In a new article for Al Jazeera, I discuss how Americans – especially young Americans — are being conditioned to accept unpaid labor as normal. This is particularly true in journalism, as the recent debate over the Atlantic reveals:
The news that the Atlantic – one of the oldest and most venerated publications in America – paid its writers little or nothing came as a shock to many, but not to journalists struggling to make a living in the post-employment economy. Freelance rates have plunged over the past decade, a decline tracked on the crowd-sourced website Who Pays Writers? (the answer: hardly anyone).
Some journalists say this is not a big deal. Unpaid labour should be expected, even treasured. In an article called “People Writing for Free on the Internet Is an Enormous Boon to Society”, salaried Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias argued that if people demanded money for their labour, the world would be deprived of important works. “This Nine Inch Nails/Carly Rae Jepsen mashup is amazing, for example,” he wrote.
Atlantic employees say they feel the freelancers’ pain, but there is nothing they can do. Editor James Bennett apologised for offending Thayer and added that “when we publish original, reported work by freelancers, we pay them”. This claim was dismissed by Atlantic contributors who were paid nothing for their original, reported contributions. In a lengthy defence of the Atlantic’s publishing practices, Technology editor Alexis Madrigal argued that while the game of journalism “sucks”, it was too late to change the rules: “You still have limited funds. You still can’t pay freelancers a living wage.”
But then where is all the money going? “The Atlantic is two things every legacy publishing company would like to be: profitable and more reliant on digital advertising revenues than on print,” writes Forbes magazine. 2012 brought theAtlantic a record profit, beating out the record profit of 2011, with 59 percent of earnings coming from digital revenues. Not every writer at the Atlantic is suffering for their craft. When the Atlantic recruited staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, they sent his daughter ponies and offered him a lavish six-figure salary. Thayer had once been offered $125,000 by the magazine to write six articles.
The problem in journalism is not that people are writing for free. It is that people are writing for free for companies that are making a profit. It is that people are doing the same work and getting paid radically disparate wages. It is that corporations making record earnings will not allocate their budgets to provide menial compensation to the workers who make them a success.
For more, read the full article, Managed Expectations in the Post-Employment Economy.
Note: The original version of this article stated that the Atlantic bought journalist Jeffrey Goldberg ponies as part of his lavish recruitment package – an anecdote I picked up from a widely cited Howard Kurtz article on the Atlantic’s big-spending ways. Yesterday Goldberg contacted me on Twitter to affirm that the Atlantic merely rented the ponies, but did not buy them.
You got that, everybody? The Atlantic only rented the ponies. You don’t need to worry about journalism anymore.
The status of Mr. Goldberg’s ponies has since been updated. I was happy to make this correction. As a writer who came of age during the Iraq war, I know all too well the importance of getting one’s facts straight.