As a contributing writer to The Atlantic, I have been closely following the controversy that has erupted since Nate Thayer stepped forth to publicly expose your payment practices of freelance contributors. The statements from your leadership and staff editors around this issue of failing to pay trained, experienced adult professionals have exposed glaring inconsistencies and intellectual failings that tarnish the reputation of your organization and threaten your credibility.
Given that The Atlantic Media Group is one of many companies posting record profits and yet pushing its labor force into accepting little or no pay, I watched closely to see how your organization would handle this public relations exercise. Since economic inequity is the great story of our age, I assumed that the finest minds in America, residing putatively at The Atlantic, would be able to muster a searingly deep introspection about what this means and where to go from here. At the very least, I wondered if the leaders of your institution might fall on their sword, deliver a heartfelt mea maxima culpa and explain how this sort of thing will never happen again.
The real performance of your organization in the past few days has fallen well beneath that standard. Let us start with Editor-In-Chief James Bennet’s quickly released public statement of March 5th. In it he states, “When we publish original, reported work by freelancers, we pay them.” This sounds like a clear statement that this kind of thing has been one big misunderstanding. He then follows up with: “Our freelance rates vary, depending on the kind of work involved. We do publish some unpaid pieces, typically analysis or commentary by non-journalists, if the work meets our standards and if, of course, the writer sees value in publishing with us.” And so the initial declarative statement is immediately followed by Washington-style wiggle room. Then Mr. Bennet continues: “The case involving Nate Thayer is unusual.”
That statement is disingenuous. Based on my own experience and that of several of my colleagues who have contributed to The Atlantic’s digital operation, the offer to Mr. Thayer was not at all unusual, but in fact the standard operating procedure of your publication. For my part, I have had multiple of your editors tell me upon our first communications, “We unfortunately do not have money to pay you.” Not that you prefer not to pay writers if you are not forced to, but that you actually have no budget. This is a common and amusingly transparent negotiation tactic, usually delivered by a doe-eyed newbie editor who may in fact believe it. It is galling – The Atlantic maintains Class A office space in one of the most prestigious buildings in the world, a gorgeous setting overlooking the Potomac from the Watergate Building, but it claims that it hasn’t got any money at all to pay its contributing writers.
In my experience, once a writer informs you that he or she has other options, your editors often come back to the negotiating table to arrive at a price. I played along with this kabuki precisely once, and only because unlike Mr. Thayer I did not have a history of magazine bylines. (I was, however, a two-time, internationally published author of books.) When I submitted my second piece, I negotiated a reasonable price with your editors.
As you know, many millions of Americans have found themselves with sharply reduced or completely destroyed livelihoods since the financial crisis of 2008. It is likely the most important story of our current age, a cleverly obscured Great Depression. During this troubling moment we have had a nearly complete failure of the authoritative institutions of a free, democratic society – our legislature, civil government service, judiciary, financial institutions and so on. The Media, of which your organization is a prominent member, has tragically abetted this failure, supplanting credulousness for skepticism and genuflection for fearlessness at a time when we required a global discussion about this sudden traumatic renegotiation of our collective fortunes. Or to put it more plainly, The Media has largely stood by while an organized gang of financial criminals picked the world’s pockets.
This is the real state of affairs in the world, as we all strain to create a cognitive framework to make our lives seem normal and tolerable. This is the backdrop against which the controversy with Mr. Thayer has erupted. The last five excruciating years are why the story of yet one more organization trying to skinflint its workers created a swift outcry. If you feel that your past reputation should have guarded you against such criticism, let me state, on the contrary – it is your positive past reputation that exacerbates the situation. For if even the great and venerable Atlantic is part of this new era of pocket-picking, where does that leave us? If a journalist climbs to the top of the heap by developing sharp analytical skills and strong prose, is able to be courted by The Atlantic and still finds him or herself asked to work for little or nothing, where does that leave the rest of us?
As this crisis continues to spread silently throughout the land, talented, hardworking people have decreasing options for stable, long-term, family-feeding, future-securing jobs. As unemployed time goes on and savings accounts run dry, many people are praying for any kind of break. They perceive that writing in a prestigious magazine – even for free – would be that break. Things were not quite this bad several years ago, but now they are. You have leverage at the negotiating table – and you use it every time you can to secure the much-touted profitability of your website. This is the real reason your new editor reached out on purpose to offer a veteran journalist the “opportunity” to spend his time editing a 4000-word essay into a 1200-word piece suitable for your magazine for zero dollars. Many people are more desperate and less proud than Mr. Thayer, a behavioral tick that the men who write your paycheck take to the bank.
This is what caused a simple blog post consisting of a few routine administrative emails between a new editor and a journalist to flare up into a crisis of conscience over your publication. Your negotiation tactics mimic exactly those who would continue to fleece what remains of the Middle Class in this and other nations, while maintaining a leering smile that this is all normal.
That your college tuition goes up while your job opportunities go down – this is normal.
That the executives of your company received raises while your compensation is frozen, soon to be devoured by the increasing cost of healthcare. – this is normal.
That jobs in your chosen industry have gone from 40 hours a week with benefits to 32 hours a week with no benefits – this is normal.
That you might have to get your parents to pay for you to work for free in a major city for months or years in the hopes that an internship will become a job – this is normal.
And that you shall now compete for jobs with those willing to work for “exposure” – don’t get excited, this is now normal.
It is not normal and it is not right. The way the staff of The Atlantic has handled this situation has betrayed such a lack of understanding of the common plight of Americans, that one can scarcely trust your judgments in other matters. If the people running The Atlantic cannot understand the depth of suffering caused by this economy, the most obvious issue of our day, then why should readers trust you on anything?
There is no reason that your organization cannot compensate skilled, professional adults for their labor as a matter of course. You could have publicly agreed to raise your absolute minimum compensation to $50, something, a show of solidarity and understanding with the society in which you hope to maintain influence. That is, unless the proportion of free content on your website is in fact higher than you insinuated in James Bennet’s letter of March 5th.
As a contrast to the economic story you tell would-be contributing writers, your publication recently crowed about its record-breaking revenues, stemming from the success of its digital model. To have one more institution bragging about record profits while negotiating its laborers to the end of their ropes is too much to bear.
Based on your recent behavior, your institution cannot be trusted to challenge the status quo and speak truth to power when its behavior mimics the very practices that make this an age of suffering for so many.