Freelance Writer Sends Atlantic Editor Most Self-Righteous E-sermon Ever

Why Nate Thayer should just chill out.

I’m trying to imagine it. My Philly Post editor forwards me an email from an editor at The Atlantic: “Hello. We’re looking for Annie Monjar. We’d like to repurpose one of her blog posts for our website.”

For me, this is the arc of a happy afternoon nap-dream, or maybe an acid trip. For Nate Thayer, though, a journalist for the North Korea News, it was an actual inbox apparition this week. The Atlantic’s brand-new global editor, Olga Khazan, emailed his publication. She’d discovered a piece of his floating on the galaxy of commentary that is the Internet, and was writing to see if he’d be willing to pare it down for their website. Khazan told Thayer that though she was out of freelance money, their website did reach 13 million readers a month, and they’d love to include him.

“I can do it by 6 a.m. tomorrow,” I’d have shot back. “What do you need? 1,000 words? 387? Iambic pentameter?”

I am a fairly novice blogger, though, whereas Thayer, as he wrote back to Khazan in the most self-righteous e-sermon you’ve ever read, is a Serious Journalist.

“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.”

I’ll cut the email off here, because I don’t want Thayer pouncing on our attorney about copyright infringement here at the Post.

Thayer’s email to Khazan is, of course, not really about being paid for his already finished work, but rather about showing the world what an honest-to-Pete, treacherous-water-treading freelance writer he really is. As such, he posted the exchange on his personal blog and sanctimoniously titled it, “A Day in the Life of A Freelance Journalist – 2013.”

Important to note is that Thayer, who’s written for the AP and once interviewed Pol Pot, was not being asked to report an 8,000-word, pro bono expose on corporate embezzlement. He was being asked to rework a piece he’d already completed, that had already been published online. There is gray area betwixt, of course, but that’s a line worth drawing.  On the spectrum of labor-intensive assignments, Thayer’s spot is a weird place to stake a freelance-martyr flag.

Since his blog post picked up steam, though, there have been loud “ra-ra’s” ricocheting off the cyber-soundboard. Longtime reporters and rookie bloggers alike practically Twitter-egged The Atlantic’s official response to Thayer’s complaint, which stated that while not paying its contributors was not standard practice, the Atlantic did take into account the amount of work required when deciding on compensation, and that they were sorry they’d offended Mr. Thayer.

To be fair, what Thayer wrote to his would-be editor is an internal monologue I’ve had more than a few times in my brief media career. I remember the intense feeling of resentment toward doing good work for no money when I was interning at magazines after graduating, including my three-month stint here at Philly Mag. Writers have every right to be protective of their work.

But there is a big difference between an under-employed journalist refusing to research and report a story for no money, or even an indentured post-grad filing a class action lawsuit, and an already established reporter lashing out online over what only could have been an atomic particle-sized paycheck. He’s right that The Atlantic is a for-profit company, but he also must know that no blog-aggregation website is oozing slush money for freelancers these days. As Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal points out in an excellent response, hashing out the difficulties of being a web editor (not just a writer) in 2013, young writers have always been asked to hand over unpaid or under-paid work. This is not entirely a symptom of our digital age.

With all that context in mind, Thayer’s reaction feels a little like a mid-sized bakery writing an angry op-ed in the town newsletter because one of the PTA moms requested a gratis pan of brownies for the soccer team’s bake sale. If the brownies matter to you that much, it’s probably great sell-out to pen a brief “little swamped for an unpaid gig right now, but keep me in mind for the future!” email. Bridge to 13 million monthly readers: unburned.

Because while I haven’t spent a ton of time as a freelancer, I am certain of this hard reality about being a freelance journalist in 2013: Your value has very little to do with how carefully you arrange your special snowflake words in a Word doc. It has to do with the impact you have on your audience, and, stock though it sounds, how well you forge relationships. Readership and network are your only capital. If you want to withhold your precious prose from the public eye as a stance against creative leeching, then fine, but you won’t be missed.

Nate Thayer lost a chance to speak to a lot of readers about a topic that I assume means a lot to him, and and about which he has a great deal to write. He’s right that there ought to be a sense of solidarity among writers, and pride in what we do, but terribly wrong that there is a grand point to prove other than the one we’re sweating over and typing right now, which god willing, someone will read. Because in a couple weeks, when all of this cyber-back-slapping is over, Nate Thayer is just going to be one more writer, with something to say, who no editor will want to publish.