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Fumbling For the Truth: The Freelancing Author, or Will I Ever Be Paid Again?

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I’m not sure what the big deal is.  Nate Thayer was respectfully asked by Olga Khazan, the Global Editor for The Atlantic, to repurpose an article he wrote for NK News about “basketball diplomacy,” for the benefit of her readers. Nate Thayer, needing a paycheck more than exposure, respectfully declined. And then, perhaps deciding that if he was going to work for free, he might as well get that exposure in a different way, he chose to adapt his experience into a blog post about the sorry state of unpaid journalism. Publishing the editor’s e-mail address seemed unnecessary, I suppose, but hardly vindictive so much as childish: “You offered me exposure to your readers, I return the favor to you via mine.” And then his comments were picked up by New Yorkwhich got him being a bit more profane and officially on-the-record. Recursively, the whole thing wound up back at The Atlantic, in a half-defensive blog post by Ta-Nehisi Coates that seemed intent on contextualizing Thayer in the worst possible light. Which might not have been such a terrible thing, what with another blog accusing Thayer of plagiarizing his entire article. The whole thing’s spit-balled around the blogosphere long enough for even me, The Lowest Man on the Totem Pole, to chime in about it . . . so let’s get back to the actual point: that writers are increasingly asked to exchange their services–whether to create entirely new content or to adapt previously published work–for nothing more than the opportunity to reach a larger, or different, audience. Monetizing that would, one assumes, be left up to the writer . . . though if The Atlantic finds itself requesting free articles in order to boost their own ad revenue, I don’t imagine that’s a winning strategy.

But rather than write about things I don’t have the full story on, I’ll share some experiences of my own. I graduated from Binghamton University in 2005 and took the experiences I’d gotten from running the entertainment section of our school’s newspaper (Pipe Dream) and working within the theater department (and its scrappy community brethren) to find work writing freelance theater reviews for Show Business Weekly and for a new blog founded by the PBS show Theater Talk, New Theater Corpswhich had gathered sixteen young would-be critics. At first, I was happy simply to have validation: that outside of college, professionals thought enough of my work to still publish it (and to support my unsustainable habit of regularly going to the theater without having a paying job). How could I not forever be grateful to Susan Haskins for the opportunities that she provided me–to make my first, extremely nervous television appearance and, later, to take over editing the site (which actually did pay). None of this made me feel as if I’d been taken advantage of, or misled, and the work that I was doing there helped me to get some paying freelance work with David Cote at Time Out New York; I’d like to think that if I were better at networking (or even sending out my resume), I could have continued to find paying outlets. Enough to sustain myself? Probably not (and I’d personally rather read Helen Shaw’s writing than my own), but at least there was a path available, if I could afford to walk it. Hell, as one of the original members of the Show Showdown, I even got a write-up in the Times herself, and that traffic gave us a foundation for reaching out to more publicists and covering more shows, especially ones that other publications weren’t ready, willing, or able to get to.

But then the economy started to slide. The grant that sustained the work I was doing for New Theater Corps dried up, I stopped receiving assignments from Time Out New York (save for an unpaid request to help with their Fringe Binge, which I gladly accepted), and after nearly two years of writing for Show Business Weekly, when I’d informed them that I’d like to start getting paid something for my work, or to perhaps get some paid copy-editing or proofreading work thrown my way (which is what I do for an actual living), I basically never heard from them again. I liked the editor that I worked with–I think every blogger should have access to an editor; perhaps we could edit one another’s work–and I’d like to think that I was somewhat helpful to the people I worked with at New Theater Corps, but let me tell you, I’m sure they had the same experience: save for some reference letters that I wrote, they’ve never heard from me again. I haven’t sent any opportunities their way, though I’d like to think that if I’d gotten into a position to do so, I would have. Still, small comfort to them that I’d been exactly where they were, writing and rewriting without pay; in fact, the very fact that I was where I was now all but guaranteed that they wouldn’t be paid, since I wasn’t going anywhere.

And then my full-time job, the one that actually paid, imploded–taking an entire 150-plus-person department with it–and I found myself unable to even get interviews for internships in the field that I’d spent six years writing about. I’m not saying I’m better than the people who did wind up getting those positions; I’m saying that there were suddenly so many of us, all struggling to find a position. I remember when The Sun folded and I realized that if I was serious about it, I’d be competing with people like Eric Grode. Around this time I started missing performances that I’d booked, or worse, attending and failing to write the promised review; how was that supposed to help? By punishing people who, even when I was being paid nothing, were probably making even less (given that some companies spend their own money to make a dream production come true)? I knew what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t even that I couldn’t get paid to do it–it was that I suddenly couldn’t even get not paid to do it. (I’ve since discovered a new means of self-motivating, and that’s largely come from being more discerning in the assignments that I take, whether they’re something that I’d probably already be doing, like television or video games, or if they’re shows That Sound Cool. Whether anything career-oriented comes of my writing is beside the point now–though one always hopes for the best–I’m just personally happy to be providing exposure to subjects that I find interesting.)

So when someone like Thayer, whether you respect the guy or not, announces that he’s being treated the same way as the rest of us, that the freelancer is essentially an ink-stained Sisyphus, rolling words uphill (is that not what writing feels like?) and then being crushed back down by financial burdens, it makes one pause. Perhaps the Atlantic isn’t greedy, perhaps they’re struggling under the same market conditions as the rest of us (but at a different order of magnitude), and they really can’t afford to pay for content, not when bloggers like me are quoting and repurposing their paid content. (I feel a little better in knowing that I at least pay for a yearly subscription, that I’m at least less a part of the freeloading, paywall-skipping problem.) And it’s not as if they don’t pay any authors–and more than fairly, when they do–so much as that most people can’t afford to work on constant spec, hoping for the moment at which an Atlantic-type publication will swoop in, recognize their portfolio, and shower money upon them.

That said, here are two possibilities to alleviate this situation:

  1. Create a “path to staff”; like a tenure track, or an unpaid internship, this would essentially be some sort of contract that would guarantee (in the sense that anything in the tenuous “publishing” world can be guaranteed) future, paid work in exchange for unpaid (and less-edited, hopefully less-strenuous) work in the present. I’m phrasing that poorly, but the implication from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog post is that his unpaid work led to him eventually being hired as a staff writer for The Atlantic, and even if that’s never put in writing, a simple good-faith understanding would provide that reassuring light at the end of the tunnel, a sign that the struggling author is not going insane (you know, from publishing over and over again without ever being paid but expecting a different outcome). At the very least, there have to be some perks that The Atlantic (and other large publications) could offer to their toiling, literally freelancers, whether that’s through exclusive first-looks at job postings or through some sort of social network in which you have more than good faith than an editor you’ve given free product to is going to be advocating on your behalf. What about sharing access to JSTOR or other research tools that you have the money to license, but which your average struggling, unpaid author could really use in improving the quality of future work?

  2. Stop simply offering “exposure” and come up with a way of monetizing that for authors. Doesn’t YouTube offer a very small percentage of ad revenue to the videos that most drive traffic? If that fails, or your site doesn’t actually generate income on its own (not without the print component, or through brand awareness/relevance), you might consider simply being transparent about it–revealing why you don’t have the money to pay your writers might make them feel more empathetic and less ripped off. All things considered, why not implement a “tip” button beside the various tools to retweet or post on Facebook? If the numbers of eyes that you offer the unpaid author are really that spectacular, and the content they’re writing is actually worth publishing and reading, perhaps you might shame readers into paying a bare minimum, much like the Humble Indie Bundle basically gives games away (for exposure), but at such a volume that money is actually made. I wouldn’t expect my readers to pay a dollar a word (especially at the rate I’m ranting), but what about a thousandth of a penny? If you had the Atlantic‘s supposed 13 million readers, and one percent of them gave one-thousandth of a penny per word (so basically a cent and a half from each person in that elite 1%), this essay would’ve made more than $2,000. That’s the sort of monetized exposure I could get behind. Sure, it’d lead to pandering, with authors attempting to write to those most likely to donate, but that’s what you’d have the rest of the paid writers for: to focus on the articles that need to be written, regardless of our low-attention spans and fetishization of celebrity culture.

As I’ve said, the purpose of these “Fumbling for the Truth” posts isn’t accuracy or even answers: it’s simply a ball-rolling hope that this time–this time!–the boulder of words will make it over the hill, pick up momentum, and reach the intended goal: more sustainable wages for writers. Until then, I guess there’s always Kickstarter. (So long as my idea focuses on a forbidden love triangle between a socially awkward vampire, a teenage mummy and his wizardly cat, and an angel with a bondage fetish.)

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