On Writing for “Exposure”

Last week, veteran freelance writer Nate Thayer seriously got into it with The Atlantic when one of their online editors asked him to write a 1200 word article for “exposure.” (If you missed this whole deal and want a good summary of how The Atlantic and general world responded to Nate’s post, check out Jane Friedman’s excellent write-up here.)

As I’ve discussed before, “exposure” is just a fancy word for “free.” And I am not a fan of working for free, although there are a few respectable instances where you might decide that it makes sense and exposure is one of them. (Semi-ironic case in point: What I’m doing writing this post for you right here — because I love what Medium is doing, respect the talented people behind this site, and know there are lots of freelancers reading and writing here who want to talk about this stuff.)

There is a big difference, of course, between this… and a major media company asking an established writer to rewrite an already-published-and-paid-for article for them, gratis. If one magazine wants to publish something previously published by another magazine, they are supposed to pay both original magazine and the writer (depending on the terms of your contract with magazine the first) a reprint fee. If the reprinting magazine wants the writer to actually rework the piece for their publication, they should be paying for that work.

So The Atlantic stepped in it, no question. And they aren’t the only ones. Like Nate and most other working writers, I’ve been asked to write “for exposure” by a handful of different places and I’ve turned down almost all of those opportunities because unless you have a book to promote or some other specific reason to need exposure, it’s pretty hard to document whether you actually get any return on that kind of investment. As Nate points out, exposure doesn’t buy groceries.

And this goes beyond the basic investment-to-payoff ratio. I think it’s very important for writers keep saying no to those requests as consistently as we can (while understanding that sometimes we can’t) because whenever we give our work away for free, it makes it that much more difficult to negotiate better pay for said work. If we’re saying that writing isn’t worth paying for, to be sure, the media companies won’t say it for us — they’re too busy trying to figure out a profitable business model that involves the Internet. (Required reading because as freelancers we have to understand this math: Alexis Madrigal’s A Day In The Life of a Digital Editor, which responds to Nate Thayer and maps out exactly what places like The Atlantic are up against right now, trying to stay afloat.)

But there’s understanding the math and giving in to it. When you say you won’t work for free, you’re shining a light on why it’s so inappropriate to be asked that question in the first place and — she said, hopefully — making it more awkward for that editor to ask the next writer the same thing. When you negotiate a better paycheck for yourself, you’re negotiating for all of us by helping to raise the standard of acceptable treatment of writers.

Now that I’ve said all of that…

I have some thoughts about the right and wrong way to go about these negotiations. Because amidst all the emails and Twittering and ranting about how The Evil Atlantic took advantage of Nate Thayer, I’m seeing some themes that disturb me. Let’s start with all that ranting. Folks, it is essential that we keep these conversations professional. We already labor under an unfortunate misconception that as freelancers, we are vaguely inept, flighty and entitled. When we get rant-y and overly impassioned and talk about fat cats keeping us down, we only play into those stereotypes. Nobody wants to pay that guy more.

To this end, while I applaud Nate for the civil tone of his emails and for having the courage to take the exchange public, I also feel sorry for the editor that he kinda threw under the bus when he posted those emails on his blog. (She was on the second week of her job, by the way.) I would have preferred to see a direct exchange with the magazine’s editor-in-chief or the website’s director of digital content. So please remember, when you’re saying no, not to kill the messenger. Most assigning editors don’t get to decide what their freelance budget will be — they have to work with what they’ve got to meet the expectations of their top editors (you know, so they can keep their not-always-that-well-paying-either jobs — again, go readAlexis’ post, which maps this all out more thoroughly than I can). In this economy, that usually means having to get creative. Ergo, weird requests for content in exchange for exposure. Like Alexis, my editor friends feel pretty bad when they have to make crappy offers like that. Most have been freelancers at one point themselves and know they may go freelance again. And most will go to bat for their writers to get more (or, okay, any) money whenever they can (and whenever you ask — they need us to ask). So this should never be an us vs. them thing. They are also us.

We also need to keep some degree of perspective on this. I saw a comment in the Interwebs this week from a freelancer comparing our plight to that of exploited factory workers. Okay now. As a freelance writer, I get to set my own schedule, wear what I want, take breaks when I want, waste time on Facebook, set my own income goals and watch Buffy at lunch. I’ve interviewed a lot of low-wage workers in the past few years. They do not have these perks. They are trying to get from minimum wage to $9 or maybe $11 per hour. Nate Thayer is lamenting a lost world of $125,000 retainer jobs “with rights to publish elsewhere.”

And a quick word about that lost world: Obvs, I’d love to earn $125,000 for six stories a year, as opposed to the 50 to 60 assignments it takes me to earn that now. Those six stories would benefit from my having far more time and energy to focus on them. Plus the overall income potential is far greater since, come on, how long does it take to write six stories? You can probably fit in another dozen or so and still take every Friday off. Or start writing a book at the same time.

But those big fancy jobs were always relatively scarce because writers of that caliber are relatively scarce. It takes time and buckets of crazy hard work to work your way up to that level. (Plus an old boys’ network, which is thankfully, a little more scarce now, though not scarce enough judging from the latest VIDA byline tally.) In whatever fantasy land where those gigs were way more common — lots of older freelance writers do like to wax poetic about such glory days — we shouldn’t be surprised that publications decided to make them much less so. How does it make any kind of business sense to have a bunch of writers swanning around with six deadlines a year when you need a minimum of twelve stories just to put on all of your covers, not to mention an endless well of content to fill your website?

Of course the vast majority of freelancers, whether they’re just breaking in to the industry or have been doing this for 25 years, already know how rare that $125K-for-six-stories gig is. Many of them are wracked with debt, like Alexis describes, or dependent on a spouse for income security, or juggling freelance writing with teaching or shifts at Starbucks. And still struggling to pay the bills each month. It’s not factory life but it’s a long way from five martini lunches at Balthazar or wherever. Where things go off the rails for this group is that we don’t have a lot of clear role models for how to get beyond that grind to something more self-sustaining (maybe, even, with a savings account). And with everything that is messed up about digital journalism (plus all this fear that better-paying print will vanish any day now) it’s getting even tougher to see your way clear to that path. Ergo, panic and mayhem when someone like Nate Thayer gets the “work for exposure” request because if they can ask someone as established and fancy as him, what hope is there for the rest of us working stiffs? And if we aren’t shooting for some glamorous “on retainer” fantasy or a six-figure book deal, where does this rather wobbly career ladder lead?

I can’t solve the bigger questions of how digital journalism will ever enable writers to make a living wage or whether print will survive to keep it up. I have absolutely no idea where or how this industry is going to evolve and what new ways media companies will dream up to exploit writers in order to stay competitive. But I do trust that there will be a career path for writers if we pay attention, stay adaptable, and develop our own kind of business savvy. I started blogging about the business of freelancing so I can share what I know (and am still learning) about how these sustainable career paths develop. Because they do, even now. And so that we can make sure writers are a part of those bigger conversations about the bigger questions — or at least, that we know what’s going on and can strategize our way around it.

So instead of romanticizing some Mad Men-style past that maybe never existed or getting caught up in some idea of ourselves as the new garment factory workers, let’s stay focused on what will really help the freelance workforce: Learn how to negotiate. Know your rights. Think of editors as your allies. Stay professional. Keep talking and brainstorming about what this new career path can and should look like for us. And yeah, don’t work for free. Unless you can see — very, very clearly — how it’s going to pay off.