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Writing For Free, Paying the Price

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by Matt Singer
March 7, 2013 2:37 PM
6 Comments
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"Ratatouille."
There isn't a single thing about the story of Nate Thayer and The Atlantic that doesn't make me sad. 

Thayer, a veteran journalist, was contacted by editor Olga Khazan of The Atlantic about a story he'd written for the NK News that she wanted to reprint. Over the course of several emails and a phone call, Khazan laid out what she wanted Thayer to do -- primarily, to cut the original story by two-thirds -- and what she wanted to pay him to do it: nothing. "We unfortunately can't pay you for it," Khazan wrote him in an email that Thayer has reprinted on his blog, "but we do reach 13 million readers a month." Thayer wrote back to explain that he couldn't support his family working for free; Khazan wrote back one more time saying that she was "out of freelance money" and "thought [Thayer would] be willing to summarize it for posting for a wider audience without doing any additional legwork." Thayer did not and, frustrated at the state of things in the industry, posted the entire exchange on his blog, which quickly went viral.

His post prompted an official response from The Atlantic ("We don't force anyone to contribute to us," said editor-in-chief James Bennet) and an article by Atlantic senior editor Alex Madrigal that was less an apology than a justification for some of the institutional policies that might lead a venerated magazine like The Atlantic to ask someone to work for them for free. Times are tough for companies as well as for people, Madrigal argues, and budgets are extraordinarily tight. In the world of digital journalism, traffic is key. And you can't get traffic without content. And if you can't afford enough content to hit your traffic numbers, you've got to find it somewhere else. And you've got to find it on the cheap.

Film journalists know these issues all too well. Stick around in this business long enough and you'll get asked to write something for free. Hell, you don't even have to stick around that long; most film writers break in to this world working for little to no money. That's how I did it.

I started writing about film in college. Four nights a week, I ran the on campus film programming at my school: booking movies, lugging film cans, selling tickets, flyering dorms, and even splicing prints when the projectionist ran late. I spent my downtime on the Internet. One of my favorite spots at the time was a popular message board on comic books. The board attracted an eclectic mix of pop culture fans, who engaged in wonderfully obsessive debates about comics and movies. As some of these fans began launching their own websites, they posted calls for submissions. With absolutely zero experience -- not even an anonymous IMDb review of "Gymkata" on my resume -- I applied to the first one I saw, which turned out to be a place called REACTOR Magazine. Its staff included another of my favorite comic book writers, Warren Ellis, which means I can (and, when drunk, often do) say that he and I were once colleagues, which sounds really impressive until I explain it. I pitched a column on comics and a column on movies. They told me they'd take both.

I made no money -- but no one made any money, so we were all in the same leaky boat, one barely kept afloat by our feverishly passionate paddling. When the boat sprung too many holes and went under, I grabbed a life preserver and paddled to the next one. REACTOR went belly up; I wrote for The Mad Review. That folded; I found GrayHaven Magazine. That dried up, I moved on to Pop Thought. If you could get a dime for a dozen of these websites you were making out like a bandit. In the early 2000s there were a million of them; I probably wrote for at least half of them.

I was, as they say, "putting in my time." And I enjoyed it. Now I had a resume -- a mostly terrible one, but better than nothing. I went to graduate school. I interned at The Village Voice, where you worked the film desk for school credit, but you got paid the standard freelance rate for any reviews you wrote. I interned for the Independent Film Channel and wrote for their website; they liked my work enough to pay me a little bit each week to keep doing it. 

That seemed like a reasonable path: work hard for peanuts for a few years, learn your craft, get that all-important "exposure," build an audience, and progress to the point where people think your presence at their site is valuable enough to pay you for it. But as my colleague Alison Willmore astutely asked on Twitter when Thayer went public with his story, "if even outlets like The Atlantic don't want to pay writers, what compensated work is all that "exposure" supposed to help one get? The whole point of that supposedly reasonable path was to use working for free as a stepping stone to places of prestige, renown, and (so we thought) budgets. Now those places want you to work for free too. Where do you go from there? Another field?

Aspiring critics occasionally email me asking for career advice. I have traditionally told them what my favorite undergraduate film professor told me: Write. Write every day. Find someone who will publish you, no matter who it is, and write. Follow your passion and write. If that means writing for free at first, so be it. For an aspiring critic, that comes with the territory.

For the first time, Thayer's story is making me wonder about that advice. Writing for exposure is great when you have something to expose that will make money; a book or a television show to promote. But if you're just a freelance journalist, then all writing for free exposes is your willingness to sell your services to the lowest bidder. 

Next time someone asks, I will probably tell them that if you're going to write for someone for free, don't make a habit of it, or editors not paying you (or others) will start to become a habit too. If you're going to do that you might as well start your own site. Use social media to build an audience. Instead of writing for free, write for yourself.

Read more of "A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist - 2013" and "A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013."

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6 Comments

  • parsyeb | March 7, 2013 11:05 PMReply

    While I'm generally annoyed at your column here, this article is quite good, from the heart, if you will. The fact of the matter is that the ability to be compensated for critical work is very nearly over. And if that's not true, it's at least true that the ability to be compensated for the newsrun or review work that people like Sarris, Farber, etc. did for years is a much different ballgame. Kids just don't give a shit. Even though Harry Knowles can't write a coherent or grammatically correct sentence, he's still a millionaire for his brand. And that's the way it goes (unless you're Vadim, who's too great to deny, it would seem). Idiots like A.O. Scott and the NY Times writers, Kent Jones and the Film Comment crew (excluding Amy Taubin), and their ilk are dying dinosaurs, clinging on to the last run of this kind of job. And even they have to give up all shreds of dignity to hang on to those gigs, writing fluff pieces on films no one with a brain gives two shits about.

  • d | March 8, 2013 3:04 AM

    There is absolutely nothing of substance to this comment.
    "While I'm generally annoyed at your column here..." Good for you. Clearly, that was so important you couldn't keep it to yourself.
    "Idiots like A.O. Scott and the NY Times writers, Kent Jones and the Film Comment crew..." And who are you again? Just some anonymous Internet asshole? You should post your real name.

  • Grace Daly Boren | March 7, 2013 4:41 PMReply

    Matt, please don't give up. You write well, you are great on camera and still so young and have really made a dent in a very difficult field. Who knows where your talent will take you? I don't think that Mark Zuckerburg planned on becomng a millionaire.

  • Skippy | March 7, 2013 4:06 PMReply

    I wrote reviews for an indie film site for about a year. Payment was the standard "you get to see a movie for free and you get a line on your resume." It was fun at first but I quickly realized that the time I spent watching the movie and time I spent writing the review was time I could have spent either working on another job that paid or at the very least, looking for a job that paid.

    It's not just writing in the arts either that's the problem. Look at job ads on any freelance writing site and you'll find "internships" everywhere. Then the problem snowballs as all the insistence on "free" work depresses the pay rates at companies that do pay. I found a niche in the freelance writing industry about ten years ago and made a decent living at it for about eight years. Over the last few years, though, the rates have dropped precipitously; I've found myself being offered 50% less for the same work I did maybe five years ago--by the same companies I worked for then. I'm working on a job right now for a company I've worked for many times in the past, but this work averages out to about $8/hr. It's hard to feel good about what you're doing when you know someone working for a maid service is earning more than you.

    Content is what drives the Internet, but it's funny how no one thinks they should have to pay for the material that fills their websites and draws visitors.

  • James Frazier | March 7, 2013 3:41 PMReply

    I'm all too familiar with this. Ever since I started writing about film (some seven years ago), I've been asked to write dozens of reviews and articles for free, with the credit being the only compensation. The credits can add up to something, but usually they don't mean much other than bragging rights, and I'm hard-pressed to think of a time that citing where my works have been published has helped me score a gig (usually friends help me out with that).

    It's a sad state of affairs, but there's a simple reality here: The web is awash with so many writers, talented and untalented, that it's often easy to find those willing to write for free. Although great writers giving out free work is hard to come by, even the musings of a complete hack can be shaped into something interesting by a decent editor.

    Unfortunately, this sort of thing highlights just how difficult it is to make a living income off of film writing. Like most creative vocations, it's one of passion, and such things don't often involve a lot of disposable income. I've last track of the number of friends who've put down the pen for financial reasons.

    For one getting into the biz with serious intent of making money, I'd say that, as much as it hurts, doing a few pieces for free, especially for a recognizable site or mag, could be a worthwhile idea. But sooner or later, if you're consistently turning in good work and are committed to becoming a bona fide professional, you need to get compensated with something more than bragging rights. If one can't make some sort of income, then film writing will inevitably become a hobby whatever happens.

  • Katy Kern | March 7, 2013 3:11 PMReply

    Great article. Keeps us aspiring film critics and journalists in the know. Thank you!

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