Atlantic is ‘sorry’ to have offended freelancer with request for free content

Nate Thayer | James Bennet
Editor-in-Chief James Bennet would like you to know this recent dustup — over asking a freelancer to provide free Web content — isn’t how The Atlantic normally operates.

Freelance writer Nate Thayer posted to his blog Monday an email exchange between himself and an Atlantic editor, who wanted to see if Thayer would “repurpose” a recent article into a shorter version for the Atlantic website. For free.

Atlantic editor Olga Khazan wrote, in part: “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. … 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.”

Thayer stridently refused: “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. … 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.”

In a statement today, Bennet writes:

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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  • Greybeard

    Right — only the statement is actually true: “Normal operation” means “We do this and get away with it”, not “We do this and get called out on it”. Semantics…

  • mildobserver

    Frankly in this day and age of websites “re-purposing” writers’ work for free without even asking, the Atlantic’s approach is refreshing. Cynical, I know.

  • PodcastSteve

    The statement suggests, as Colleen notes, that they are only sorry that Nate was offended by being asked to work for free. They are not sorry they asked him to work for free. Someone else is always waiting to work for free. The Atlantic will, hopefully, get what they pay for.

  • Patrick Thornton

    I wrote up some suggested ways that we can pay for great writing:

    I don’t think there is anyway to justify what The Atlantic and others are doing. But rather than spend more time for condemning them for causing great writers to leave the field, I think it’s more constructive to find ways to support great writing.

    I don’t believe that ad supported journalism alone can support great writing. Kickstarter, Kindle Singles and other methods may be the way to go.

  • Patrick Thornton

    Would you say thanks but no thanks if someone asked you to clean their house for free? We are civilized nation with labor laws. The fact that The Atlantic is seeking to pad its profits by asking for free work is sickening.

    As a subscriber, I’m not thrilled to learn that they want people to pay for the magazine but don’t want to pay people to write in it .

  • Claire Wilson

    Because we experienced journalists are angry and frustrated by what’s happening in our industry. It’s not uncommon for pay to be less on a story the second time around, but it didn’t seem that The Atlantic was even offering compensation for the time required to condense the piece. A Vanity Fair writer once offered me $250 for a lengthy file I’d submitted to People Magazine but in the end only came through with $200. I was doubly annoyed when they spent way more than that to FedEx me my copy of the magazine!

  • Scott Sowers

    Unfortunately this is the current state of publishing. With so much free blogging and amalgamation, editors don’t have the budgets to pay for content and writers are competing with amateurs who will undercut them to get clips and exposure. It’s sure to get worse.

  • Justin Bell

    Whatever happened to simply saying “Thanks, but no thanks.” Why does everyone have to get incensed about everything?

  • Justin D. Martin

    The Atlantic asked me on March 3 if they could publish an original piece of my reporting for free. I said no. Same editor who approached Thayer. This is common at The Atlantic. Bennett’s statement is dishonest; it appears that, in her new post, Khazan was instructed not to pay freelancers.

  • Marinita Urbachita


  • Marinita Urbachita


  • Serai 1

    Isn’t it funny how incidents like this are NEVER “the way we normally operate”? Seems to me the companies that perpetrate this nonsense only decide that once their duplicity gets exposed. Reminds me of what Rhett Butler said, “You’re like the thief who isn’t a bit sorry he stole but is very, very sorry he’s going to jail.”

  • Miles Howard

    “Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can
    expect to try to retain quality professional services without.”

    To me, this is the most salient question in Thayer’s response, and The Atlantic’s statement does absolutely nothing to address it. As an avid reader and writer, I also want a straight answer. How do publications like The Atlantic or The Huffington Post expect to retain skilled journalists if they’re “above” compensating them fairly? Readers might put up with subpar writing for the short term, but eventually, they’ll stop picking up the next issue of whatever magazine it is that’s outsourcing work to writers with little self-respect and inferior skills.

  • Colleen Shaddox

    “We’re sorry we offended him” is not the same as “We’re sorry.” Though they weren’t asking for reporting, they were asking for work – the work of condensing. Decent organizations pay people for their work, any work. The Atlantic should own up and issue a real apology.

  • Larry Kart

    The tone of Thayer’s response doesn’t seem “strident” at all, just firm.