I’ve been following the reactions to Nate Thayer’s post of his email exchange with The Atlantic after they had asked him to write for free. Cord Jefferson at Gawker (yes, Gawker) has the most clear-eyed assessment I’ve read.
Cord hits the truth of it — most writers start out writing for little (or nothing) because others around them provide support. We get pushed along by family and friends until we feel the wobble of our writing career disappear.
Even as established writers, we write for free. I’m doing it right now. And I also took months off from my other writing work to launch my children’s book and write a novel. The optimistically-deferred-wage work is possible because I have a support structure (my wife and her paycheck, not to mention her regular deposits of encouragement) which allows me to do this.
But how many great and necessary voices are missing because they don’t have others running with them?
That’s the other part of the tragedy that Nate has uncovered. Yes, in a normal world of fee-for-service, Nate would get paid. That normal world would also pay many others who can’t write for free. Cord hits the point home by quoting The Atlantic that found that 93% of front-page stories are written by white people. Structural racism is the kind that’s invisible and self-perpetuating, and it benefits the “haves” over and over and over.
There are no easy answers to this. But here’s a little suggestion for The Atlantic and every other online magazine. Mark the content that you got for free. Let me know who is teasing my eyeballs to your site (without pay) so I can connect to them on twitter or subscribe to their posts. Think of marking the content as “free” as a form of karmic payment. It isn’t much. But at least it’s honest.
P.S. The photo above is of my subscription to The Atlantic that I started this January. Because I found so much of their stuff online compelling, I thought I could do my $24.50 worth and support what has only gotten better over the last year. Even after this dustup, I believe in what they are trying. My hope now is that my subscription finds its way into the pockets of the writers they build their empire on.