An open letter to The Atlantic regarding the payment of workers

Eric Garland Generational Conflict 16 Comments

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.

Comments 16

  1. Even in the so-called salad days, most American periodicals maltreated everyone except their star journalists. The recent tightening of the screws is only possible because of the gutlessness of American politics, exacerbated in large part by the political naivete of journalists. I think a lot of this comes from the journalism school phenomenon. Once you had to purchase a very expensive degree to practice journalism, the Man owned you. Combine that with the provincialism of the American educated classes and you have the perfect recipe for a crippled profession. And it’s a shame because American journalists used to be much better than that. They sure as hell didn’t contemplate working for free.

    And since when has The Atlantic “spoken truth to power”? Since when has any major American publication spoken genuine truth to anything more dangerous to them than a safely far-off, impoverished Third World banana republic?

  2. This is indeed the state of the nation. It’s true that publications have always been tight-fisted, but the amount of expectation for free content these days is incredible. And “exposure” is no longer even a possibility–iti’s merely a wilted daisy to add to the chain of other “prestigious” publications who will ask you to work for free.

    This has been a problem in all areas of the arts well before the recession and has now accelerated into all aspects of work. I do believe we as a people are being taken advantage of, but we have to recognize that we were complicit in part in its institution. When we were willing to work for exposure, raid our retirement accounts and home equity to pay ever-increasing education and internship costs to gain a foothold in a “sure thing”, we fed the pig. Now, like a blackmailer, though the money is gone, the extortion goes on.

    Our obligation is to stand in the spotlight and say no. Hell no.

  3. Went to school with a bunch of people now at the Atlantic. I don’t want to malign them as people but as far as their careers went, they were very concerned about connections, prestige and money.

  4. A giant problem from journalists’ perspective is that the internet has made everyone into armchair journalists who will compete for that exposure for no fee in the hopes that they’ll make it to the next rung of exposure, and so on and so forth. This is a giant problem for journalists but a giant opportunity for publications; having an unending pool of writers who will compete for the scraps of exposure while holding down a day job elsewhere is music to a publication’s budget. Places like Huffington Post and The Atlantic are finding that they need not buy the cow when the milk is free – and free from multiple sources.

    1. This. It’s sad to me how many of my fellow writers are willing to write for a pittance in order to see their names in print or simply to be able to call themselves “writers,” since publishing adds some kind of legitimacy in many people’s minds.

      The word needs to spread that writing for pennies to create content for a crap website (not even prestigious, just online) is not helping anyone, and if you think you’re a writer, demand to get paid for doing something not *everyone* can do well.

  5. Most major media outlets are owned by giant corporations and are the same people who got our economy into this mess. I don’t trust major news outlets to tell me the truth anymore. They only report what the corporate bigwigs tell them to report. It would be the same as trusting the person who just robbed and assaulted me 2 mins ago.

  6. “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.” Well put, Eric. You are the first journalist who has framed this story properly. Funny thing–your essay here would have made an excellent Atlantic piece. Back when Michael Kelly was editor and that mag did truth to power correctly.

  7. And the Koch brothers are looking to acquire Tribune Company newspapers, now why on earth would they want to invest in outmoded, unprofitable print media newspapers?…Oh yeah, to advise us that it’s all good, this is the new normal, and to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The painful truth of the matter is that access to information is no longer controlled by a few portals (like news media), but it’s available to anyone with an internet connection and the requisite clock speed/bandwidth. Of course, it’s much harder to differentiate the good info from the bad, but the oligarchs (Koch Brothers) hope that the majority of folks will remain lazy enough to take what they read on the daily newspaper blog without question.

  8. I want to shout if from the rooftops — instead, I shared it on FB and then read it aloud, word for word, to a former editor. Righteous indignation is rarely served up with such eloquence. Thank you for this.

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