I still have the aforementioned oddly fever-ish condition, so I’m not likely to be of much use today, but I wanted to say this:
A kerfuffle arose yesterday when a writer blogged about being offered to publish in The Atlantic Online in exchange for zero dollars; you, gentle reader, may or may not recall that these were the precise circumstances under which I wrote for The Atlantic Online, twice, about Troy Davis.
In his blog post, Nate Thayer sounds righteously annoyed, and I can’t say that I blame him. Work deserves recompense, full stop. I will confess to a small shudder of annoyance when the editor with whom I worked at The Atlantic told me that she couldn’t pay me, and I was honestly grateful for the tone of regret in her email — because though I was willing to accept zero dollars in exchange for my hard work, work deserves recompense, full stop.
I will also note that though I was pleased and quite proud to appear in The Atlantic, the fact of that byline has opened no doors, nor has it led to a single offer for paying work — when editors talk about the value of “exposure,” I can only hope that they’re ignorant of what a chimera that is. (It might have been the reason that Robert Wright knew my name, and thus may have played a role in our collaboration for The Atlantic during the recent war in Gaza, but I approached him and volunteered to work with him, knowing ahead of time that his publication wouldn’t be able to pay me and shrugging off his evident discomfort with that fact).
The fault is not with The Atlantic, though. This is a system that exists across platforms and across readership levels. Working in the creative fields has never been a path to wealth, but during the last decade or so, with the advent of an increasingly nimble internet and increasingly mordant outlets saddled with increasingly desperate business models, working in the creative fields hasn’t even necessarily been a decent way to keep yourself in rent and tacos. This has been especially so since the summer of 2008, when the cratering of print media presaged the cratering of the entire world economy.
The problem is so big, and reflective of so much social malaise, that I don’t know how to even start getting my brain around it. On the one hand, you have the consumers of culture who think they should never have to pay for anything (“information wants to be free!” or some such codswallop); on the other hand you’ve got corporate-owned producers of information and art that are more interested in paying CEOs and big shareholders than in paying the people who produce the information and the art; on the third hand you’ve got the rolling introduction of entirely new modes of information-transference that no one really knows how to make a living off of; on the fourth hand you’ve got editors and managing editors who are really struggling to tell important stories without the budget they honestly need; on the fifth hand, you’ve got an entire economy predicated on the rich getting richer while everyone else struggles to doggy-paddle; and on the sixth hand, you’ve got the producers of content themselves, those writers, photographers, reporters, artists, etc and so on, who do need to pay bills but for whom the product itself can sometimes feel even more important than bill-paying.
A few years ago I decided that I would never work for free again, with exceptions for cases wherein I felt that the story was more important than my taco budget — such was the case in all the work I prepared for The Atlantic, for instance. I have not stuck entirely by that decision (The Hairpin, which I presume makes some money, didn’t pay me, for example; Feministe, which I’m assuming does not, didn’t either), but in every case in which I’ve broken my word to myself, I was consciously taking a chance that in allowing my work to be undervalued, I might advance my career. In twenty years of occasionally taking that chance, I can think of exactly one case in which that proved true (not any of those mentioned here).
Aside from the obvious ethical implications of asking people to work hard in return for literally nothing, however, there is the not inconsiderable issue of what this means for your talent pool: I can occasionally write for free (and, indeed, can regularly write for peanuts) because I have a spouse with a good steady income. If I did not have said spouse, or said spouse were unemployed, or also a creative, I would be SOL. I can’t help but feel that a model that excludes people who cannot afford to not be paid isn’t a great one for expanding our knowledge base.
I don’t know how to fix this, and I do not blame the editors who have solicited or accepted my work without recompense. I think it would be a step in the right direction if publications could institute a system whereby such work could at least receive a small honorarium, as a kind of good-will nod to the fact that it’s actually not right to pay people nothing, but I understand that even $50 a pop would add up pretty quickly. The argument could be made that if you can’t pay people, maybe you shouldn’t publish — but again, that’s not on the editors. And when I hand over my copy for free, I know exactly what I’m doing.
So anyway. I don’t know how to fix it, and if I ever again have the chance to publish something that really matters to me in a prestigious publication that cannot pay me, I will take it.
But can we all, at the very least, admit that it’s wrong?