The Atlantic feels the heat from journalism for no pay business model: “Our Freelance Rates Vary” says Editor James Bennet

5 Mar

The Atlantic responds to my blog post that has gone viral with more than 100,000 viewers to this blog since this morning, and thousands of retweets, reblogs, online discussions, and news articles from a global community concerned about the critically wounded state of professional journalism. I will be writing more on this topic in the near future once I wrap my head around why a story of an email exchange between a major news organization seeking to commission my professional services with the condition that they don’t contribute to paying my rent, putting food in my stomach, or keeping me clothed to protect me from the elements, that took fifteen minutes to write and never crossed my mind would hit a nerve with tens of thousands globally garnering more attention than any story since I found Pol Pot in the jungles of Cambodia. There is a message in there somewhere.

From James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic

Atlantic staff journalists write most of the stories on our sites. When we publish original, reported work by freelancers, we pay them. Our freelance rates vary, depending on the kind of work involved. We do publish some unpaid pieces, typically analysis or commentary by non-journalists, if the work meets our standards and if, of course, the writer sees value in publishing with us. We don’t force anyone to contribute to us, and we are extremely grateful to the wonderful writers who do.

The case involving Nate Thayer is unusual. We did not ask him to report and write an original piece for us, but we did ask if he’d be interested in posting a condensed version of an article he had already published elsewhere, which we would have done with full credit to the original publisher. We rarely do this outside our established partnerships, but we were enthusiastic about bringing Thayer’s work to a larger audience – an outcome, I guess, we have now, backhandedly, achieved. We’re sorry we offended him.

Media Relations Contact:
Natalie Raabe
The Atlantic
(202) 266-7533

34 Responses to “The Atlantic feels the heat from journalism for no pay business model: “Our Freelance Rates Vary” says Editor James Bennet”

  1. foxstudio March 5, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

    Totally. Unsatisfactory. I’ve sent the links to both your posts to James Fallows, who I’ve corresponded with a few times. I’ll bet I’m not the only one. I am SO offended by “I’m sorry if you’re offended” and all variations thereof.


  2. shrisadasivan March 5, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

    “We rarely do this outside our established partnerships, but we were enthusiastic about bringing Thayer’s work to a larger audience – an outcome, I guess, we have now, backhandedly, achieved.”

    This comment is very low and cheap. They need to get a better media relations person. Wait. I forgot they can’t afford good quality professionals? 😛


  3. M.A. March 5, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    As tone deaf and uncomprehending in their response as they were in their initial approach. It happens everywhere. My girlfriend’s a photographer, and I’ve literally lost track of how many times newspapers have asked her to reprint her coverage of this or that event in their pages for no compensation, just “exposure”.

    Exposure doesn’t pay rent. You’re a for-profit entity, like someone’s work, and wish to use it? Pay them. It’s as simple as that.


  4. Joe Donatelli (@joedonatelli) March 5, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

    I can’t believe the people who published Scientology advertorial would pull something like this!


  5. mileswhoward March 5, 2013 at 9:31 pm #

    What a cheap, vacuous response. Still, you’ve got my admiration and support, Nate. Just shared your documentation of the original exchange with a lot of friends. Needless to say, we won’t be plunking down any bucks for The Atlantic until they can acknowledge that “exposure” doesn’t put food on the table.


  6. JonG March 5, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

    Terrible PR. Just shut up and take the heat. The publishing model is very challenging, and money is always tight. No one cares or has the least bit of sympathy.


  7. Dreamer of Dreams March 5, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

    Reblogged this on V-Hypnagogic-Logic.


  8. CJ Gunther March 5, 2013 at 11:30 pm #

    Nate, aren’t you luck that they only offended you.


  9. Bert Goldsmith March 5, 2013 at 11:35 pm #

    They actually take credit for bringing Nate’s work to a large audience! HA!


  10. David Fox March 6, 2013 at 2:12 am #

    ” … we were enthusiastic about bringing Thayer’s work to a larger audience – an outcome, I guess, we have now, backhandedly, achieved.”

    Actually, they have succeeded more in showing a very large audience just how cheap they are.


  11. Lars March 6, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    Well, just in case you´re wondering about a lot of traffic from germany – the popular media-watchblog Bildblog linked to your post today (


  12. Andrea Chipman March 6, 2013 at 9:42 am #

    As a freelancer (and former staff journalist) myself, I found this response incredibly disappointing. I doubt many of the editors and writers who work for The Atlantic would ever consider writing for free, even if it was a “condensed” or adapted version of something they had already written. And for those media outlets assuming they will be able to cut costs through such freebies in the future, they should remember that ultimately they will get the quality of journalism they are willing to pay for.


    • Deborah Kotz March 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

      Do you remember Reader’s Digest? They used to pay $1 a word to reprint condensed articles. I used to make a $2K a year for reprints when I was a freelance journalist but those days were gone with the internet.


  13. broadsideblog March 6, 2013 at 9:48 am #

    As long as their lights are on and their staffers’ paychecks are clearing, they are going to pay us freelancers for our skill and talent. No other profession, anywhere, works without pay.


  14. Diane Hughes March 6, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    All I can is good for you for sticking up for what’s right in this whole dustup with the Atlantic. Writers perform a service, and we deserve to be paid for our efforts.


  15. Liat March 6, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    frankly that response is worse than the original email, which we could say was due to her youth and inexperience. This is just stupid. They should have said they were wrong and apologized, not this mess!


  16. Pete March 6, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

    I wonder if the Atlantic would give me a free subscription to the print edition. I always talk about articles I read, and I know a lot of people, so it would be great exposure for them. Also, I already bought 3 magazine subscriptions this year, and don’t feel like paying for a fourth. So.


  17. TCWriter March 6, 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    “We’re going to frolic over here in the monetary economy while we offer you something marginal in the attention economy.”

    “If you season that attention with a little salt, it tastes pretty good.”

    It’s not just happening to journalists. I’ve made my living as a copywriter (marketing writer) for the last 27+ years, and never have I had so many “opportunities” to write for free as the last five years.

    That the Atlantic would try the same journalistic reach around is depressing, but hardly surprising. The free content model remains the only real moneymaker of the online era.


  18. luigidaman March 6, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    Simple reason why your ten minute post caused such a ruckus: Many of us are not getting paid or are getting underpaid and overworked and most of us are not journalists. We’re common schmucks that do a little of everything. This is the real outrage that no one wants to cover or talk about in the media. And they sure as hell don’t want to talk about it in either the White House or Congress.

    These monster zombie companies are making more and more money while paying us less and less and telling our children to intern (euphemism for “work for free”).

    Case in point: me. Among many things I am good at, I am a damn good media salesman. Yet my commissions have shrunk so that I have to sell twice as much to make half that I used to make just a few years ago. My CEO has a salary and bonus this year alone that will be over $35 million. Is he really that much smarter than me? Did he ever really work that much harder than me? Is he a better person than me?

    And yet, we, like most other companies, now refuse to hire people and overload the few that hang on while paying them less. Hell, we laid off an entire department and replaced it with one third of the new (code word: cheaper) people…AND WE HAD A RECORD YEAR!

    Yes, Nate, your feud with the Atlantic has hit a nerve. I would give anything to be able to tell my corporate overlords to pay me what I am worth. But the system is so stacked against me. And my retirement and 401k’s and the equity in my house have been all been raped. And my smart, creative daughter is about to graduate from a school with great grades and a great portfolio. But no one wants to hire her. They suggest that she interns for them. For free.

    Sound familiar?


  19. Cat Shuler March 7, 2013 at 3:12 am #

    I’m not surprised that your post has gone viral. As an academic and social justice advocate who has decided to leave academia for the world of online journalism, freelance writing and blogging, I am all too aware of the difficulties that I face. Although I’ve been blogging (sporadically) for eight years and doing freelance work for five, I know that it will be my web design, technical writing, and other freelance work that will be paying the bills. I’m fully willing to write for free for “exposure” but not for a magazine like The Atlantic. I’d write for The Progressive, Bitch, or The Sun for free because their advertorial content is quite different as are their subscription models and philosophical purpose. My point is that many of us, even if our experiences and positions differ from yours, relate to your story. I for one will be canceling my subscription to The Atlantic and letting them know why!


  20. Tanja Cilia March 7, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    There was a time when people who could not afford “proper” food ate “bread and point”. This is exactly what they have offered Nate. In Maltese, we say they show you the mare and lump you with the mule; it is our version of bait-and-switch. You offer someone something, and when he looks like accepting, you change the rules…I reiterate: The Atlantic cannot deny the fact that they did not spell out the conditions when they made the offer, as in “We love your stuff but we cannot afford payment except in exposure… would you consider… blah blah…” That would have saved them all this negative publicity. Their next argument will probably be that Nate actually owes them money for the aforementioned “exposure”…


  21. Adam Benzine March 7, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    This is a crap response. A better one would’ve been, ‘we realize from the monumental reaction to this story that we were wrong in not offering to pay Nate for his services. We will take this into account going forward.’

    That line about ‘inadvertently giving him exposure’ is a low blow, and very undignified. For shame Atlantic!


  22. Steve Barber March 7, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    “We’re sorry we offended him.”

    Oohh, so close!

    Other than the apparent fact they still don’t know what they did and still have no regrets about doing so.

    At least they responded. I had a photo used by the WSJ Online that didn’t even get attribution — and when challenged their response was “So sue us”.

    Keep at ’em Nate.


  23. Terri March 7, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    Hmmm, they’re sorry they offended you. Well, that’s nice. Now how about an apology for offending the rest of us who make a living through the words we write? The Atlantic’s policy is something I’d expect from a webzine based in India, the sort that advertises for writers in the gigs section of Craigslist or tries to get writers to bid on projects for less than a penny per word on sites like Elance and oDesk. What’s next? Pay-per-click? The Atlantic should be ashamed.


  24. star123 March 9, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    This gal asked HIM to cut the piece from 4300 to 1200 words–that takes time! Even a straight reprint is paid–if he retained the copyright. Period. This is such nonsense. As for the patronizing comments about wanting to make him more famous–sit on a tack! Ridiculous. Even the great OZ, the Atlantic, should be glad to find someone who knows about the arcane subject. We writers are not your slavish lapdogs. And I also have been annoyed to see younger writers say oh, heck, just write for free, everyone has to. Everyone does not start that way. The first piece I ever did was for Washingtonian. Set the bar higher, people! Stand tall.


  25. Thomas Veil March 9, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    If I understand Ta-Nehisi article on The Atlantic correctly, then he never get’s paid although writing weekly articles there. ( )
    So it doesn’t seem to be the “rare exception” the letter above claims.



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