Journalism’s problems shouldn’t extend to etiquette

06 Mar

will-work-for-freeOn Tuesday, a blog post from journalist Nate Thayer titled “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist – 2013”  made the rounds as the online conversation piece du jour. In it, Thayer detailed an email conversation he had with an editor at The Atlantic about repurposing a post he had written about basketball diplomacy for NKNews, a site devoted to information about North Korea.

The Atlantic editor liked the original post and wanted Thayer to rejig it for publication on his site. Thayer is an award-winning veteran journalist working in Asia and he took exception to the terms proposed. It seems the outlet wanted him to do it for free, which rankled him because he knows people who work there – for pay.

The editor countered with the suggestion that, because The Atlantic has 13 million readers a month, it would be great exposure. And, assuming that Thayer had already been paid for it by NK News, she figured he wouldn’t have to do much additional work on it.

“Some journalists use our platform as a way to gain more exposure for whatever professional goals they might have, but that’s not right for everyone and it’s of course perfectly reasonable to decline,” the editor wrote.

Thayer, in turn, declined and posted the whole conversation as a statement on the sad state of modern journalism.

The argument over what is becoming of journalism has been going on for years. With information so readily and freely available, media outlets are having an even harder time figuring out what to do than the music or movie industries. Digital distribution has obviously turned every information-based business on its head, perhaps none more so than journalism. I’m not going to touch that hornet’s nest for the time being, even though Thayer makes many good points in his parts of the exchange.

On the one hand, as Media Bistro puts it, freelancers everywhere are giving him a standing ovation for shedding light on the problem. On the other hand, what struck me about the post is how utterly self-destructive it is. Most freelancers I know have had similar conversations/negotiations with editors, so we can surely understand the frustration – lord knows I can – but they would never consider publicizing them because it’s grossly unprofessional.

As Bloomberg social media director and former Atlantic employee Jared Keller tweeted: “Freelance economics aside, I find it incredibly unclassy to publish an exchange w/ an editor just because I didn’t get a good rate.”

Indeed, it’s akin to posting details of a job interview or offer that you had. Just because it’s possible to share what is generally understood to be confidential information doesn’t mean you should. One thing that the digital upheaval hasn’t changed is this simple etiquette – if you don’t like the terms of what’s being offered, simply walk away.

Going forward, how many editors will negotiate in good faith with Thayer now, knowing that he might publicize the details of their conversation? While he may be lamenting the state of journalism in general, he certainly hasn’t done his own personal journalistic future any favours.


Posted by on March 6, 2013 in journalism


4 responses to “Journalism’s problems shouldn’t extend to etiquette

  1. jvanl

    March 6, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Farmers and ranchers suffer from the same challenge… their products are undervalued by most of the people who benefit from them. They need to eat too, and starving content and food producers is sheer stupidity on the part of content channels and food supply chains. Their prosperity depends critically on the prosperity of the producers who supply them.

    The channels and supply chains that will prosper in future are the ones that incentivize producers to supply more and better product. They will do so by finding, fostering and feeding consumers who value their products, and by passing the bulk of their profits back to the producers who supply them.

    A decade ago, I helped to build and manage a supply chain for a co-op of organic beef producers. Watch for the emergence of more producer co-ops that develop and manage their own content channels and downstream supply chains.

    Like most of the North American food industry, The Atlantic and countless other content channels have proven they cannot be trusted to respect the needs of the primary producers who supply them.

    These producers and their families keep us all fed, and they deserve to eat well themselves.

    • Peter Nowak

      March 6, 2013 at 10:29 am

      That’s a really unique analogy that many people (myself included) wouldn’t think to see. Thanks for sharing!

      • jvanl

        March 6, 2013 at 12:29 pm

        You’re welcome.

        Food for the body, food for the mind… the analogy is systemic.

        Media diets are changing, and as with nutrition, there is a growing trend towards healthier consumption. This trend offers many niches for content producers, including the locavore niche.

        The most valuable content for any consumer relates to the economic, social and cultural environments they live and work in, i.e., to their personal context.

        I think we’re shifting from a paradigm in which content is king to a paradigm in which context is king.

        Food for thought. ;^/

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