There’s an interesting conversation going on over at The Atlantic about working for free. The talk is among journalists, but it’s not much of a stretch to bring it into the photography (or really any creative) space.
It started last week with journalist Nate Thayer, who was asked by The Atlantic website to repurpose a blog post for free. The original article, “25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy: Rodman trip comes after 25 years of basketball diplomacy between U.S. and North Korea” was posted on NKNews.org. After it was published, an editor from The Atlantic emailed Thayer to ask if he would be interested in adapting a version for their website – for free.
Thayer took to his blog and posted his correspondence with the editor.
“We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month,” said the editor in her email to Thayer. “I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.”
To that Thayer responded: “I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years 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…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.”
The correspondence has since blown up in the media. James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic, posted a statement saying, “Atlantic staff journalists write most of the stories on our sites. When we publish original, reported work by freelancers, we pay them. Our freelance rates vary, depending on the kind of work involved. We do publish some unpaid pieces, typically analysis or commentary by non-journalists.”
“It’s not a sustainable business model for journalism,” Thayer told New York Magazine‘s blog, The Daily Intel. “And journalism is vital to a free society. Someone is going to figure it out. I hope they do before I starve to death, but I’m not terribly optimistic.”
Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates, who got his start at the online Atlantic working for free, made his own response over the weekend. He speaks specifically about a time after his 12-year career in print media when he started freelancing for Slate and blogging on his own.
“In 2008, I was not some young fresh-faced college kid,” writes Coates. “I was 32.” When an editor at Slate asked him to contribute a guest post to their website for free (in an email titled “Lucrative Work-For-Free Opportunity”), Coates said yes.
“I agreed to write for Matt because I wanted exposure,” he says.
Coates doesn’t think Thayer declining to work for free is wrong, or stupid, or disagreeable. But he does think that Thayer is out of touch with the times. “I understand why someone might not want to do it for exposure,” he says. “I think journalists should be paid for their work. Even here at The Atlantic, I think it would be a good idea to provide a nominal amount, if only as a token of respect for the work.”
“Whatever The Atlantic isn’t, right now, the fact is that it currently employs more journalists than it ever has in its entire history. There are real questions about whether we will always be able to do that in this new world. But that is landscape on which all media currently tread. It’s not perfect. But it never was.”
This conversation doesn’t apply to writers only. Photojournalists M. Scott Brauer and Matt Lutton shared Thayer’s story on their blog, dvafoto, and noted that The Altantic doesn’t pay its photographers either. Altantic editor Alan Taylor was quick to reply, saying:
“It is true that I am not budgeted to pay for outside photographers, but that’s because almost all of my budget goes to pay for existing agency contracts. So there is significant money going out our door for photography, just not directly to the photographers…So I am now in a position (like anyone else) to either ask for more budget (which I have done), or cut down or eliminate one of our contracts, to free up money for freelancers.”
Alan Taylor’s blog In Focus is known for featuring large, 1280px photos of various news topics. The photos are almost always from agency photographers (i.e. Reuters, AP Photo, Getty, etc.). Taylor says that if a freelancer photographer approaches him asking to be featured, he’s up front about not being able to pay. “Since my budget hasn’t been expanded, and I have almost nothing to offer freelancers, I’m sort of stuck,” he says.
Photographers and creatives of all types are continuously asked to work for free. Does working for free in return for exposure reflect the current state? Is it fair? What do you think?