out there for people to read than ever before.”

Write for money if you have an opportunity, he says, but if not, “you should definitely be writing for free. The tough choice is whether you want to write for free for some other publications or just under your own header. Maybe you just want to tweet vigorously. To each his own.”

Reuters columnist Felix Salmon argues that the Web is just not a friendly medium for most full-time freelancers, and you’d be better off looking for a staff job:

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 Atlantic incident and the resulting discussion leaves me with a couple more big questions to ponder:

  • Will there ever be a secure living in freelancing full-time, in an age when so many other writers are happy to publish for free? Or do writers need to accept that their skill must be leveraged into other income opportunities like book deals, speaking fees, etc.?
  • Is it really so wrong of the Atlantic or any publisher to ask an author, politely, if he is willing to provide a piece of content for free? Can’t the author simply decline and move on? Does an incompatible business negotiation have to result in moral offense?

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  • charlesparkinson

    Some professions do work for free (lawyers, architects etc), it’s called pro bono.
    Any professional such as a doctor, auto mechanic, plumber, accountant, has a qualification to demonstrate their aptitude. Many writers do not. Would you hire an unqualified plumber or doctor? No. Would you hire an unqualified writer? Maybe. Has the advent of social networking and blogging left society with a glut of armchair doctors, plumbers, accountants, etc, or opened us up to trustworthy information so as to render their services less valuable? No.
    You cannot compare the fate of journalists to other professions. Has Nate Thayer ever written for (and been paid by) a publication which does not pay interns and offers a pittance to other writers? Maybe. Would he care, as long as he was getting paid? You tell me. What happened to Nate is nothing new, it just happens to have bruised a particularly big ego. A man who was aparently in a position to turn down $125,000 for 6 articles just a couple of years ago is now banging on (repeatedly) about feeding his kids. Why not just say no and move on?

  • CPO_C_Ryback

    GREATEST SUGGESTION EVER

    When he ran for president, H. Ross Perot asked those watching for their support: “sent me $5.” As in, show some level of interest, to impress others.

    IMHO, if “The Atlantic” can’t send $5 — F it. Not worth it. Just bull-droppings. Like the gas-bags and career politicians on TV today — “blah, blah, blah, I’ve never held a real job, but I know more than those actually doing the work.”

  • http://twitter.com/Justin_D_Martin Justin D. Martin

    I’ll write for free if the editor gets Lady GaGa to tweet a link to the article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.eslinger Scott Eslinger

    Jeff, is there really that much of a scarcity of professionals in other lines of work who expect to be paid for there work and expertise?

    Just yesterday I had an appliance repairman at my house (no scarcity of them around here BTW) to fix my washing machine. Turns out it was a five dollar part that took him literally three minutes using one wrench to fix.

    Total cost to me was $50 and I paid it without questioning his rate.

    Next time I can probably do it myself but I’ve never heard of appliance repairmen who can stay in business if they work for free.

    How would that conversation go if I wanted it for free?

    ME: Hey Steve can you come to my house and fix my washing machine for free? I’ll give you good exposure and tell ALL my friends in person and online how great you are and recommend you top them.

    STEVE: #$%^& off.

    Not an “apples to apples” comparison but I’m just throwing it out there.

    :)

  • Alfred Ingram

    I think we can safely assume that if he was not a good writer the Atlantic would not have asked for his contribution. We can also safely assume that someone there bought into the belief that creativity is an act of love transcending the need to pay rent, phone bills or transportation, that creatives will find creative ways to clothe themselves, sleep in their cars (if they have cars) or even the cardboard box a refrigerator came in, for the sheer joy of creating. They did not think that they could never contact a homeless, phoneless, ispless creative in the first place. Then again, they’d have never heard of him or encounterd his work.

  • Angela Booth

    There’s writing for promotion — writing “for free” — and then there’s commercial writing.

    The Atlantic is a commercial publication. While the editor can certainly ask writers to write for the promotional opportunity, here’s what ticked me off about the original email messages to Nate Thayer.

    The statements: “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month,” and “… I thought you’d be willing to summarize it for posting for a wider audience without doing any additional legwork.”

    They’ve got 13 million readers a month, and can’t pay writers? Really?

    “Summarizing” is writing, which is work. So Nate Thayer works for an hour in return for what? A byline? A link?

    A link from The Atlantic might be worth it, but I’ve checked several stories on The Atlantic site. There’s not even a byline, so they’re staff pieces. If contributors are offered a byline, without a bio and link, the “exposure” is worth nothing.

    What it boils down to is that The Atlantic, a commercial publication, feels quite happy treating journalists like hobbyists.

    They’ve got a heck of a lot of nerve.

  • http://profiles.google.com/josephfinn Joseph Finn

    Never.

  • Jeff Sonderman

    I would suggest that people who want to be professional writers should find ways to set themselves apart from the abundance of others out there. Specialize in a certain type of reporting, or cultivate a passionate audience that follows you. Being a general-purpose freelancer without a specialty or a following is going to be uphill sledding for a long time.

  • Jeff Sonderman

    Well argued. Thanks, Paul.

  • A.Tugend

    The question is not should people be offended or not by being asked to work for free. Of course anyone can refuse to work for free. And, as a journalist for more than three decades, I’m very glad Thayer spelled out his objections in such a clear and eloquent way.

    The real problem is the norm that’s created – the assumption that writing for free is acceptable and if you won’t do it, there’s a long line of people behind you that will. It’s a failure to respect not just professionalism, but the obligation to pay everyone a decent wage for work done.

    It may sound pretentious but good journalism is a crucial part of a democracy. Too much of the “free” journalism we see isn’t good – or it simply piggybacks on the ever-decreasing number of hard-working paid journalists out there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andy.driscoll.ttt Andy Driscoll

    So, Jeff, it’s sounding like see such a glut of writers, we might as well get the hell out of the profession. That would certainly create the scarcity needed to deny offers to write free, but what is that threshold? Practicing one’s profession for free? Forget about prestige and the glory of bylines in these publications. Who pays the damned bills?

  • http://lubetkinsotherblog.blogspot.com PodcastSteve

    After 30 years in corporate PR and journalism, including 16 years writing a monthly newspaper column and eight years producing award-winning documentary video for clients, I still get the occasional media outlet that wants me to provide video news content in exchange “for the exposure.” Thanks, but if I want exposure, I can publish it on my own much better-SEO optimized website and it will actually appear in a Google search. Why should I work for you for free? If your publisher asked you to edit the newspaper for free would you do it for the exposure?

  • scmurley

    The difference being, the author had already written the article for another publication and been paid by that publication for the legwork. The Atlantic was wanting an additional 1200 words (!) for free, basically piggybacking on the original publication’s funding.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.lukas.18 Paul Lukas

    Asking someone to work for free is rude. There is nothing wrong with taking offense at rudeness. In fact, it is important to take offense, to help discourage the chance of that rudeness being repeated in the future. That’s how we self-police acceptable behavior in a civilized society.

  • Jeff Sonderman

    One difference I see there, Larry, is that there is scarcity of doctors, mechanics, plumbers and accountants. There is not a scarcity of writers (good ones, maybe, but you’ve got to prove you’re good first — possibly by writing for free).

  • Jeff Sonderman

    This is the kind of hyper-offended reaction that puzzles me.

    Some people, some of the time, write things for free. If you’re not one of them, just tell the publisher “no” and move on.

  • JTFloore

    well, when you’re starting out you might want the clip, the exposure. but after that you realize someone asking you to write for free — and there are alot of them these days — is just taking advantage of you. the indefensible part is that a publication like the atlantic would embarrass and shame itself, literally, by being so f*ing cheap. it’s one thing not to pay very much. it’s something else to pay absolutely nothing.

  • photo_journ

    “Is it really so wrong of the Atlantic or any publisher to ask an author, politely, if he is willing to provide a piece of content for free?”

    If you even have to ask that question Jeff you are in the wrong profession.

    The replies by App Larry and Brother Mathias some it up. Freelance journalism might be a non-profit undertaking for many, but it doesn’t mean we are charities.

    Personally I find it offensive that you even pose this question and think you are extremely fortunate to be protected from the contempt that most professional – understand that word Jeff? – journalists would have for your comments by the rules relating to comments in this forum.

    Perhaps next time I’m dodging bullets, sucking tear gas or being beaten with batons you might like to come and stand beside me and write a piece for free describing the situation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=791156682 Ed Finkel

    I know plenty of people, including myself, making a secure living in freelancing without leveraging other income opportunities … but I know very few, definitely not including myself, who do so strictly through journalism.

  • BrotherMatthias

    If you give it away, you lower the value to $0. If you cannot get paid to write, you have chosen the wrong profession…

  • http://www.facebook.com/app.larry App Larry

    Ask any other professional, such as a doctor, auto mechanic, plumber, accountant to do a job for free and sit back and wait for the swearing or the laughter, followed by “get out.” Why should a professional writer be expected to work for free, especially for a national publication? We’re talking about the Atlantic, not “Joe’s Blog” on word press. Draw a line in the sand on “freebees” or writers, photographers, artists and musicians will never be taken seriously