Tuesday, March 5, 2013

you can't eat buzz

This post has been spreading like wildfire, for obvious reasons, among the journalist set. The Atlantic, a publication that never stops talking about how profitable it is, deigned to offer a seasoned professional journalist the grand total of $0 to republish his work-- after he made some revisions for them. But, as the editor says, he'll get buzz! And besides, they only pay $100 for original reporting.

For context, I've talked to tiny academic publishing houses about republishing my work, and they've always offered at least a little cash. It might be $25 or $50, but they've offered, and we're talking about non-profit academic publishers. There, too, the understanding is that nobody makes money off of publications themselves, but that there is a standard procedure whereby your publications lead to salaried employment and professional advancement. (There aren't enough of those jobs, but that's a separate discussion.) For a freelancer, there is no eventual gig.

If this isn't glaringly obvious: writing for The Atlantic is the kind of gig people think they'll get once they get the buzz. What is the higher rung, exactly, that the buzz is supposed to get you than The Atlantic? Where's the big money magazine, if that magazine doesn't qualify? The sense I get is that the big publications assume that they can pay writers in "exposure" and then the smaller publications will pay them. But the smaller publications can't pay, or think they can't pay. They think they're building exposure for the writers to eventually get published in the big, profitable publications... like The Atlantic. 

If you're trying to write professionally and you're regularly working hard and getting paid in buzz, you're getting played for a sucker. People get exposure all the time and end up broke. It goes for publications too; magazines or blogs or whatever get written up in some prominent place, have everybody buzzing about them, and can't pay their editors. There's no natural endpoint for buzz. Sometimes you get paid. Lots of times you don't. A lot of the young writers I talk to have this notion, they'll get the buzz, and suddenly people will start sending them checks. Doesn't have to happen. Usually doesn't happen.

Sadly, the long-term trend will be towards more and more of the journalism and opinion class coming from the ranks of the born wealthy, a trend I think actually began long ago. Especially because those who want to do it professionally are always getting undercut by the amateurs-- like me.

11 comments:

Dan Miller said...

"What is the higher rung, exactly, that the buzz is supposed to get you than The Atlantic?"

Depressing thought, but my first guess is the lecture circuit.

Ethan Gach said...

Imagine if blogging had price floors attached to it, so you had to paywall people a certain amount, and couldn't undercut so easily by offering bad but not too bad writing for "free."

Ethan Gach said...

@Dan: Clearly a TED appearence and the 8% chance of a book deal.

argoleon said...

The Atlantic is one of my favorite big pubs to read but this is a shame! However, unless everyone denies them free work, this will continue...

Brett said...

I'm with Dan. About the only conceivable reason I could see for doing a pro bono bit like this would be if you're using it to promote something that will actually make you money. Like if you're using it to add "published by the Atlantic" to your speakers bureau biography, or using it to hawk a book. I know that Bloomberg's "Echoes" blog does the latter.

. . . . Seriously, $100 for freelance pieces? And the Atlantic is a pretty prestigious publication, one of the few that's actually profitable in the Internet Age. How do freelancers actually make ends meet?

Freddie said...

From what I understand, there's lots of people doing PR/publicity "on the side" to support their journalism careers. Which, obviously, creates a lot of major conflicts of interest. I think the reason the Josh Trevino/Malaysia story didn't get bigger play is because a lot of people are complicit in similar (if less corrosive) practices themselves. They don't want to throw too much light on that area of the freelance life. That, or daddy pays the bills.

Zach said...

I'm waiting for the Felix Salmon follow up explaining why Thayer should actually be paying the Atlantic to publish his stuff. If free gets views, paying people gets more!

Freddie said...

Felix Salmon is probably the biggest Pollyanna when it comes to paid content.

Then Andrew Sullivan will run a aggregation piece about the whole shebang, which ends with a "if you'd like to support long-form journalism, please support the Dish...."

Which, incidentally, I do. I think the constant pledge-drive aspect of what Sullivan is doing is about the least-bad option. But he may be one of a dozen (or fewer) people who could pull off his model. Probably fewer.

Brett said...

For the record, I don't think Sully will pull it off. I think he'll eventually drift back into the orbit of a bigger publication/group.

Unknown said...


For what it's worth, I do think Sully will pull it off (and also that the money he raises will result in his site investing in doing more long-form journalism). And while his site is distinct from what other blogs offer, there's nothing that's not replicable about it (save for Sully's idiosyncratic voice).

Unknown said...

So I'm not sure how to sign in as me since the changes to commenting here have been made, but the above comment was mine (see name below)

-Alexios