The Atlantic responds to unpaid freelancer drama, offers a State of the Biz

Back when The Atlantic had a lot more poetry in it! (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Back when The Atlantic had a lot more poetry in it! (The Atlantic Monthly/Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday freelancer Nate Thayer created a buzz when he made it known that The Atlantic had asked to republish his work without offering to pay him for it. Two days later, Alexis Madrigal, one of the magazine’s senior editors, offers a very long, very personal reply that also turns out to be a meditation on the state of the industry.

Madrigal opens with harrowing details about the depths of his early freelance days, where he was paid $12 for pieces and had to go to the ATM drunk to handle his credit card balance. But he also gives the publications’ side of the freelance story. According to him, it’s not the big publications’ fault that they can’t pay freelancers as much as they’d like to (ostensibly). The economic model for online publications has become equally pressurized.

Madrigal, a digital editor, says they have six options:

  1. Write a lot of original pieces.
  2. Take partner content.
  3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money.
  4. Find people who are willing to write for no money.
  5. Aggregate like a mug.
  6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content.

Madrigal says he sympathizes most with No. 1 and No. 5, but that digital journalism mores must be taken case by case, as everyone (except the high rollers) is making compromises to keep afloat. His parting shot offers little in the way of consolation:

“Anyway, the biz ain’t what it used to be, but then again, for most people, it never really was. And, to you Mr. Thayer, all I can say is I wish I had a better answer.”

Print supplements enrich online publications

Newspapers! (Wikimedia Commons: SusanLesch)

Newspapers! (Wikimedia Commons: SusanLesch)

Ann Friedman at Columbia Journalism Review urges us to turn all death-of-print conversations into ones about process, since, she says, print is not dead but has just lost its primacy. She points to a recent piece in Flavorwire that praises “the rise of the artisanal magazine,” a sort of ode to the ability of certain publishers to keep an audience with print mags that have an aesthetic quality to them.

Friedman claims that web-only publications hold readers less strongly than those that manage to blend print and digital content. The teen magazine Rookie, for example, released a print collector’s item component to diehard readers.

Perhaps this conclusion will transcend the nostalgia for print and the simpleton takedowns of online journalism from the less-informed.

If Newsweek wants to survive, it should learn from its peers

Unsurprisingly, but sad nonetheless, Newsweek announced the last weekly print edition of the magazine will be December 31. Starting in 2013, it will join the ranks of U.S. News and World Report as an all-digital publication, leaving TIME Magazine as the only popular U.S. weekly still on the newsstand.

Printed Newsweek was in bad shape. According to The New York Times, it went from 3,158,480 paid circulation in 2001 down to 1,527,157 this past June. Barry Diller signaled earlier this year that IAC wouldn’t keep bleeding money to keep Newsweek alive.

Of course, we’ve seen this trend before. The advent of the web in 1994 killed the last prominent news monthly when LIFE magazine stopped printing and went to nothing but special editions in 2000.

Today, social and mobile media have taken it one step further, making the U.S. newsweekly an aging relic. It’s easy to focus on the losers in this game, but a number of folks have thrived in this same space. It’s not too late for Tina Brown and The Daily Beast to learn from successful peers.

Fundamentally, news lies at a triple-point that attempts to balance three goals: speed, accuracy and depth. Hitting the mark with any two translates into success. It’s a bonanza if you can hit all three.

Who has learned to adapt to the acceleration of these factors in a digital age, and who should Newsweek look to?


This is quite sobering, given that The Washington Post Company bought Slate in 2007 and subsequently dumped Newsweek in 2010. Since then, Slate has become an outlet of respected cultural and political commentary that has seen widespread linking across the Internet. It has effectively taken up the mantle of the old The New Republic magazine, as many of the same people and ideas have wound up on Slate’s site. For deep and timely analysis of legal affairs, it doesn’t get any better than their top notch writers, such as Dahlia Lithwick and Emily Bazelon.

But Slate has transcended its written-word roots. Slate’s weekly Gabfest podcasts represent the best audio news programming around, covering culture, politics, sports and women’s issues. The occasional Gabfest live shows at college campuses and cities around the country attract huge crowds and recently it has made the reverse jump &emdash; moving from online into traditional media by spawning a Gabfest Radio hour on WNYC public radio in New York.

It may be the best organization mastering speed, accuracy and depth at the same time.

The Atlantic

Here’s a news monthly that has managed to find relevancy in the digital age with a top notch blogging crew that includes veteran James Fallows. The publication figured out aggregation and embraced popular culture in a highbrow way with the launch of The Atlantic Wire, which has attracted a whole new audience in recent years. It bucked the trend of paywalls by tearing down its subscription-only system and has reaped rewards since.

How much? Mashable reported that in December 2011, “traffic to the three web properties recently surpassed 11 million uniques per month, up a staggering 2500% since The Atlantic brought down its paywall in early 2008.”

Not wanting to stay still, it is recruiting young tech savvy folks, such as their recently announced Digital Technology Internship program that seeks computer science majors to help “collaboratively solve problems with innovative technical solutions.”

The Economist

This one is straight-up competition: Newsweek pitted against another old-school newsweekly. The Economist is the rare beast – a print publication where subscription has grown in the digital era, to around 1 million subscribers. While this is technically below Newsweek’s numbers, these are highly coveted subscribers: roughly two-thirds of American subscribers make over $100,000 a year, and the income from subscriptions makes up the bulk of revenue.

Why has this particular print newsweekly survived? In the microblogged, instant punditry age of social media, readers appreciate the depth and accuracy it brings, even at the expense of speed. The Economist has made a niche of being a dense, weekly digest with thoughtful consideration of the week’s events away from the immediate gratification of tweets and updates.

The new platforms

It’s still early, but contrast Newsweek’s move with the launch of two high-profile efforts the last few months that are pushing the boundaries of news content:

  • Quartz from The Atlantic Media Company was created with a “tablet first” design, clearly inspired by the iPad and emerging mobile devices with larger screens.
  • from Ben Huh of the Cheezburger Network aims to provide “rolling” news coverage primarily for iPhone and mobiles.

There are a number of ways Newsweek can learn from these examples. Invest in an innovative platform or concept by bringing in people who can implement prototypes, fail, and iterate. Get younger contributors in house and let them play in the sandbox. Start getting into audio or video podcasting to get your star contributors seen and heard. Don’t stick with what’s commodity. One of the rare highlights for Newsweek the last ten years was Fareed Zakaria’s insightful commentary that helped explain non-American viewpoints to Americans. Get more unconventional analysis into the mix.

The Newsweek brand has clout and has the potential to be reborn as relevant to a new audience, but not if it remains a staid subsection of The Daily Beast.