Political Animal


March 05, 2013 5:21 PM Not Working for Free, But Thanks For Thinking of Me

By Ed Kilgore

Since I allude now and then to the rather straightened condition of the print/online journalism world these days—particularly for freelancers—I just had to give a shout-out to Nate Thayer for posting an exchange he had with a major publication interested in getting him to write a customized version of a background piece he had done on the Dennis Rodman excursion to North Korea.

After some preliminary back and forth by email, here’s how it went:

Hi Olga: What did you have in mind for length, storyline, deadline, and fees for the basketball diplomacy piece. Or any other specifics. I think we can work something out, but I want to make sure I have the time to do it properly to meet your deadline, so give me a shout back when you have the earliest chance.
Nate Thayer
From the Atlantic:
Thanks for responding. Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.
Thanks so much again for your time. A great piece!
From me:
Thanks Olga:
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….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.
From the Atlantic:
Hi Nate — I completely understand your position, but our rate even for original, reported stories is $100. 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 for whatever professional goals they might have, but that’s not right for everyone and it’s of course perfectly reasonable to decline.

I’m not passing this on to knock The Atlantic in particular, and in fact, this exchange was not at all unusual, as I can attest personally from my own experience as a freelancer. Aside from the particular agonies of the journalism profession, the lesson here is that in any economic context where employers have all the power, and the supply of workers is almost limitless, even the very nicest people on earth (much less those who are not so nice) feel no particular compunction about being unreasonable. This is why in a free market economy we need labor laws, unions, minimum wages, and a social safety net. The Randian concept of individual workers freely contracting with free employers and thereby establishing an entirely objective value for work is often just a cruel joke.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • POed Lib on March 05, 2013 5:45 PM:

    The notion of contracting out requires that there be a limited supply of contractors and contractees. In this case, the contractors are shrinking and, thanks to scab visas like the H-1B, contractee ranks are skyrocketing.

  • MuddyLee on March 05, 2013 6:12 PM:

    I urge those who love the brave new ayn randian world where workers don't make any money to stay in that world
    and prove how great it is. Stay out of politics and government: Mark Sanford, I am talking to you. Mick Edenmoor Mulvaney, I am talking to you. Nikki Haley, I am talking to you.

  • Jenny on March 05, 2013 6:13 PM:


    Characterized by poverty: "they lived in straitened circumstances".
    Restricted in range or scope: "their straitened horizons".


    Please. Not "straightened" circumstances.

  • gus on March 05, 2013 6:30 PM:

    You should’ve charged for that, Jenny. j/k

    On the topic at hand, that’s part of the problem with online pubs and many ventures these days:
    They want something for nothing because what you can do (what they want) must be not as worthwhile for you to make as it is for them to use.

    So much has been devalued. That Atlantic situation is small potatoes compared to some other instances. There will be more instances, too.

  • John Hill on March 05, 2013 6:37 PM:

    Calvin Trilling wrote that his pay for his column in The Nation was "in the high two figures."

  • dweb on March 05, 2013 7:07 PM:

    There are related ploys on the illustration side. Magazine starts posting messages in LinkedIn groups saying, "Enter our photography contest."

    Small print reveals about the best you can hope for might be a cover and even then you run the risk that they "forget" to credit you for it when they use it, and they then quietly advise you and everyone who entered that THEY hold the rights to all submitted photos. A great way to build a free library of good photography at no cost to the magazine and no revenue to the photographer.

  • ceilidth on March 05, 2013 7:14 PM:

    First, wouldbe professionals needed to take internships to prove they were "serious" or perhaps more often rich enough to have parents who would support them. Now professionals are expected to work for free. Ick. And now I know why the parade of Atlantic "science" journalists know very little about science. The most recent "fellow" who writes about science news is a woman who also wrote in Modern Love at the Times that she wanted to marry a guy who was a scientist because she didn't know anything about that area. What's the old saying? Oh, I remember it's "You get what you pay for." Thanks for your report on this.

  • Sparko on March 05, 2013 7:28 PM:

    Rand: "You'll get nothing and like it!"

    No way to run society. Objectively speaking, no work has any value without coercion. Frankly. I like the torches and pitchforks work ethic more every day.

  • jeri on March 05, 2013 8:19 PM:

    I wonder if The Atlantic provides free copies of their magazine upon request. I'm out of money for subscriptions right now and I typically don't pay for content accessible in the doctor's waiting room. But I enjoy reading current material when available, and some publications welcome an opportunity to increase their audience without doing any additional legwork.

  • Rip on March 05, 2013 9:30 PM:

    Where this is going.

    We can't currently pay for an editor for our magazine right now, but how would you like to guest edit for a month, for the exposure?

    exposure: it's the new "getting paid".

  • Cstevenhager on March 06, 2013 12:05 AM:

    Scalzi says it best.

  • hamletta on March 06, 2013 5:25 AM:


    That lady has some brass ones.

    And Cstevenhager is right to point out that Scalzi is right.

    I once got hounded by a web mag run by a large paper. They'd shitcanned my editor, so I had no interest in working with them again, but the new editor insisted I sign their new work-for-hire contract.

    It got ugly, and he said he'd be happy to find writers more "professional" than I was.

    I said he'd find writers younger and dumber than I was, and he could kiss both sides.

    My friend the copyright attorney applauded me and said you shouldn't ever sign a work-for-hire contract unless you're scoring a movie.

  • Bob h on March 06, 2013 6:57 AM:

    Anybody know what the Editor of The Atlantic gets? Remnick gets $1 million at The New Yorker.

  • Neildsmith on March 06, 2013 7:43 AM:

    Ed wrote: "very nicest people on earth (much less those who are not so nice) feel no particular compunction about being unreasonable."

    This doesn't just happen in our current economy... This is the disease which infects our entire business / corporate culture. It won't go away if the supply of workers gets better.

  • smartalek on March 06, 2013 10:40 AM:

    Randoids are much like multi-lifers (the ones who believe in past lives, not the ones in stir for multiple murders; having stultifyingly stupid politics not being against the law).
    The past-lifers all imagine they've been Cleopatra or at worst, Marie Antoinette. Nobody was ever a slave or a peasant.
    The Randroids all think of themselves as being in the top 1% that gets outrageously high pay, never in the 4% that gets reasonable pay, or the 95% that gets outrageously low (or nonexistent) pay.
    They also never seem to notice that this alone is compelling prima-facie evidence that they're extremely unlikely to actually be in said top 1%.

  • Renai on March 06, 2013 1:50 PM:

    Does this make the Atlantic the first right-to-work publication?