On 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.