Freelancing: To pay or not to pay

There's light at the end of the tunnel. (RambergMediaImages/Flickr Creative Commons)

There’s light at the end of the tunnel. (RambergMediaImages/Flickr Creative Commons)

The topic of paid and unpaid freelance writing continues to develop Thursday. While someone accused Nate Thayer of plagiarizing the North Korea piece he wrote that set this all off, Ann Friedman at the Columbia Journalism Review broke down her freelancing philosophy.

Friedman pays her bills with a number of freelancing gigs, including two columns, and has created a paradigm that allows her to do unpaid and low-pay work that may benefit her in other ways. She separates her approach to doing free/low-pay work into four categories: to establish experience; because she was writing it anyway; to raise her profile; and to be part of a project she loves.

Unpaid work, she says, is a great way for some writers to make headway. It can even lead to some happy accidents, as it did for her when she started publishing some “silly, hand-drawn charts” for free, and it led to her getting a job to draw for a monthly magazine.

And then there’s Paul Carr, arguing for a sort of return to the high-flying days of Big Journali$m, when (apparently) a reporter could expense the purchase of a Mustang on assignment. Read the comments on this one — not everyone agrees with him — but it’s quite a defense of the value of in-depth, well-reported, and expensive stories.

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.”