The media outrage of the day is directed at The Atlantic, whose website asked to repurpose a blog post for free. The veteran writer of the original article in question, Nate Thayer, was so taken aback by the request that he posted the complete correspondence on his personal blog, bemoaning the “state of journalism in 2013.” It’s not a new complaint about the digital market, but it has caught on. “This particular post has gotten more attention than anything I’ve spent my entire adult life researching,” Thayer told Daily Intelligencer this afternoon. “I’ve gotten more than 20,000 hits in the past hour. The irony is that I haven’t made a penny off of any of this.”
Thayer’s stand started yesterday: “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month,” wrote TheAtlantic.com global editor Olga Khazan, who started the job last week and was requesting a shortened version of Thayer’s “25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy” from NKNews.org. “I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you,” she wrote, “I just wanted to see if you were interested.”
“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,” responded Thayer, which is fair enough. Later, he added: “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,” and assuring Khazan “it really is nothing personal.”
Asked if Thayer alerted Khazan he would be posting the e-mails, complete with her name and e-mail address, The Atlantic said he did not. “I understand the position she is in and I do not know her and I am sure she is simply doing her job,” said Thayer. “I would reject such a position on ethical and moral grounds, personally, which is maybe why I’m broke.”
“Atlantic staff journalists write most of the stories on our sites,” Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennet said in a statement. “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.”
Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal spent a majority of the day attempting to explain the economics of the situation on Twitter, and Nate Silver has touched on the economics of “writing for free” before. Silver argues that volunteers don’t make up the bulk of these sites’ traffic or revenue: “For the most part … [unpaid bloggers] do not move the needle very much.” Anyone unwilling to volunteer their writing, the argument goes, is free to pass on the offer.
Thayer is unconvinced. “I was under the assumption that such practices were abolished when the [13th] amendment to the Constitution was ratified,” he said. “I don’t need the exposure. What I need is to pay my fucking rent. Exposure doesn’t feed my fucking children. Fuck that!” he continued, adding that he can’t even afford to get online. “I actually stick my fucking computer out the window to use the neighbor’s Internet connection. I simply can’t make a fucking living.”
“It’s not a sustainable business model for journalism,” he said. “And journalism is vital to a free society. Someone is going to figure it out. I hope they do before I starve to death, but I’m not terribly optimistic.”