A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013

4 Mar

A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013

Here is an exchange between the Global Editor of the Atlantic Magazine and myself this afternoon attempting to solicit my professional services for an article they sought to publish after reading my story “25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy: Rodman trip comes after 25 years of basketball diplomacy between U.S. and North Korea”   here http://www.nknews.org/2013/03/slam-dunk-diplomacy/ at NKNews.org

From the Atlantic Magazine:

On Mar 4, 2013 3:27 PM, “olga khazan” <okhazan@theatlantic.com> wrote:

Hi there — I’m the global editor for the Atlantic, and I’m trying to reach Nate Thayer to see if he’d be interested in repurposing his recent basketball diplomacy post on our site.

Could someone connect me with him, please?

Olga Khazan

 From the head of NK News, who originally published the piece this morning:

Hi that piece is copy right to NK News, so please engage us mutually.
Thanks, tad

From the Atlantic:

Sure. Thanks Nate and Tad…I was just wondering if you’d be interested in adapting a version of that for the Atlantic. Let me know if you’d be interested.



From me:

Hi Olga:

Give me a shout at 443 205 9162 in D.C. and I’d be delighted to see whether we can work something out.


Nate Thayer

From the Atlantic:

Sure, I’ll call you in a few minutes.

After a brief phone call where no specifics were really discussed, and she requested I email her:

Hi Olga: What did you have in mind for length, storyline, deadline, and fees for the basketball  diplomacy piece. Or any other specifics. I think we can work something out, but I want to make sure I have the time to do it properly to meet your deadline, so give me a shout back when you have the earliest chance.


Nate Thayer

From the Atlantic:

Thanks for responding. Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.

Thanks so much again for your time. A great piece!

From me:

Thanks Olga:

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 know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free. 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. Let me know if you have perhaps mispoken.



From the Atlantic:

Hi Nate — I completely understand your position, but our rate even for original, reported stories is $100. I am out of freelance money right now, I enjoyed your post, and I thought you’d be willing to summarize it for posting for a wider audience without doing any additional legwork. 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.

Thank you and I’m sorry to have offended you.



From me:

Hi Olga: No offense taken and no worries. I am sure you are aware of the changing, deteriorating condition of our profession and the difficulty for serious journalists to make a living through their work resulting in the decline of the quality of news in general. Ironically, a few years back I was offered a staff job with the Atlantic to write 6 articles a year for a retainer of $125,000, with the right to publish elsewhere in addition. The then editor, Michael Kelly, was killed while we were both in Iraq, and we both, as it were, moved on to different places. I don’t have a problem with exposure but I do with paying my bills.

I am sure you can do what is the common practice these days and just have one of your interns rewrite the story as it was published elsewhere, but hopefully stating that is how the information was acquired. If you ever are interested in  a quality story on North Korea and wiling to pay for it, please do give me a shout. I do enjoy reading what you put out, although I remain befuddled as to how that particular business model would be sustainable to either journalism and ultimately the owners and stockholders of the Atlantic.

I understand your dilemma and it really is nothing personal, I assure you, and I wish you the best of luck.

So now, for those of you remained unclear on the state of journalism in 2013, you no longer are…..

839 Responses to “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013”

  1. Samantha March 5, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    One day, I want to be able to be that grown-up and assertive.

    “I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free.”



  2. prwiley March 5, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    I just sent the follow email to Ms. Khazan:

    Dear Ms. Khazan,

    I have read the following piece on Nate Thayer’s blog: https://natethayer.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-freelance-journalist-2013/

    I once subscribed to The Atlantic and respected it.

    Never again.


  3. Joanna March 5, 2013 at 10:44 am #

    Nate, Good for you for posting. Why am I not surprised? I have heard this so many times.


  4. vivian March 5, 2013 at 10:48 am #

    Nate, this is the story of my life… Nice to at least know someone can commiserate.


  5. Sheena Medina March 5, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    Here’s what kills me most about this exchange: “Some journalists use our platform as a way to gain more exposure for whatever professional goals they might have.” Isn’t your professional goal to get PAID for the reporting and writing you do? Nate, I am just as baffled as you are. Well done in standing your ground. We should all have the fortitude to push back when it comes to these matters.


  6. David J. Krajicek March 5, 2013 at 10:55 am #

    I’m glad you took a stand, Nate. This is one of the problems with the proliferation of citizen-blogger journalism. So many “writers” are willing to give it away, and places like HuffPost (and, apparently, The Atlantic) are more than willing to take it.


  7. Lisa Loving March 5, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    “For the exposure.” Hmmmf. People die from too much exposure.


  8. Nico Escondido March 5, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Hey Nate… Interesting post…

    I find two things interesting here actually… First, that you felt compelled to go public with this dialogue, including emails which, while professional, are generally considered private and not for public consumption…. though some journos tend to feel that email are fair game. Debatable.

    Second, as a big fan of the Atlantic, I am saddened to hear of these recent transgressions (so, in fact, I am glad you did post this information). I find it hard to believe some of what is stated by Ms. Khazan regarding the state of the Atlantic and their budgets.

    I am currently and editor for High Times Magazine (yes, it is still around and actually very alive and kicking)… and I pay my freelancers $250 a page, which most stories going about 4-5 pages at approx 1200 words (new large type face sucks). But the point is High Times is paying $1250 to multiple freelancers per month for stories (about weed)… so how is the Atlantic (with “13 million” readers… yea right) not able to pay competitive fees to good writers? It makes no sense and sounds like hogwash honestly… so good for you for sticking up for yourself — and the rest of the starving journalists out there…

    Anyway, found the post interesting, so thank you.

    And if you ever have problems paying bills just remember good ol’ Mary Jane, because she’s still paying out and I suspect always will. 😉

    Stay well,


    • C March 5, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

      This is the most useful response, and ‘cultivation editor’ is a great title! FTW.


  9. cwimmer77 March 5, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    Great post. The only time I actually got paid for a piece I wrote it took me so much time and energy to finally get my money that it was almost not worth it.


  10. Di Mackey March 5, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    The photographer in me loved this: ‘A Post on Seattle’s Craigslist “Gigs” Board:

    Need Photographer

    We are a 5 person construction company and need to update our website and brochure with NEW images of our staff. We would like to give an opportunity to the right photographer to take our company images. Ideally we need a formal and an informal picture, also a landscape shot of our company vehicle. Basically these pictures will help us get off the ground and renovate our website.

    If you do a good enough job on our company portraits then you will ideally be awarded a future PAID contract to take pictures of our job sites (once we get a job!). We will want to have the rights to be able to use the photos on our website and brochure/print media. You will get a boost to your portfolio!

    Experience in corporate photography along with a portfolio is a MUST or your email will be disregarded. We are looking at scheduling the shoot within the next week so be prepared to move fast!

    A Reply Posted 2 days later:

    Need Construction Crew

    We are a 5 person photography company and need to update our photography studio and shooting space with NEW office spaces for our staff. We would like to give an opportunity to the right construction crew to build our new company digs. Ideally we need a formal and an informal working space, also a landscape crew for our out side shooting area. Basically these structures will help us get off the ground and renovate our old space.

    If you do a good enough job on our company building then you will ideally be awarded a future PAID contract to build structures of our photography clients (once we get a job!). We will want to have the rights to be able to exploit you as we see fit just for credit and a great job! You will get a boost to your structure building skills!

    Experience in corporate building along with a portfolio is a MUST or your email will be disregarded, after all beggars can be choosers. We are looking at scheduling the construction within the next week so be prepared to move fast!

    The original post has been deleted but the actual reply post can be seen here: (normally we wouldn’t copy and paste an entire clip but we all know how those “fun” craigslist postings disappear just when they are getting fun to read!)


    • Daniel McReavy March 5, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

      “Will People Pay For News?”

      The economics of the prev(f)ailing publishing industry are fundamentally broken by the internet. Literally, Atlantic magazine cannot pay all writers anymore and stay in the black. Work with nwzPaper and you will find the future for writers.


  11. Jan Lund March 5, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    I used to read this Atlantic Magazine with great pleasure and interest when I was correspondent in New York and Tokyo. No more. I have been running through it with lightning speed when it did cross my path in bookstores here in Singapore thinking it maybe was me changing a lot since absolutely nothing caught my attention. Now I know it is not me. And now I know why. Thanks for sharing this. People writing in papers and magazines for free are probably nice people who don’t beat up their grandmother. But I would never pay for a magazine that prints their stuff.


  12. quintendo64 March 5, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    I’m just starting out on this path. Looks like I’ll be chasing stories by day and pouring drinks by night (or whatever other work I can find) for a very long time…


  13. alwaysworkforfree March 5, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    Hey but what are us poor interns to do? No one pays you to work at a paper until you’ve already been paid to work at a paper. I met a girl the other day who finally got hired after 4 years of interning at various papers.

    But seriously…what are we supposed to do?


  14. Johdus March 5, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    “I enjoyed your post, and I thought you’d be willing to summarize it for posting for a wider audience without doing any additional legwork.”

    I suppose editing is no longer considered work either.


  15. Paul March 5, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    So if the toliets at the toilets at the The Atlantic’s headquarters backed up, would the Atlantic managers call a plumber and say, “Hey, we’ve got a huge stinky mess and we need your professional services, so rush on over here. We can’t pay you, but think of the exposure you’d get. All of the other businesses in this building would want you to work for free for them too!” Yeah, how would that go over? Why are journalists expected to work for free? What total bunk.


  16. Paul Bruno March 5, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    Thanks for sharing this Nate. The writing for exposure line is getting pretty old, but there will always be the young and dumb that fall for the premise. There will also always be an audience that is more apt to talk about their subscription to publications like the Atlantic than to actually read and understand the issues put forth in their content..

    My services for business to business clients are billed at a reasonable rate that is less than what a plumber charges per hour. Most clients understand the value of twenty years of experience and I have several long term professional relationships.

    There are always some who scoff at paying me $90 per hour “just to write”. If an editor is unwilling to pay then they should not approach a writer with an offer. Can you imagine talking to an attorney, engineer, or doctor and offering them “exposure” for their services?

    If anyone thinks there is any less professional skill in writing than the previous three occupations then they should try to produce world class content in a timely manner. Good luck with trying to turn a profit on that piece that has taken eighty hours to produce.

    Editors always remember: Do not anger a writer any more than you would anger a swordsman.


    • patrick March 6, 2013 at 8:10 am #

      One of the challenges I find in this field is the perception of quality. This is where the writer competes hardest, first to prove his/her own, and second to convince the payer that such quality deserves such a price. The reality is that the market’s opinion of what professional language is is arbitrary, particularly in journalism (as opposed to drafting legal documents, for example), and the advent of social media has further blown apart the supply/demand relationship and left it and traditional notions of careers in the field (incl. photojournalism) in tatters. Now there is such an over-supply of ‘talent’ that there is a race to the bottom in wages. The Atlantic is just following what the market is allowing. And all the calls to solidarity start to disperse once one feels the wage is not awful enough to refuse. So I hear the calls for solidarity, but I think this is less desire to form a linked chain, it’s actually a desire for a culling of the breed and, if we’re really pining for bygone salaries, an endorsement of subscriptions/payment for all media publications, web and print, in order to bring back the advertising dollars that make up so much revenue and salary (and would help end the ‘sorry, but you’ll have to work for perks’ argument. We are living through a media evolution, so this instability will settle down, and new norms (and words, and ways of talking/writing/communicating) will become standard, though there will always be fluidity because there is no absolute when it comes to the notion of professional writing. Which brings me back to my point on competing on perceptions of quality: a bad surgeon, plumber, engineer is quickly exposed. A bad writer? Throw a stone…


      • Paul Bruno March 6, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

        Patrick, thank you for your reply. If you would like to have some debate about the aspects of quality in culture we should move this conversation to a philosophy forum.

        The idea that we should be less concerned about the situation because we are seeing a grand media evolution is directly out of the corporate linguistic playbook. Any amount of direct observation will disprove the argument that the industry is too disorganized and advert poor to pay a writer for their work.

        You rarely hear of alternative payment methods that are pay for performance in the freelancer space. Why not a share of CPM?.

        My clients have expectations of absolutes. These are their perceptions; not mine, not yours, and certainly not the publishing industry lobbyists. They are the attorneys, doctors, and engineers I referenced in my post. Do I reach these aspirations every time? No, of course not and neither does anyone else. In writing or any other field.

        When people start talking about quality I tune out the conversation because all that matters is that you engage your audience and convey the message. Those that talk about quality all the time have thin skins and can’t seem to grasp that sometime you need to publish before it’s perfect.

        When I look at this situation as a media owner it looks very ugly. Many small media shops have much more integrity, and that’s what I see as lost at the Atlantic, integrity. The change in attitude is due to investor pressure, not economic pressure.

        The Atlantic will no longer be printing an issue within three years, maybe less if high tariffs are enforced on Chinese paper products, so we will see if the two tiered system is truth or just a new set of Emperor’s clothes.


  17. Alia March 5, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    thank you for venting what is a pain many of us are forced to suffer…


  18. DJ March 5, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Can you post you rates and email contact info? I couldn’t find it on the website anywhere, thx, DJ


  19. Pat March 5, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    I’m 20 and an aspiring journalist myself. Unfortunate that this is what I have to look forward to, but nice to know nonetheless. Thanks for sharing this, Nate. Feel free to check out my blog as well! patbradley.wordpress.com


  20. Toby Neal (@tobywneal) March 5, 2013 at 11:47 am #

    Holy crap.


  21. Einar Johnson March 5, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    Great post and very well written responses. I would have asked her if the Atlantic was going to be giving away free subscriptions for a year? Think of the exposure they’d get? The answer from Olga would be no I suspect, but then maybe she would realize what she was asking you to do. Somehow we need to turn consumers expectations around regarding the cost of media and build value back into content again. That’s the only way I see this problem being kept in check. More effective apps with scalable subscription models from all of the major media companies might be a way to start.


  22. Lucy Writer March 5, 2013 at 11:49 am #

    $125,000 for 6 pieces a year is greedy and not sustainable in this economy. Maybe you should have more realistic expectations: the market and money is not there for those payouts any more.


    • dan tynan (@tynanwrites) March 5, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

      perhaps you missed the part where she mentioned 13 million readers a month? publications do make money, even today, and they reward their executives quite nicely (especially on the business side).

      for reference: a print magazine I write for (that pays freelancers quite well, though not $125K for six articles well) has a 4 million circ and collects nearly $250K for a single page ad.

      nate, thanks for publishing this. I go through similar stuff on a regular basis, and I’m sick to death of it. us old timers need to hold our ground as long as we can on this.




    • Frank Lee Non Writer March 5, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

      Hey Lucy Loo! If your statement reflects correctly your interpretation of the text, you may wish to think about taking a refresher in “Comprehension 200”. Perhaps there is a reason for the lesser expectations you appear to harbour.


    • helenblackman March 5, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

      That’s not what the author was asking for. He just wanted to be paid something, which is entirely reasonable.
      125k is a fair wack, yes, but you’re talking about professional services. And how much work would those 6 pieces require? You might be talking about a month’s solid research for each one. Also, the trouble with freelancing is that there is no sick pay, no holiday pay and no pension – that all has to be built into the fee.


  23. Peter D. Mallett March 5, 2013 at 11:50 am #

    I understand keeping cost down to some extent, but to offer nothing stinks. I have this happen to me as well. Magazines tell me about no money set aside to pay for articles because they are small or a start-up. Then I visit their site and they are charging 300 dollars or more for a half page ad.


  24. Tracie Mauriello March 5, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    Thanks for standing your ground. All freelancers are worse off when some work for free.


  25. tishgrier March 5, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    Thank you for this post!
    Honestly, it doesn’t matter how many years one’s worked as a journalist, nor whether or not one is “freelance,” nor whether or not one has a degree in journalism. It’s about paying a fair wage for work. Which, nowadays, every organization is trying to get around doing so that the profits can stay on the top. Well, we who struggle as freelancers deserve pay for our work too. We’re not doing it just out of the generosity of our little journalistic hearts, you know. And we don’t live too long on air.


  26. Don March 5, 2013 at 11:53 am #

    This looks like the online Atlantic, not the print. Right?


  27. Steven Maclean (@Steven_Maclean) March 5, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    This isn’t really the Atlantic’s fault, though. With the emergence of the internet, and the limitless advertising space available online, journalism – which has *always* been funded via advertising various products of little or no social value – just can’t bring in the same advertising revenues as the finite print space could. As someone who studied journalism at university, and found the industry in the UK impossible to penetrate without connections or rich parents, I do feel your pain, but I think we have to accept the economic realities and look forwards.

    There is probably more money being made by people through writing then ever before, just spread among far more people. In a way, the journalism industry is experiencing something similar to the porn industry, where more is being produced than ever before, but very few are making much out of it.

    The real journalistic tragedy is that this (a declining rate of profit as technology improves) is an inevitability under the capitalist mode of production, yet you can hardly find a journalist with an understanding of political economy. The vast majority of ‘journalists’ produce socially destructive propaganda of no quality whatsoever, so I’m not even convinced the decline is a bad thing.


    • dan tynan (@tynanwrites) March 5, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

      To summarize: Journalism = porn, only without the happy ending.


    • Ted March 6, 2013 at 10:52 am #

      Well the other real tragedy is that not paying journalists a living wage will result in shoddy, desperate, dashed-off journalism. Who can take the time and expense to carefully report, research and write a piece for a couple of bucks and some “exposure”? No one but the independently wealthy and hobbyists. So what do we get? Crap journalism.


  28. Suzanne March 5, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

    Thank you, thank you Nate for sharing. I’m also finding that more outlets are commissioning stories so they can have a look and then kill them for low or no fees. As a friend just said, all editors who weren’t freelancers should be forced to do it for five years.


  29. Laura Marcus March 5, 2013 at 12:18 pm #

    Many thanks for this. Here in the UK the dirty little secret is that freelance journalism rates have hardly changed at all since the 1980s. Consequently many good journalists are leaving to do other things. I find it very hard to encourage any young person to enter our profession now. No one who wants to earn decent money would consider journalism. And this matters. Because we need good journalism and decent, proper, news coverage. Has there ever been a better time to be a shyster, crook or crooked politician or CEO?


  30. Lightning writer editorial services March 5, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of a civilization.” Admittedly not the best known of dr. Johnson’s assessments (fools writing for nothing and the like) but strangely appropriate given the circumstances!


    • Ernst Blofeld March 6, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

      Check your Johnson quotations. Blockheads write for free. Fools go fishing.


  31. John March 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    In case you missed it, an enlightened entrepreneurial commenter at Hacker News thinks you should accept the fact that “for the most part, writing is a leisure activity and not a profession.”


  32. ibisbill March 5, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    I wouldn’t trust anyone who wanted to “repurpose” something I had written.


  33. Julie Gedeon, freelance writer March 5, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

    Thank you, Nate, for sharing this. Maybe if enough writers do so, it will ultimately make a difference.


  34. raincoaster March 5, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    Reblogged this on raincoaster and commented:
    I knew the HuffPo was like this, but to reach out to a professional journalist for a customized piece and not mention you don’t intend to pay him, ever, is pretty unexpected from The Atlantic.

    Then again, this is the industry that laid off everyone at True/Slant with a letter that began “Dear Contributor…”


  35. helenblackman March 5, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

    “Some journalists use our platform as a way to gain more exposure for whatever professional goals they might have”

    In general my professional goal is to earn money so I can pay the rent. My landlord tends not to respond well to ‘but look at all this exposure’. It isn’t really a currency he understands.

    And what do you gain from the exposure? A reputation for working for free and the expectation that you’ll do it again? More unpaid exposure? Thanks but no thanks


  36. Emdashes (@Emdashes) March 5, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    The designer Jessica Hische made a flow chart for these situations: http://shouldiworkforfree.com/


    • Lina March 5, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

      This is brilliant. Thank you for sharing it.


  37. Ginanne Brownell March 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    Nate, thank you, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for blogging this email exchange. I had a similar experience a few weeks ago, where I was asked to write a piece pro bono. It boggles the mind that publications think they can get away with this. Freelancers do not get paid enough in the first place (and often times cannot haggle over costs) and to think that we are happy/satisfied to write for free because it will “get more exposure” is offensive and disheartening. I am so Tweeting this link. Bless you for highlighting this issue…!!!


  38. Gary Weiss March 5, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    Great piece, Nate. Very discouraging but also very common.


  39. Allan H. March 5, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    How much do the paid writers at Atlantic actually make then? The $125K figure is much more than I’d have expected. Anyone know what the “journalists” at Daily Beast make per column?


    • Ted March 5, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

      I can tell you this as a journalist. The NYT and the WSJ both pay only 50 dollars for a blog post.


  40. mary p March 5, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    You GO, Nate! Give ’em HELL!!


  41. Lisa Romeo March 5, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    Horrible. And even if payment were offered, only $100, from The Atlantic? Unbelievable — and, I think, a lie. Or at least that’s probably what she’s told to offer, and to bump it up only for a big name journalist. Disgusting.


  42. pinkdama March 5, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    Nate–back in the early days of my stand-up career, bookers used to ask me to perform for free because it was great exposure. I usually answered that people can die of exposure.



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