The State of Online Journalism Today: Controversial

Ted Weinstein tweet on magazine publishing

On Tuesday, March 5, I found (via Twitter) the following piece by freelance journalist Nate Thayer:

A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013

The post consists of an e-mail exchange between Thayer and an Atlantic editor, where Thayer is asked if he would repurpose a previously published piece for the Atlantic’s website. He is not offered any money, but is told he will gain exposure since Atlantic’s site enjoys 13 million readers per month.

For those familiar with the online world of publication, this exchange is hardly surprising or unusual. If you scan the posts at Who Pays Writers, you’ll see that $0 or maybe $50–$100 is common for very well-known sites. In fact, the more traffic a website gets, the more it can avoid payment by offering the carrot of exposure—which is indeed valuable and needed for some writers, but not all.

Thayer, in response to the offer of pay through exposure, says:

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 [sic].

As indignant as Thayer might be, I find his perplexed state to be rather disingenuous if he’s been keeping up at all with the evolution of online journalism. One can imagine a brief “No, thank you,” would have been the more graceful gesture, but on the other hand, if writers don’t express outrage at not being paid—and don’t take editors to task for it—can they really expect the situation to change? (Personally, I still like and advocate for the brevity of the “No, thanks,” answer. If editors hear “no” often enough and can’t get their hands on the content they want or need, that spurs change, too.)

Thayer’s post spread quickly via Twitter on Tuesday, with Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal (@alexismadrigal) coming to the defense of Atlantic Digital. However, Madrigal is NOT the editor who was involved in the e-mail exchange above; he works for a different “channel” of Atlantic Digital, but is one of the most prominent and (in my mind) admirable editors involved with the digital side of the Atlantic, which operates independently from the print side.

Madrigal offered fascinating insights into the editorial operations of Atlantic Digital, including:

  • Atlantic’s channel editors have tiny freelance budgets, but independently control how things come in, what rates are, what the “rules” are, etc. (Tweet.) If he had more money, Madrigal implied he’d be more likely to hire a staffer than freelancers. (Tweet.) He said that he used to run a lot of outside material, but it was hard to control quality, hard to edit, and time consuming. (Tweet.)
  • Staffers and established contributors write most of the stories at Atlantic Online. He said that 90% of the traffic comes from these sources, not freelancers. “The site is almost entirely driven by top 15 writers or so, all paid.” (Tweet.) He later said a typical Atlantic staffer brings in 400K uniques per month (not clear how many articles a staffer typically writes, however), and a good freelance piece will bring in a median of 15K-25K uniques. (Tweet.) Freelancer Paul Ford (@ftrain) responded, “Ah so now I can understand the gap between Thayer’s POV and Atlantic POV. Starts to make more sense.” (Tweet.)
  • Broadly speaking, the norms under discussion are up in the air and inconsistent within publications and across different publications. (Tweet.) Others in the Twitter stream argued this meant that it’s important for Atlantic to articulate a clear vision, and that varying philosophies within a publication are detrimental to that vision and ultimately to survival. However, Madrigal responded by saying that the alternative is “centralized control of what is happening,” which he wants to avoid. In other words, as the technology channel leader, he presumably gets to call the shots, and that’s been good for him and that channel. (Tweet.)
  • For my unschooled readers, I should emphasize that the decentralized nature of Atlantic Online is exactly the opposite of what happens at most traditional print publications, which often have a rigid hierarchy. Based on my experience and observations, the decentralized structure of Atlantic Online is a growing and common phenomenon among progressive, digital publications. (Another example of a big brand employing a decentralized strategy is Forbes.)
  • The tension of quality vs. velocity (or quantity) hasn’t disappeared. A particularly revealing moment came with the following: “This is a complex battle to win when biz dev has one lever to push: velocity. They can’t say, ‘Write better stuff.'” (Tweet.) However, Madrigal also mentioned that since 2010 they’ve ratcheted down the number of pieces getting pushed out because of the downside and risk of low-quality work. Ultimately, he says they have to do both “fast” and “slow” work well. (Tweet.) And it’s exhausting. (Tweet.)

The discussion started to come to a close with these two tweets about the state of online journalism, which Madrigal argued was tough, but not depressing.



UPDATE (Tuesday, 4 p.m.): The Atlantic has posted an official statement on the matter, from James Bennett, editor in chief.

My thoughts so far:

  • From the perspective of the writer: If a piece of my work were solicited for The Atlantic, and I were offered no payment—just exposure—I’d take it. At this stage of my career, it’s an attractive offer if the material is already written. Was it a good deal for Nate Thayer? Based on his career profile, it’s easy to see why he said no. Every writer can make a different decision and still have it be the right decision.
  • From my perspective as VQR web editor: (1) I have been taken to task on Twitter (at least indirectly) for VQR’s payment for online work, which is $100 per post. A freelance journalist told VQR (on Twitter) that pay rate is insulting. For an original, in-depth reported piece, I agree. However, $100 is not a one-size-fits-all pay rate. It varies from writer to writer and piece to piece. (2) Strong online writers, with something unique or meaningful to say—who also drive traffic—are not easy to get. They are in high demand. And I would pay well for their work if they came to me, but they are not (even when solicited). I believe that is because VQR doesn’t offer sufficient exposure, plus our site is cutting edge only if you’re an online writer from 2004. So writers: Don’t tell me exposure or platform doesn’t matter. I know it does—just like relationships and networking matter. (3) VQR is still print-driven, at least to the extent that it probably shouldn’t even have a full-time web editor position. Nine months in, I have barely begun to solve the dilemma of what our online content strategy ought to be given the limited resources we have (both time and money), but I can already see that continually sourcing freelance content for online is not optimal, possibly detrimental.
  • From the perspective of a publications leader (who once provided a vision for a brand): I hope there can be a compromise, somehow, between having a decentralized structure for Atlantic Online, but still having some brand consistency or philosophy in how content is sourced and pushed out. Must these two things be mutually exclusive? My idealistic side wants to say no—unless the various channels at Atlantic are SO different from one another that they absolutely must work under different business models. But I doubt this is the case?
  • From the perspective of someone who has long worked in publishing: I know few people, if any, who go into publishing (or journalism) for great pay. It’s usually about love, passion, a particular set of values, and the resolve to do something that’s very hard, not well paid, but ultimately rewarding in other ways. Some writers have chosen the freelance game, the same way others have chosen to work on the inside, for a regular paycheck, and (again, expressing my idealism), I believe there’s a shared set of goals. It’s far more productive to work together than to launch full-scale attacks, but that’s not to say we should hold back on constructive criticism or an idea exchange of how things can work better. For-profit publications that are (on the whole) ethical, transparent, and respected probably have the hardest time of all finding a sustainable business model. What do we gain by trashing them?

This is a complex and controversial issue, something that we discuss every week at my UVA class in digital media and publishing. I welcome discussion and comments below, but let’s avoid black-and-white declarations or finger pointing. I’d love to hear about particular online publications, websites, or outlets that you think are getting it RIGHT.

For more on this issue

  • To read a phenomenal exchange on this issue—among career freelance writers, editors, and other media insiders—visit this Branch conversation.
  • The Problem With Online Journalism by Felix Salmon offers an excellent analysis. He writes: “The Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week. When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down” … and … “At a high-velocity shop like Atlantic Digital, freelancers just slow things down—as well as producing all manner of back-end headaches surrounding invoicing and the like. The result is that Atlantic Digital’s freelancer budget is minuscule.”
  • Read Alexis Madrigal’s response to what happened: A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013
  • Finally, in a somewhat flip piece, but also important: “How Have You Devalued Professional Writing Today?” by Mark Armstrong (Longreads) helps everyone think more broadly and deeply about the issue.
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