When People Write for Free, Who Pays?

This week, veteran journalist Nate Thayer posted to his personal blog an email exchange he'd recently had with an editor from the Atlantic. The editor was asking Thayer to take something he'd already written and adapt a shorter version for use on the Atlantic's website, but there was a catch: The editor wanted Thayer to do it for free. "I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years," Thayer wrote, "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."

It's a common enough complaint, but Thayer's response set off a chain reaction of argument and discussion. That the editor may have made a legitimate mistake in a new job—and that the article in question may have been a work of plagiarism by Thayer—didn't move the focus off the original point: Should people be writing for free?

The "No"s weren't the only voices roused by Thayer's call. Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal penned a thoughtful jeremiad to respond to the masses outraged by the Atlantic's apparent "gall"—and other writers came out in favor of working gratis. "[I]f you do enjoy writing and you don't have a money-making writing opportunity, you should definitely be writing for free," wrote the surely well-compensated Slate blogger Matt Yglesias. "The tough choice is whether you want to write for free for some other publications or just under your own header."

The Awl hosted a Branch conversation that best displayed the media industry's cognitive dissonance about paying writers: Men and women from places low and high on the publishing totem pole wrote for free about the problems and benefits of writing for free. No workable consensus was reached, but everyone seemed to agree that paying writers is very important, unless you can't afford to, or unless you're a youngish writer looking for more prominent exposure, in which case writing for free might be a good thing.

In other words, it doesn't look like media outlets—even very respected ones. even wealthy ones. certainly not this one—are going to stop asking for free writing anytime soon. And that means at least one awful thing for the foreseeable future: The writing game will continue to be one rigged for people who already have money.

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Becoming a successful writer—or journalist or actor or wigmaker—is an ambition that, like pretty much everything else in society, is rigged in numerous ways to favor people who start off with money. Far too many successful writers will tell you that their line of work is a meritocracy, as tech blogger-cum-entrepreneur Jason Calacanis did last month, saying that the only reason there aren't more minorities in tech writing is because they're not working hard enough. This is a self-serving lie for successful writers to promote, because inherent in it is that the writer telling it is a very talented and hard worker, better than his feckless and pathetic contemporaries who are less successful.

I wish I could tell that lie with a straight face. Unfortunately, I cannot. The stock villain in these discussions is the "trust fund kid," floating through life on a cushion of riches—the sort of people whose parents can literally buy them magazine internships at auction. By that standard, most of us are humble bootstrappers.

But the truth is, in times when I couldn't sell a pitch to even the smallest of alt-weeklies, my parents were able to help me out with a rent check. If those times had stretched out too long, the worst thing that could have happened was I might have had to move back into their house. I was never going to starve or be homeless for lack of a paycheck.

This is what props up the system of internships, low rates, and writing for "exposure": the middle- to upper-middle-class parent who can drop $900 for rent money here, or $2,000 for a broker's fee there, or who can simply co-sign a lease. Their budding writers get breathing room that millions of other mothers and fathers couldn't imagine being able to provide.

And these children can compare themselves to the really rich kids in publishing, the ones who magically have a downtown apartment and money for drinks, and feel themselves struggling to make it. There they are, in a smelly apartment with roommates, riding the subway, maybe short on cigarette money before payday. They—we—are earning it. The occasional cash injection is easy to forget about.

But the money is there, nevertheless, steadily tilting the scales. Who can take an unpaid summer internship at a fashion magazine in New York City—and then take a starting salary at the magazine of around $25,000, while dressing and socializing in a suitably upscale and fashion-conscious manner? When a website like the Atlantic offers no money for 1,200 words of writing, what kind of writer is best equipped to take on that assignment? A mechanic who works 10 hours a day and comes home exhausted, or a 23-year-old still getting rent money from his father?

Gawker Media, we should note, regularly publishes and republishes work that people give to us for free, and employs lots of part-time contractors. On the other hand, Gawker also hires editorial fellows, who are paid more than interns at other publications. Like many modern media outlets, we're not completely exploiting everyone, but we are exploiting someone.

Creatives being able to create thanks to a little help from mommy and daddy is nothing new. Despite lots of sob stories to the contrary, Van Gogh was never penniless, due in large part to handouts from his parents and brother. But what kind of writing community do we cultivate by not paying writers?

As recently as October of last year, Atlantic associate editor David A. Graham wrote that it was "stunning" that 93 percent of front-page newspaper stories about that year's election were written by white people, especially considering that "[i]ssues pertaining to race and ethnicity have been incredibly important to the 2012 election."

Graham's awe at the racial disparity was merely the latest in a spate of media people wringing their hands about the fact that there isn't enough diversity in their editorial meetings and newsrooms and magazine awards dinners. These people are right to be concerned about the homogeneity of media, a problem that worries me as well.

But it's then incumbent upon all of us to recognize that this is the culture we breed when we offer to pay writers nothing or next to nothing, thereby immediately eliminating anyone who needs a paycheck in order to feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads. Some writers may be able to hustle double-duty for a while, filing short stories during the day while waiting tables at night until their big break hits. But the field will still be overpopulated by people who came into it with money and security behind them.

Wealthy musician Amanda Palmer, who last year raised $1.2 million on Kickstarter to produce and release a record, recently used a TED talk to expand on the idea that artists should be willing to work for free. After relaying a story about how she used to be a street performer, Palmer, who is married to a very successful author named Neil Gaiman, told an audience of people who'd paid $7,500 apiece to be there that musicians shouldn't "make" people pay for their work, but rather "let" people pay for their work. She also explained that she found it virtuous when a family of undocumented immigrants huddled together on their couch for a night so that she and her band could have their beds, because her music and presence was a fair exchange for the family's comfort. After about 13 minutes of explaining why she is content with people giving her things, Palmer received a standing ovation.

All in all, the creative landscape is starting to look more toxic than it's been in our lifetimes: Artists with million-dollar checks in their pockets are telling other artists that they shouldn't expect to get paid; publications are also telling writers that they shouldn't expect to get paid; and meanwhile everyone wonders why we can't get more diversity in the creative ranks. One obvious way to reverse media's glut of wealthy white people would be to stop making it so few others but wealthy white people can afford to get into media. But in the age of dramatic newsroom layoffs and folding publications, nobody wants to hear that. So we trudge on, forgetting what a luxury it is to do what you want to do for a living rather than what you have to do to survive.

Photo via Shutterstock.