Should You Write For Free? Journos Weigh In on the Thayer/Atlantic Kerfuffle

When freelance journalist Nate Thayer posted an email exchange he’d had with an editor at The Atlantic, who hoped to publish his work without compensation, he had no idea it would garner so much attention. The blog post has been viewed over 100,000 times, tweeted like mad, and has prompted a vigorous debate among journalism professionals.

Over at Reuters, Felix Salmon breaks down point-by-point where The Atlantic screwed up, while explaining why the magazine’s online freelance budget is so small as to be, at times, non-existent. It’s not that digital journalism doesn’t pay, he explains, it just rarely pays freelancers. If you want to make a living wage, you need a staff position.

Not everyone is against working for nothing. Matthew Yglesias of Slate calls it “an enormous boon to society” when people write online for free. Staffer-turned-freelancer Ann Friedman admits in her column at CJR that she occasionally writes for free, albeit only with good reasons. Those include establishing experience, raising her profile, or an opportunity to participate in something wonderful.

The Atlantic‘s senior editor Alexis Madrigal defends the editor that asked Thayer to write for free, and chastizes Thayer for making their exchange public. He then attempts to break down the financial realities of web publishing that make it impossible to pay freelancers more than a pittance for online journalism.

And Wonkette calls bullshit on Madrigal, writing “The Atlantic has the website BECAUSE IT MAKES MONEY.” What he said.

But like it or not, Mathew Ingram tells us, we’re gonna have to get used to this sort of thing. There’s a plethora of writers willing to work for free, and publications regularly take advantage, even if it means the resulting content isn’t of the best quality. The only real way to resist this practice ” is to make it clear that we want better quality writing by actually paying for and/or clicking on it.”