On Friday, August 9, the Magazine Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication sponsored a panel to discuss the “ethics and economics” of unpaid freelancing. Is it OK, the panel asked, for editors to ask journalists to give them stories in exchange for “exposure”? Is there ever a time when a reporter might want to make that bargain?
The panel was inspired by the freelance journalist Nate Thayer, as I explain in my introductory remarks below. I also invited Slate’s business and economics correspondent Matthew Yglesias; the editor of City Paper, Washington’s alternative weekly newspaper Mike Madden; and Kevin Stoker, an administrator at Texas Tech University and a scholar of media ethics. I thank them for their permission to post this transcript of the panel, which was held at the AEJMC 2013 conference at the Renaissance Washington Midtown.
- Matthew Yglesias, business and economics correspondent, Slate
- Nate Thayer, freelance journalist
- Kevin Stoker, Texas Tech
- Mike Madden, Editor, Washington City Paper
- Kevin Lerner, Marist College, moderator
Kevin Lerner: Hi everybody. The double room makes this look like a sparse turnout, but I’m hoping people will trickle in. My name is Kevin Lerner, from Marist College, and this is a sole-sponsored Magazine Division Professional Freedom & Responsibility panel called “FREE-lancing: the ethics and economics of paying writers—although the online schedule says “exposures,” which makes it sound like photography—and a byline. But I was not responsible for copyediting that. We’ve got a blockbuster panel here, and I’d like to start by introducing our panelists, who are all to my left. So, directly to my left, we have Matt Yglesias, business and economics correspondent for Slate. To his left, Mike Madden, who’s the editor of Washington City Paper, the alternative newsweekly. To his left, we have Kevin Stoker, an associate dean at Texas Tech and part of the Media Ethics Division here. And finally to his left, at the opposite end of the table from me, we have Nate Thayer, who is a freelance journalist.
So very quickly about where this panel came from. Some of you may know this story, and it all started with the man to my far left, Nate Thayer, who inspired this. So in early March of this year, Thayer had written a piece for NKNews.org, which is a North Korean specialist site, and North Korea is one of his specialities in reporting. He has over 25 years of reporting experience. He’s covered Cambodia, North Korea, Iraq. So an experienced freelance journalist, and he had written the piece for NK News. It had come to the attention of an editor at The Atlantic, and she contacted him and NK News and said, we’d like to rerun this piece, could you do a version of this for The Atlantic. And the piece was timely. You may remember when Dennis Rodman had been to North Korea. The article was about the history of “basketball diplomacy” in North Korea. And like any freelance journalist, he said yes, I would be happy to have the opportunity to have my piece on your site. And he asked the three questions that a freelance journalist wants answered: When is it due? How many words? And, How much are you going to pay me? And the answers came back: End of the week. 1200 words. And… We get 13 million viewers a month, but our freelance budget is gone, so I’m sorry, we’re not in a position to pay you.
And Nate put that up on his personal blog, the email exchange between him and the editor. And it took off. It hit MediaBistro and all of the usual media gossip sites and it created a discussion in the industry about what’s right and wrong about paying a writer. Is it ethical to “pay” just by saying you’re going to get 13 million people to see this? Is that OK? Is that something that a freelance writer might want to do? Is it different at the beginning of your career or the end of your career? When do you give your work for nothing?
So that’s the topic of this panel. I’ve asked the four panelists to have a little bit of an opening statement, to put their positions out there. Then I have a few questions. Then we’re going to open it up to you in the audience.
I’d like to actually ask Nate to start, since he started this whole thing, and maybe say a few words about the life of a freelance writer, since the post he put up was just called, very blandly, “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Writer, 2013.” Because it seems like half the time, a freelance writer is negotiating pay, and the rest of the time doing copyediting for corporations and public relations firms. So I’ll start with Nate. Just say a few words. I appreciate it.
Nate Thayer: Thanks, thanks for having me. Yeah, I should probably give a little bit of context to this, because believe me, I was as surprised as anybody else. I’m actually a Luddite; I’m a tech idiot, and I’ve been a journalist for 25 years. I was just saying to Kevin that you know, it was actually under two years ago before I actually even used a computer to research an article. I probably should have beforehand, but I just didn’t. My own personal focus in journalism is longer, investigative journalism, and much of my career has been spent overseas, much of it in countries where I didn’t even have electricity, or even less a telephone. And if you’re in the middle of nowhere, the fact is, the story doesn’t happen until you get back and file it, and it can be a couple weeks later. I have to say that I acknowledge that I really am an idiot and behind the times on some of this stuff. So in the context of that, I do realize fully that the future is in this amazing, wonderful, borderless world of free flow of information. I’m not that much of an idiot. I do have a blog. It automatically puts it on Twitter and on Facebook, and that’s about as complicated as I get.
Anyways, the actual reality was that this conversation I had with The Atlantic was in fact a very civil, normal conversation. I’ve had the same conversation with several hundred people over the last decade, and every freelance journalist has. It’s the norm.
I wasn’t actually pissed off. I was, you know, mildly annoyed enough to take the six-email exchange, cut and paste them, put a headline on it that said “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist.” I think I put one line at the top, another line at the bottom, and I pressed send on my irrelevant blog, which had less than 100 readers a day, mainly family and colleagues, and which I never promote, and I went to bed. I woke up in the morning and I had 25,000 emails in my inbox, and I had made at that time exactly four tweets in my life. So I looked and I saw that within hours there were 100,000 people who had read this thing. It was a kind of odd day. In fact it kind of fucked up my day, and I really had no idea what really was going on. But I did find it fascinating. And 80,000 of these people came from Twitter, and another 50,000 from Facebook, and it took on a life of its own. But in fact it really had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t exactly a brilliant piece, in fact I didn’t even write it—it was an email cut and paste exchange. But it clearly hit a chord. Clearly, because by the end of the day, I had 500,000 people. I actually did the calculation: it was a 33,973% increase from the traffic the day before. So something had happened. But I really should say that was the full extent with The Atlantic. It wasn’t David and Goliath. I didn’t have some fucking beef with The Atlantic. There was no Nate Thayer jihad against The Atlantic. That was the sum total of my communication with The Atlantic. I hadn’t talked to them since eight years before when the then-editor actually hired me to go on staff for a considerable amount more than 13 million viewers reading my stuff. In fact it was $125,000 a year for six articles and I could write for anyone else. So I think the context of it is that the world has changed, as I think any freelance journalist knows. And I really don’t know how… I still get over 100 readers a day to that article six months later. And I’ve gotten well over 200 personal emails from other writers, including six Pulitzer Prize winners who said The Atlantic has done the same goddamn thing to them, many of them in the same week. So the idea that this was a mistake and it wasn’t their policy? They’re really full of shit. That’s one reason it took off. Because you know, they certainly had a budget to hire a PR firm, which may be part of the problem, so that they could lie about what their policy was, and then really piss off journalists. Because if you really want to piss off journalists, lie to them.
Whatever happened, I still haven’t really wrapped my head around it. But it is interesting, and it certainly resonated with me and really almost with everybody else I know who’s worked as a freelance journalist. This happens all the time. The fact is we are now in this amazingly positive new world of borderless information, but no one’s figured out how to make any fucking money out of it. So, you know, until they come up with a viable business model—which someone will, soon, because there’s a demand for quality journalism, and it costs money. So someone’s got to figure out a way to make that happen, and they’re going to figure it out soon. I just hope they do it before I starve to death and get evicted. Which would be a plus. But it’s all really positive. But I think we’re in this abyss period between the combination of the downturn in the economy, the downturn in the metrics of the print publishing industry, and the rise of digital journalism has made it really really difficult to make a living as a journalist. And not just as a freelance journalist. I mean the fact is, and I’ll finish this off by saying, the one really true reality is that you really can’t believe anything you fucking read anymore. You can’t. You can’t believe it on the Net because they’ve fired all the editors, they’ve fired all the fact checkers, and really, the motivation is to get as many clicks and hits on your web site as you can, regardless, really, if it’s true. And obviously, I’m exaggerating for the point of debate, to a degree, but that’s really the larger reality. So to me it’s a really serious problem. Obviously, it’s a serious problem because it’s making it hard to make a living, which frankly, three or four years ago, it never even crossed my mind. I spent 30 years, I’ve been very lucky, I’ve done well. It never was an issue. I never wanted to get rich, but I could always pay my bills. Now, that’s just not the case. So that’s one thing on a personal level, but on the, other, more important level, is the effect it’s having on the institution of the free press and free society. The quality of journalism that’s coming out now is horrific. It’s unacceptable. And the reason is because it costs money to do it. And some people are under the misimpression that people are going to accept substandard quality journalism in the stead of real reporting, and I’m absolutely convinced that they’re wrong, and that sometime, relatively soon, someone’s going to figure out how to create a model where everyone can make money in order to produce a quality product. So on that positive, I’m also ten days late on my rent.
Lerner: Mike, could you take this from the point of view of an editor? You’ve worked as a freelancer…
Mike Madden: Sure, I have occasionally worked as a freelancer, although it’s usually kind of more a friend who’s an editor somewhere, and has an assignment that they think I’d be good for. I’ve never made a full-time living as a freelancer, and these days I basically don’t take freelance assignments because they rarely pay enough to be worth my time.
At City Paper, we always pay for freelance work. We don’t pay very much, as Matt can attest—he’s waiting for a check from the corporate office for a piece he did for us recently—and we don’t always pay all that promptly, because of the corporate office. But we always pay, sort of on the theory that it takes time and energy to do the work we’re looking for and people ought to get paid for it. Now, there are times when people don’t bother filling out their paperwork to get a $25 or $50 check from me, and there’s a limit to how persistent I am in trying to make sure they get it. But you know, I kind of feel like to the extent that we don’t have a big budget, I’m mean, we’re an alt weekly, revenue loser, plummeting the way everyone else’s revenues are. I would prefer to pay more, but I don’t ask my staff writers to work for free—though close to it—and I don’t think we should ask our freelancers to work for free. So it was hard for me to really buy the argument from The Atlantic, which I heard not just from Nate’s post I’ve also heard from other writers, who’ve told me the same thing, that they don’t pay for posts that aren’t original reporting, is what I’ve heard before. Like if they ask someone to do an opinion piece, they wouldn’t pay for it. They have certainly far more money to throw around than I do. Their 13 million page views per month or whatever is more than we get, and they charge more for their magazine, and we give our paper away for free. And they’re putting on far more lucrative events than we are. So I think if the business model there is dependent on putting up large quantities of work that they’re not paying for, then I think that while that may be a sustainable business model, it doesn’t seem fair to the writers, it doesn’t seem like you’d get great quality stuff if you’re not paying for it. So I guess I sort of wind up on this panel to represent an editor who prefers to pay. I wish I could pay more. And we do pay less for stuff that’s only online than for stuff that’s in print as well because we get more money out of the print edition, and I have to divvy up my freelance budget in a way that makes sense.
I understand the exposure-is-its-own-pay argument, and I sort of make that bargain implicitly, especially with out staff writers, who we pay not very well, who work for us for like a couple years, get a lot of good exposure on pretty high profile beats in a city where there’s a lot of journalists. And then tend to get hired somewhere else, usually to work a little bit less and make more money. But that’s sort of part of the bargain; it’s not the entire bargain with our writers. And I don’t think we should be making the same request of freelancers either. Obviously, you get some exposure from whatever you’re writing, but you can’t pay your rent with exposure.
Although, I wanted to ask you [to Thayer] you were talking about the traffic you got on that blog post, and I know you prefaced that by saying you were a bit of a Luddite, but were you able to quickly set up a Google AdWords thing and you could have made some money off of the exchanges.
Thayer: I have not made a penny off it. I did not organize advertising. Although, since this whole thing, I have also looked more closely at how you can make money. And there are all kinds of ways out there. One organization I do work for is called NK News. We have the same problem everyone else does: we’re trying to figure out how to bring quality news on North Korea to people who have an unhealthy interest in North Korea. And we haven’t been able to figure it out. We’re losing money on it. But everyone’s trying, and I have not succeeded.
Lerner: OK, so, Matt, in the aftermath of this, you wrote a piece called “Writing for Free on the Internet is an Enormous Boon to Society….”
Matt Yglesias: I hate to be in the position of defending editors at The Atlantic, because I worked there for some time, and stopped working there because I didn’t like it. But as a general matter, part of the viewpoint that I came to this from is that when I was starting my career as a journalist in this town, I a) I had a job, not at the City Paper, but structurally similar to what Mike explains,a job that did pay money, but that paid a very meager amount of money. Certainly I could have gotten a job that paid more. I could even have gotten a job in journalism that paid more. But earlier, when I was in college, when I was a summer intern, I got, I think, a very good piece of advice from a guy at Rolling Stone, and he said that the biggest mistake that people make when trying to get into journalism is that they’ll sit there and they’ll be like, “The New Yorker is the greatest magazine in the world; I want to get an entry-level job at The New Yorker,” and an entry-level job at The New Yorker is like, getting coffee for a fact checker at The New Yorker. And that what you have to do is get a job where you can write articles, and then you can say to other people, “Look at me, I write good articles!” And that’s how you get the job that you want to have. And this was a decade ago, in the sort of early days of the Internet, but publishers are sort of saying, “Well, we should have some stuff on our website.” And you know, even when you have a staff job, you don’t get paid a piece rate—it’s not like you get paid more money for putting up more blog posts, not normally in a one-to-one way. But the idea there is you’re a young guy—I was at a political magazine—the idea was to try to come up with opportunities to write pieces that I thought were good and that would reflect well on me and help me get better jobs in the future. Meanwhile, the editors there had some idea about what was and wasn’t good content on the Internet that I thought were wrong, so I had a blog under my own name, running separately, with no money whatsoever, so that I could do things that I thought were good, that I thought would reflect well on me. And the time eventually came that David Bradley decided he needed to change The Atlantic’s website strategy. He wanted bloggers. He wanted to get the Atlantic Voices. And because Andrew Sullivan thought that my blog that I’d been doing for free was a good one and showed that I was a good writer, I got a paying job there, working at The Atlantic.
At the same time, you can’t work—well you can try to work 365 days out of the year, but I didn’t—I had the opportunity to go on vacation a couple times, and I asked some people to work for free, substitute blogging for me in that space. Of the people who did that, not all of them have gone on to have great careers in journalism, but some of them have. Ta-Nehisi Coates, I think, has done the best out of anyone doing that. But Alyssa Rosenberg has a good career as a media critic, and she’d been in journalism previously, but she was working at Governing magazine, on this like super boring Office of Personnel Management beat. But I knew she really wanted to write about the intersection of politics and pop culture and she got exposure as a writer on that beat by doing it for no money, and then she got a paying gig doing it. So you know, I really sort of wade into this to defend the practice a little bit as a career-building strategy and as something that people should take seriously.
Now, as often is the case on the Internet, this ends up not being literally responsive to Nate’s concerns. When you have decades of experience as a specialist reporter who isn’t looking to break into a whole new topic area, you really should ask yourself, well, what is the value of this quote-unquote “exposure.” And obviously, if it has very little value to you, then you shouldn’t do it. At the same time, Slate does try, and we’re trying increasingly, to find opportunities to let us run content without us paying them. And the reason for that is not an aversion to paying people money to do great journalism, but it’s a realization that we want to be strategic about what we do with our money, that there are things that can only be executed if people get a guarantee of money upfront—and we want to make sure that our money is spent on that kind of stuff. That there’s a lot of things out there, where you know it’s someone who isn’t a professional but happens to have written something good and we can grab it and give them a little more profile, and they can brag to their friends, you know, that’s amazing. If there are people who are academics or people who are working at non-profits, who are very knowledgeable about something, and would like the world to know, and would benefit from working with a professional editor to make their copy a little bit better to communicate with an audience, we should take advantage of that, and people should be seeing things that are out there.
Journalism has always depended on people being willing to cooperate in the commercial process without being paid for it. If you’re doing a story, you’re speaking to people—witnesses, experts, people who are involved in things—you’re quoting them, you’re relying on their insights, you’re relying on their time, you’re relying on some effort sometimes. People have been known, for me, to put some work into getting a good answer to my questions. And writers don’t pay our sources for that kind of thing. It would be considered—I mean, there are ethical reasons not to do it—but the point is that we have always relied on the fact that people are interested in being quoted in a story, and by the same token, you might be interested in doing the story. I don’t believe any of us up here on this panel are getting paid for our time here—and I wouldn’t even say that I have some incredibly strategic reason for agreeing to do it, but you know, I’m an agreeable person; I think it’s an interesting subject; and I could spare the time. So, if you can spare the time to do a Slate piece on something you feel passionate about, why not?
Madden: At least for you and I, and probably also for Kevin [Stoker], appearing on panels like this is part of our job description, at least in some broad sense of the word, and that’s often the case for the sources we’re quoting without getting paid as well. Or they get some other tangible benefit out of it. They get their story out. If you’re getting help from a subject expert in something, and part of their job is to talk to the press, then they wouldn’t expect you to pay them for their time.
Yglesias: Absolutely, but I think that is in a lot of ways the most promising kind of free content that you get is along those lines. You go to someone who is at The Center for Global Development and you say—I mean a particular problem that we have is that there’s not a huge amount of audience interest in foreign affairs. But there isn’t zero interest. It’s not a toxic subject, but it’s not a killer for us the way the Dear Prudence advice column is. And at the same time, advertisers don’t love Dear Prudence’s weird questions about bestiality, and they also don’t love articles about depressing famines in North Korea. For similar reasons. So if you want to get coverage of these super sad, medium traffic subjects, it’s difficult to turn that into tons of revenue. But we want to do it because we believe in journalism, and we want to do it because there’s some audience there, and when you can find opportunities to get people—it might have been that in the days of yore, they would have been the sources for articles—if you can get them to be the authors of articles, then that’s a real advantage. That’s an advantage to the world. And I think what The Atlantic does, where they’re just kind of propositioning professionals, professional freelance writers who are established in their careers, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. I wonder how much success they have getting anyone to actually agree to that proposition. I think we try not to say things to people that are going to be insulting or ridiculous for them to do. That’s common sense. But I think that the sentiment that I sometimes hear from writers—that people shouldn’t be doing stuff for free—well, who’s talking to you for these articles? It’s people doing things for free.
Lerner: Kevin, should editors be asking people to do things for free, and should writers be doing things for free? What’s the ethical calculation that goes into this?
Kevin Stoker: Well, you can look at this on a lot of levels in terms of ethics. The first question you have to ask is: Is the system itself just or unjust? Obviously, when Nate sent that out, there was a recognition by a large group of people that there was an injustice in the system. The people—when you talk about justice, you talk about distributive justice—the people weren’t receiving according to their merits. And that violated, for a large group of people—a lot of times when we evaluate ethics, you make your decisions public and then you look and see how the public perceives this, how do they respond to it? And would the public consider this an ethical thing? And you begin to get an idea of whether there is a universal distaste for this kind of process, this system. Is there just an injustice in the system? That becomes the first thing I would throw out: is the system itself broken? Is there an inequity in the system and an injustice in the system that creates it? The other aspect of it would be on an individual level. You’ve created something. Do you receive according to what you’ve created? Are you getting something back in return in an exchange relationship?
Sometimes we have trouble in ethics with exchange relationships, because they kind of reduce down to a quid pro quo. If all our relationships are based on the idea that if I give you a gift, you have to give me an equal and opposite gift back, our lives would be barren to some extent. But in reality, in business, that’s kind of the ethical model, that you provide a service, and then you get something back for that service. That’s considered just and fair. So I come back to the idea of justice and fairness. The person who was going to take this place was going to talk about a philosopher, W.D. Ross, who emphasizes that you look at a situation, and you see, “ok, I have a moral obligation here to be fair, and to be just, and I have a moral obligation to truth. I have a moral obligation to treat people as ends, not as means to an end. Also I have a moral obligation to self-improvement. There’s certain gratitude that we have for something to get published. I’m grateful that I can get it published. I may not get much money, but I understand the ground rules to begin with. And as a beginner, that’s ok, because I’m trying to get my career going. And I realize I’m getting the traction, I’m getting the pay in that regard that I’m not getting financially. But here, it’s a whole different situation. You have somebody who is a proven professional, and justice would require that he get paid differently than a young writer who is just starting out and trying to get their name recognized, or somebody who’s willing to write the blog for free just to be able to get on a place and get page views and be able to be looked at.
So the challenge here, to be able to look at this in terms of ethics is that there’s the individual-level ethics question, which is, “Did you receive according to your merits?” And I think, in The Atlantic’s case, and one of the problems I really see is that they’re using people as a means to an end, rather than ends in and of themselves. For their use, this is just another writer. Obviously it’s a repeat piece, or a rewritten piece to some extent. I’m not asking a lot of him, and I can get this for free, and so I’ll do it. Which is basically, I can exploit him, his name recognition, because I can. And that would be inherently unethical. But on the other hand, you [Yglesias] asking somebody to come in, and you say, “I’d like you to write my blog for free; you’ll get some exposure, and this is a real opportunity. I’ve already got the established readership, and I’ve already got everything else from it. And in exchange, I’m giving you an opportunity to really show what you can do. And that is being just.
But then we talk about the system itself. We all know that the system of starting out as a young journalist is unfair, in the sense that the pay is lousy. You get exposure—great—and a lot of times it may not turn into a paying job. So the system itself has real problems. And that’s always been there, but we know the system when we get into it. So it’s not like anyone is fooling us about it. And so for younger writers, I just think it’s a different situation than for veteran writers who have proven themselves already, and they should be receiving according to their merits. So there’s the individual level question of ethics, and there’s also the system level.
The other aspect is one of the things we talk about is freedom. Just because The Atlantic did this, Nate could still say, “I don’t buy into this.” He could still say no. The system has got problems, but on the individual level, I still have freedom as to whether I buy into it or not. There’s more to it; I think we could talk about other ethical aspects of this, but I think it really comes down to a question of justice and fairness. And in some cases, it’s just poor manners, poor business ethics. But I do think there’s definitely an ethical question involved.
Audience question [Jim Shahin, Syracuse]: Along those lines, when we talk about the system, and we talk about young writers—in my class, we were talking about this, and it really broke down along racial lines. I teach at Syracuse, and at Syracuse, there are a lot of people who have a lot of money, but there are some students who don’t. And the students who don’t have much money, who tend to be, more often than not, minority, say there’s no way I can write for free. So this is creating yet more of a system where we are disenfranchising. Already the media is way too white. Already, everything we read we don’t trust. And now, you want us to write for free? Yes, we’re young. That student over there can, but I can’t. I think that needs to be part of this conversation.
Stoker: Yeah, that’s injustice in the system.
Audience question: Is the system even sustainable? The young writers get start writing for free to get exposure. And then we have the older, more experienced writers, and they can’t get paid because you can get the content for free from other sources. So the young people think, what’s the career then? When I get older, I won’t get a job. How is that a sustainable idea for the future?
Audience member [Shahin]: Yeah I find that concern all the time, where the student says, “I’m going to write for free, but there’s still no job out there for me.”
Madden: There are still more people interested in writing than there are jobs, so I think the system is sustainable from the point of view of the media organizations, right? Because it’s not as if there’s a shortage of writers out there, even though people have been looking at the same economics for more than a decade now, and it’s gotten worse recently. I guess the question is, for whom is there sustainability? It may not be sustainable for young writers, but it’s a fun job. It’s a fun thing to do, to write stories, either in print or on the Internet. There are always going to be people who are interested in doing it. We’re at little risk of getting to the point where no one is interested in going into journalism.
Audience question [Jeff Inman, Drake]: But isn’t the inverse of this UGC, though? The flip side of this is that we’ve created this world where user-generated content is now becoming the norm for a lot of websites, even newspaper websites, and so now there’s that whole push in community journalism but what we’ve done is we’ve also diluted the product to a point where pages are getting two, three clicks, and that’s it. So there’s a problem on both sides, and it comes back to the business model.
Yglesias: You know there is a reason people do pay for content, and a particular reason people give people jobs on staff. Which is like this past December, I think it was December 31, and I had the flu, and I was supposed to close on buying a house, but also two other politics writers for Slate were on vacation, because it was December 31. But also there was a big news event around the fiscal cliff, so I had to go with the flu, in the rain, in the cold, down to the Capitol, to cover the story—because it was my job. If you need to run a publication, you need to have some people at your beck and call, who are going to do it at 6 a.m., if it’s happening at 6 a.m., people who are going to get up when they have the flu, if that’s what you need, and you need to pay people to do that. User-generated content is something lots of people try to take advantage of when they can, because there are lots of people who sometimes want to write some stuff. But as a manager, you know that you can’t just get content when people feel like producing it. Sometimes you need to get people to do something they don’t want to do, and you need to pay them money for that.
We don’t have panels like this about, well, should you become a garbage collector for free to gain exposure as someone who’s really good at picking up garbage, because that’s unpleasant work, and obviously you have to pay people to do that kind of thing. And within my household, we argue about who’s going to take the garbage out, because it’s smelly. But writing is fun, sometimes, so people will sometimes do it for free. But no publication is going to work just on the basis of people having fun. And it’s the same in terms of sustainability. There’s lots of people who want to give it a try. Alt-weekly publications have forever relied on sort of unsustainable career trajectories, with the knowledge that people will come, they’ll work there for a few years, and either they’ll not succeed and move on to some other field, or they will succeed by somewhat deeper pockets, and you’ll replace them with someone else, and that’s perfectly sustainable, in its way.
Madden: The same with our freelancers, who tend to be journalists with day jobs, and there happen to be a lot of them around here. No one’s trying to make a living out of being a Washington City Paper freelancer. I hope. That would be tough.
Audience [Shahin]: But my guess is, you actually pay people something, even at an alt-weekly? Is that right?
Audience [Shahin]: That’s different than paying nothing. I think there’s a distinction to be made here. Even alt-weeklies 30 years ago paid something, even if it was very little. There was a recognition that this was worth something.
Madden: Yeah, that’s true. But even like Buzzfeed, which does a lot of user-generated content has a paid staff. Their best stuff is paid. I think that managers realize that. You can occasionally get something really great that some user puts up for free, and you say wow, this is fantastic. But if you want to be able to say, “You have to rewrite it. You have to rewrite it again. You have to write about this topic as opposed to that topic,” yeah, you do have to pay.
Lerner: Did you say you were paying literally $25 or $50 for some pieces?
Madden: Yeah. We don’t get a lot of rewrites for $25 or $50.
Lerner: Is that different than writing for free?
Madden: It’s not that different, no.
Thayer: It is different. It’s fundamentally different, and I think it goes back to what several people were saying. To me, anyways, it’s the fundamental problem of for-profit media companies as a central business strategy eliminating paying the producer of the product which they sell so that they can increase their fucking profit margin. That’s really what it is. I write for free all the time. I’ve written for free for 30 years. I’ve written probably 1000 articles for free. Because, for whatever circumstances, for non-profits, or people where I’m interested in the issue. My blog is for free. I use Facebook copiously as a professional tool. That’s all for free. I don’t have any objection to writing for free. And depending on your circumstances, it’s true for a lot of people.
There’s a couple things that have struck me here. Slate still owes me $3000 for going to Iraq, for which they’ve never paid me, three years ago. Now this is not something new for any journalist anywhere. It happens to everybody. This idea of user-generated content, which I don’t know exactly what that means. There’s probably a more direct way of putting it. But the fact is that that, and the issue of, ok, people do work because they are going to be quoted or contributed to the article, I don’t buy that at all. They’re interested parties. Our job as a journalist is basically, I’ve spent most of my life sitting in a hotel room, waiting for someone to come down and lie to me. And that happens all the time in various degrees for all the information you get. And your job is to sift through it and come through with something that’s as close to what’s accurate and balanced and in the public interest as you can. One of the things that really bothers me about the new business model is that sure, there are people who will write for free. But most of them have institutional support. They have real jobs. They’re academics, they’re scholars, they have people who pay their rent, who pay for the bills to live. So they’re not actually journalists. They’re trying to sell a book. I mean I was a scholar in residence at Johns Hopkins at SAIS down the street here for a year. They gave me a full salary to sit in my office and think.
Madden: But you were still a journalist when you were doing that. You weren’t not actually a journalist just because you had some other way of paying your bills.
Thayer: No, I took a year off from my paid job with the Far Eastern Economic Review because I got kicked out of the country I was working in, and I needed some place to go, and they gave me this scholar in residence thing. And the thing that struck me was that all of these academics, if they could get quoted in the newspaper, that was really big for their resume. Or if they could even publish an article, that was really big. Now it’s standard but it’s being couched as legitimate news. It’s not legitimate news. They are an interested party, often, in the subject matter. And so I object to that being a substitute for legitimate, quality journalism. I read the stuff all the time. I find it interesting; it’s interesting source material. But I know that they’re not the internal standards of a news operation that has the whole sausage-making process that makes sure that when I send something in, it has to go through a very rigorous process to make sure that by the time it gets to print it’s not biased, it’s properly sourced, it’s corroborated, it’s accurate and so on and so forth. And that’s missing in so much, including the brand name former journalism outfits. There’s so much pressure to get everything out there quickly and to get page hits that the idea of quality news has taken a serious back seat, and that makes me very very uncomfortable, and I don’t think it’s a substitute for quality news.
And actually, on our panel here, both Slate and the City Paper, which I’m a big fan particularly of—I’d be a bigger fan of Slate if they’d pay me the money they’ve owed me for ten goddamned years—
Yglesias: That seems fair.
Thayer: But the City Paper is an excellent paper, and the fact that they each pay something means that what we do for a living is worthy, and I believe, I will go to my grave knowing that what we do for a living is not only worthy, it’s vital to a free society and it needs to be defended, and it costs money to produce, and someone’s got to figure out a way to do it. The fact is that people who own these publications—and they have to be private businesses; they can’t be government, otherwise we’d be Pravda, right—they really don’t care whether they’re selling toothpaste or news to free people. If they make more money on toothpaste, they’ll sell toothpaste. So I think the question everyone agrees with here is that someone’s got to come up with a way to first recognize the value of quality news, see that we’re not getting it now, and figure out a way to make money in the process so that we’re able to have it.
Audience question: I live in Chicago, and when I’m not working my day job, I am a freelance writer, and I’ve contributed to several publications, including Slate’s sister publication, theroot.com, and I’ve been paid for my work for that. But at the same time, the work I have been getting as a freelancer hasn’t been a flood of work, so I do have a day job. Even though I would like to get paid, I would do something just to get my name out. But that’s because I have the luxury of a day job that will allow me to do so. And so my question is this: I’m wondering, since we are at an academic conference, and we’re seeing what the industry is becoming. It seems like it’s almost becoming more like an artistic discipline, more like creative writing or cinema studies, in that you have very talented people but there’s less promise on a return on investment. But people do it because they like to do it. So I guess my question is, people who go into journalism school, either grad or undergrad, do you think there’s a little bit more of a responsibility for people to be a little bit more honest and vocal about what kind of opportunities are there right now. The fact that yes, it’s not a great job market. I mean back in Chicago, my home paper, the Sun-Times just laid off its entire photographic staff, which isn’t sending a great message to journalists in Chicago.
Madden: After buying our former sister paper.
Audience question: Do we have a responsibility to be a little bit more honest about those career prospects? Because if they’re going to go out there and might have to take on free assignments, do schools have a responsibility to let the students know more?
Madden: This probably takes us down a tangent, but I didn’t got to journalism school and I can’t say I would advise anyone to go to journalism school. I probably shouldn’t say that at the academic journalism conference. But yeah, if I were running a journalism school, yes, there’s some difficult messaging around saying, yes, come pay us, what? $50,000 a year to come learn about this industry, and you know, good luck paying those student loans back. But fortunately, I’m not in journalism education, so I don’t have to worry about that.
Yglesias: You know, different kinds of industries have different kinds of pay structures. If you look at Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, you wouldn’t say, well, nobody makes money in acting. Some people make a lot of money in acting, but most people who set out to go be an actor make no money. Music, it’s the same thing. Taylor Swift is making a lot of money. But if you hear someone say, “I’m going to go out and start a band and make a lot of money…” It’s not to say that no one should try to be a musician. Lots of people have done it for a long time. It’s always been something where the typical person who sets out to do it does not have success. Where everyone, even the people who become incredibly successful spend some time struggling with it. And I think that journalism used to have a different kind of structure. The Internet very literally means you can live wherever, and you can read any publication from wherever, and that’s hollowed out a lot of local news organizations, a lot of the middle media type stuff. It’s also made it easier to become a Tom Friedman global superstar. And so when people say they want to be journalists, make sure they have some kind of accurate picture of what’s going on, not that it’s a field where no one can get paid and no one can make a living, but that it’s a field where the odds are against you, and you’re looking at a kind of long tail.
Before I came here I was looking at my traffic numbers from July. I published 180 items of varying lengths, and over 10% of the total readership came from just one of those items. About half of it came from 15 of them. About two thirds of them together combined for almost nothing. Some of that was that I had bad ideas. Some of it I knew people weren’t going to read but I thought it was interesting and I wanted to write about it. One of them, maybe I just didn’t have any good ideas, so I went with the best idea that I had. But you see than in anything. If you look at the publication, a handful of articles is what’s driving Slate. A Handful of producers are what’s driving the whole industry. And that’s what people need to think about when they’re getting into this.
Madden: Oh, I think that’s always been the case. Newspapers have always been pretty diverse conglomerations of content. People were never buying newspapers or magazines only to read the quality investigative journalism. They were also buying them to read the comics or the sports pages or whatever.
Yglesias: The weather. People really want to know what the weather is.
Madden: You’ve got to pick up the paper to find out what the weather is!
Thayer: You [Yglesias] mentioned an analogy earlier that people don’t want to read about bestiality, but in fact, I bet you, if the City Paper, which runs a wonderful column which often focuses on bestiality…
Madden: Oh, people love reading about bestiality.
Yglesias: No, I’m saying that advertisers don’t want to be on that page.
Thayer: I’m saying that the page right next to that probably has a higher advertising rate.
Yglesias: No, no…
Madden: It does, but only among a restricted pool of advertisers.
Yglesias: Chrysler doesn’t like bestiality.
Lerner: Kevin, you wanted to add something?
Stoker: I would just add one thing, which is that anytime you have a business model that’s in transformation, there are a lot of questions. The theory we have to hold is that there’s still a need for good journalism, a demand for it. The fact that there are so many news sites, and so many people trying to figure out how to do it means that there’s a demand. And as long as we’ve got creative young people coming into it, hopefully they can begin to see a business model that works, and begin to take advantage of that. Our challenge, at least in my program, is trying to combine elements that we hadn’t thought about before, like entrepreneurship, every student learning multimedia, every student thinking in terms of thinking across disciplines, just being able to think as much as do.
But in a sense, morally speaking, the question comes back to how media organizations have always gotten away with a lot. Newspapers have had 40% profits while still paying their staff not that much. I tend to be more existentialist in my approach, even though I use other theories, too. I think there’s a great deal of freedom for students, for young writers right now. The challenge is that they have to find a way to adapt to the changing times.
Audience question: Someone mentioned musicians. I’m with a group of harpists, and someone will say, “Oh, play for my wedding, you’ll get tons of exposure.” Well, you can die of exposure, too. But yeah, they feel this just as strongly, always being asked to do stuff for free.
Madden: That’s a particularly nervy pitch. How many people at their wedding are going to be in need of another harpist?
Audience: Exactly. And somebody mentioned before about profits, and it’s really true. These people are making obscene profits. I was at an organization where the top people were making $200,000–$300,000 salaries a year, and we were lucky to be squeezing $50,000 a year, which is not much in D.C. And if you look at a place like HuffPost, Arianna is just raking in the millions. So does anybody have an answer for—Huffington Post is a great example: they’re rich, they’re oozing money. There’s staff in New York, and you know they’re not there for free. But they won’t pay…
Thayer: I have an answer: Don’t fucking write for them. Arianna Huffington’s entire business model is based on not paying the people who produce their product, so that they can make money. She just sold her company for $317 million, based all on people’s writing. When the Atlantic article came out, I was kind of impressed by their hubris, they called me up and asked me to come onto the Huffington Post TV station and talk about this issue. And I said, “I’d be happy to, but you’d be under a profound delusion if you expect me not to bring up the fact that the Huffington Post is the poster child of this whole problem. And make sure that your bosses are aware of that.” And I got a call back about an hour later, disinviting me.
Madden: But they also have paid staff, and probably most of the stuff that gets the most clicks is generated by paid staffers.
Thayer: But they also have what is a fundamental problem: most of their stuff is people who have an agenda, a political agenda, a financial agenda. And it’s being couched and presented as news. It’s not.
Audience question: I have a question that revolves around both of those. What about, internally, in City Paper and Slate—either there’s content specialists who are writing for us, and is that a cost-benefit analysis, and is it vetted? And what does that do for our readership? And the staff of Slate or of City Paper, knowing that people are being paid very little, or nothing—very little—to do freelance for these publications, is there any moral obligation to say, “This isn’t right, I’m going to quit, or we’re going to strike, if you don’t start paying our freelancers more”? And then we all become part of this chain of, “Somebody else will come in and take my place, so I can’t be a part of that.” So what is my moral obligation to someone who is a paid writer within those papers to propagate this attitude?
Madden: I think if my writers were going to go on strike, it would probably not be over our freelance pay rates.
Yglesias: But it’s fascinating for me to think about what newspapers were up to in the eighties, when they did have enormous profit margins and were faced with the question of what to do with this surplus. But if we’re talking about 2013, I would love to see—I think all of us who are working at Slate, we’re very cognizant that the company that owns us just sold The Washington Post, which was far and away its biggest media venture. We’re now part of a diverse conglomerate whose biggest unit is seven local TV stations. We own a cable operator in Louisiana and Arkansas and other rural communities. We own a manufacturer of industrial boilers, a chain of hospices, Kaplan test prep services… And Slate is on the bubble. If we don’t produce earnings, it’s just like if the boiler factory doesn’t make money, they’re going to close the factory. If Slate doesn’t make money, they’re going to close Slate. So all of us have an interest in personally doing well financially, but ale we want to see the company succeed.
The question of quality is obviously fundamental, but it doesn’t ultimately come down to whether or not editors are willing to pay writers to generate quality. It comes down to do readers and do advertisers, who generate the revenue, do they want quality stuff? There’s enormous amounts of fads in advertising. Because as you [Stoker] were saying, it’s an industry in transition. If you do television, television has been around for a long time, and companies that do TV ads have a good idea about who does TV ads. Car insurance companies, they love TV ads, and they’ve decided that goofy TV ads are a good idea, so there’s all this GEICO lizard stuff. And I don’t know why that is, but they are happy with that. So if you make a TV show that people will watch, they will put their stupid gecko on it.
On the web, they’re trying to decide. Three years ago, I think car companies didn’t think they wanted to be on the Internet. Today, they do. So we have some money. But car companies also have ideas about what kind of content they want to be featured near, and so we’re a little bit hostage to that. If somebody were to decide that our product should really be associated with serious foreign affairs coverage, then you would see the payment rates for people who are able to deliver formidable, entertaining foreign affairs coverage skyrocket. But that’s not what they’re interested in. They love technology, they love small business. So that’s what we’re paying money for. The payments go where the revenues go. And I think it’s bad for society right now where the revenue is coming from. But that’s not up to editors. They can’t just make advertisers and readers do things they don’t want to do.
Lerner: I know the boiler company is just a punch line, but I think it might be better if Slate went into the hospice division.
Yglesias: Well no, that had synergy with the print newspaper.
Audience question [Elizabeth Hendrickson, University of Tennessee]: Boy, it got dark in here. Actually, Nate, I’m kind of curious. Justin Smith, who was the CEO of The Atlantic, I think the whole media group, just went to Bloomberg a few weeks ago. Do you have any idea if it is a trickle-down thing? Do you think maybe there will be any change in terms of their policy? Anybody else can answer that. Or if at Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which is a fabulous magazine, if they person running the show dictates the prices that get paid.
Madden: I don’t think it’s a corporate policy so much as, you have this budget, we need this much content, go ahead and figure out how to divvy it up. My publisher, who—we’re a small organization, and she’s pretty involved in the day-to-day operations of a lot of facets of the business, though obviously not editorial decisions—she doesn’t tell me, “oh, you can pay this much for that, and that much for this.” She says, “Here’s what you can spend on freelance.” So it seems unlikely that the CEP of Atlantic Media was sitting around thinking we should get more work for free. It was probably editors sitting around saying we’ve got to get more stuff. We can’t afford to pay for as much stuff as we want…
Thayer: Actually, for The Atlantic, and I actually do know this because I have literally gotten several thousand personal communications from people. The Atlantic policy is not to pay people. You know the line they said, “We’re out of a freelance budget, but we have 13 million readers”? I have exactly 412 emails from people who told me the exact same quote, verbatim. So it’s not a matter of them being out. So that’s an Atlantic policy. I think it’s part of their business plan—because it works. And I don’t hold it against them because their job is to increase their profit margin. That’s what they do, and if they can get that product and they think that readers will be satisfied with it.
But I think there’s a Ponzi game going on around this, that people are under the delusion that they’re actually getting the same quality news that they were getting prior to this wonderful, positive transformation that we still haven’t figured out how it’s going to work out. That they’re still getting the same quality news that the brand names produced before we entered this period. That’s just not true. It’s not true with TheAtlantic.com and what you get in print. It’s not true with the WashingtonPost.com and what you get in the Washington Post, and they’re saying that it is, that they’re using the same internal standards. And I think that part of that—to address your question—I used to work for Dow Jones, which owned The Wall Street Journal and the magazine that I worked for, called the Far Eastern Economic Review, and most of their people went over to Reuters, and a similar thing is happening with Bloomberg. And what they’re buying is people with a name. And I was approached by several people several years ago where they wanted to pay me more money than I needed or probably deserved because they thought that I had a name. The bigger thing that that translates into, and that’s really a big shift, which makes me uncomfortable with being trained—and I did not go to journalism school either, I started out with the Associated Press for several years and a number of other publications—and it makes me very uncomfortable to market myself. I’ve now kind of gotten over that, because that’s really where we’re going, where people have to individually market themselves in order to make a living. But what a lot of these companies are doing is that they’re putting the bulk of their money, and offering big salaries—and Reuters did this when they had the big turnover a couple years ago—they hired away all kinds of big name people for ridiculous salaries. And the journeyman workers at Reuters, who actually do very well because they have a very good union, get paid considerably less. So a big part of this money is going into the trend of people promoting themselves or where they think when people read the news, they look at who it is that’s writing the article—as opposed to what it used to be, and I’m more comfortable with, which is that when I pick up The New York Times, I know that there is an internal process, which means that whatever shows up in that paper has a degree of credibility. That’s why I buy that as opposed to, say, The Washington Times, or the National Enquirer. I know what I’m getting when I read it. And now I don’t know. And on the web you do not know what you’re getting at all. And in fact, a lot of what they say you’re getting, you’re really not getting at all. Because there is no vetting. There is no more internal sausage-making process.
I have a friend who is a Washington correspondent for a major news chain, who now pushes the send button when he’s sitting in Congress, covering a hearing. It doesn’t even go through an editor. That’s how much pressure there is to get stuff out quickly and what falls victim to that is the quality of news.
Audience question: I’m still working through this, but I think I’m more comfortable, ethically speaking, with a policy like The Atlantic’s, where it sounds like they say we don’t pay for freelance pieces at all. I don’t like it, but I’m ethically more comfortable with it than with a policy that decides the sort of worth. So when Matt goes on vacation and Coates comes in and he gets great exposure, but you still believed that he was going to do good work and that he deserved to show up as your blog replacement. So it seems to me that the sort of universal, regardless of whether you’re a developing or an established journalist, that if you’re going to appear on X publication or X website, and if we think your work is worth it, then we’re going to pay. We’re not going to say, “oh, you’re an up-and-comer…”
Thayer: The Atlantic policy is—they’re actually on the record because they put out a press release after my ridiculous little post on my irrelevant little blog, saying that they do pay people and that this was a mistake by a new employee, and so on. That’s just not true. They don’t pay people. But what they do say is that what you read on The Atlantic, you can believe based on the credibility—and The Atlantic’s a wonderful magazine. I have no beef with The Atlantic. It’s a systemic problem. And certainly this poor woman, Olga—and I feel really bad because God knows what grief she got for this—she was just doing her job. But The Atlantic promotes itself as, when you read The Atlantic, you know what you’re getting based on their very high internal quality standards. My point is, in this new digital age, that’s all a lie. You don’t get that. The other transition period that we’re in is that people still believe that when you read The Washington Post online, or The Atlantic online, they’re getting the same thing that they got beforehand. And that’s just not true.
Madden: That might be debatable.
Audience question: Just to follow up on that, and I apologize if this has been discussed before. Seth Mnookin, who runs the science writing program at MIT has written some really interesting stuff about science journalism on the Huffington Post, and how bad science—just flat out factually wrong stuff, including information about the vaccine/autism connection—how the Huffington Post’s policy of not paying writers and not fact checking has led to really terrible misinformation about science getting out there into the public.
Yglesias: OK, so not to defend the Huffington Post, but this I think is a classic about why fact checking is overrated. The Huffington Post does not need to hire a fact checking department to know that this vaccine/autism stuff is wrong. They know that. Arianna Huffington know that. The head of their politics department knows that. They all know that. They have decided not that they don’t care about fact checking, but that they don’t care that this is wrong. And that’s wrong of them. But then you think about something different. Rolling Stone, I believe, has also promoted this vaccine/autism stuff. They are one of the last people standing in terms of rigorous fact checking departments. And I have worked in that field. They are exacting. If you are going to run a story in there that is 100% bullshit about vaccines and autism, everyone will have their middle initial absolutely correct, every fact nailed down. There will be no “factual” errors. If you say there’s a study that says this, there will in fact be a story that says that; it will just be a nonsense study. And that’s always been a difference: between getting the facts right, and telling people a correct story about things. And those are both important issues, I mean it’s bad when people’s names are misspelled in the newspaper, and it’s really bad when people get wholly erroneous scientific information. But there’s a tenuous relationship between them. Editors and publishers need to decide if they care, in their heart, about this thing. And you know, a lot of them don’t. Because they’re just bad people.
Thayer: I would agree 100%. It’s a matter of internal business culture or the commitment to truth by the organization. Fact checkers are a pain in the ass.
Audience question: First, before my larger point, I have written online. I’ve had access to the content management systems of publications in the past, and yeah, the product I have seen go online, not just the factual errors, but even the typos really did disturb me, so because I had access to it, I could catch it. The larger point I wanted to go back to, when we were talking to staff writers not walking on behalf of freelancers—that doesn’t come as a surprise to me. I mean writers are not going to work on behalf of freelancers. It seems common sense. But now, we have a freelancers’ union that’s springing up. Could it be that maybe as the ranks start to thin out, that maybe there will be more freelancers going in that the Writer’s Guild and the freelancer’s union would come together and really have some power in these publications, just because it’s in their self-interest to do so?
Madden: It’s possible. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the power of organized labor in journalism these days—and I was a member of the Newspaper Guild in my first job out of school, at The Philadelphia Inquirer in the mid-90’s, which was making ridiculous profits—and I was making $14 an hour, and had to every week sign my initials to a totally bogus timesheet saying that I worked only 40 hours a week, and it was totally impossible that that was the case. And that was the good days, and that was the best the Guild could get for us. But I suppose it’s theoretically possible. I think that my sort of skepticism of the success of that has less to do with journalism, and more to do with much broader trends in society.
Stoker: Let me add one thing, though it’s a little bit unrelated. I took some time to look for magazine ethics codes. And in dealing with writers, there’s hardly anything in regards to what their moral obligations are to writers, and what they’ve actually written down as obligations. In fact, one of the lines in—and I’m trying to remember which publication; it’s one of the major ones—their obligation to “writers, paid or unpaid,” was actually in the statement. The idea was they really don’t have much. The industry itself has really not taken time to deal with this issue. And it comes down to a basic problem: how they see the writer. The writer has long been able to be abused. And because of that they’re just seen as a means to an end, which is problematic ethically.
Madden: One thing I will say in defense of my writers at City Paper and their class consciousness is that may of our freelancers make more in their day jobs than our staffers make in their day jobs at CIty Paper. A lot of our freelancers are writing for us about stuff like food or music because their day jobs involve editing very dry minutiae on Capitol HIll. So they don’t mind as much getting paid 25 or 50 bucks to write about some new hip hop release. In many cases they probably would do it for free. So I think that the freelance market that I operate in here in D.C. is probably different than most alt-weekly editors in most cities operate in, because there are so many journalists here, with actual jobs in journalism, and there are not a whole lot of journalists here doing work in the kind of stuff that we cover. So it kind of winds up working out. Obviously, we pay more for a lengthy cover story—more than $25 or $50.
Thayer: I’ve had six separate organizations contact me about forming a freelance journalists’ union. There’s a lot of people out there who are trying to do it. I have no idea whether they’re work out. But there are clearly tens of thousands of people out there who are being exploited, because they can be. And I can wrap my head around that. If they can get away with paying less money for more product, that’s what they do. That’s how the system works, whether you’re selling news or whatever. But clearly there’s a need for people to get together and to pool their efforts on it, and people are doing it.
Lerner: Interns seem to be making some progress.
Audience: The thing about the interns, is that interns are actually covered under Fair Labor laws. And my understanding of the Fair Labor laws is that writers, especially freelance journalists, are considered artists.
Thayer: We are?
Audience: Yeah, and we’re specifically excluded from Fair Labor regulations.
Yglesias: We are excluded, but not because they’re artists, because it’s an independent contractor relationship.
Audience: No, I think it’s because it’s art as well.
Yglesias: Maybe. Also telephone switchboard operators.
Audience question [Shahin]: You made the point earlier that journalism is just factually not as good as it used to be. Do we think so? It’s gone unchallenged through this panel, but I’ve read some really good stuff online. There’s a lot of stuff going online that’s crap, and a lot of stuff that’s unedited, but I also read some terrific stuff online, and I also read some stuff from very unlikely places. A few years ago, BuzzFeed was a big joke, and now they have broken a few stories. I’ve seen some great stuff from Deadspin. I mean, I’ve seen good stuff online, too.
Madden: I agree with you. There is more stuff out there, and a lot of it isn’t very good, but that doesn’t mean that none of it is very good.
Thayer: Absolutely. I mean, the potential for good is mind boggling. But there are no standards. Now this is a group of academics, so you’re thinking with a critical mind. When you read something, you’re looking at it probably more closely than a lot of the readership, but the fact is, because there’s no standards… I’ll give you a brief example here. This whole Atlantic kerfuffle business that ruined my month, this came out of Twitter, primarily. To a degree Facebook, but anyway, social media. So any knucklehead who thinks the world is flat has an equal platform on Twitter. So when this went viral, which I think it did for a couple days, there were plenty of knuckleheads who jumped on board. One of which accused me of plagiarizing the article which the Atlantic wanted me to rewrite for free. At this point there were several hundred thousand conversations—several media ethics organizations had written about it. You know how many telephone calls I got out of the half a million messages and communications? One. You know how many from a journalist? One. This after several thousand articles about it.
The fact is, the allegations that were made about me about plagiarism were made by this nutcase who lives in Sweden, who literally posted 5000 tweets in a matter of a few days, accusing me of plagiarizing the article, having never talked to me, having never talked to the guy he accused me of plagiarizing, never talked to a single source, every one of which would have said, “That is total bullshit.” It was totally made up. But because the story was viral, and it had its 15 seconds of fame, this was a new angle, because they portrayed me as this David taking on The Atlantic Goliath—which is also ridiculous because all I did was cut and paste and put up my blog post. So here was the opportunity for a new angle for the entertainment of the hypocrisy and schadenfreude of watching the thing burn down, giving it another 24 hour lifecycle. So that was written by everybody. Including both of you guys [Madden and Yglesias] put it on Twitter. Right? You retweeted this guy’s thing. I don’t hold it against you—well, maybe a little bit—along with several hundred thousand other people, including The Columbia Journalism Review and New York Magazine. Columbia Journalism Review, that was the one phone call I got. They called me and said, “Look, it’s being reported by the Washington Post blogger, by a whole bunch of Atlantic staff people, and this one guy who’s written a blog post saying that you plagiarized this article.” And I said, well, geeze, since I don’t watch Twitter, I hadn’t noticed, and since I didn’t plagiarize, it hadn’t come across my radar screen. So I said look, it’s absolutely bullshit. I will provide you with every single name of the source, every single piece of evidence—because I happen to have spent a number of months researching this article by coincidence—and I had several thousand documents.
Yglesias: So how did this guy get the idea that it was plagiarized?
Madden: Who was the Washington Post blogger?
Thayer: Uh, Max Fisher.
Audience [Hendrickson]: Was this [accuser] a troll?
Thayer: I’d never heard of the guy. And I have my Twitter thing hooked to my email, so it came up on my email. So I check into Twitter and the guy said, “Did you really interview such-and-such?” And I thought geeze, that’s sort of an odd question, so I figured out how to tweet back, and I said yes, I interviewed such-and-such, why do you ask? That’s an odd question. And the he just went on to this barrage of aggressive stuff. I guess this kind of stuff goes on on Twitter all the time. Anybody can say anything they want; that’s the beauty of Twitter. Anyway, so I punched the guy’s name up, and he had a whole Wikipedia page up, and that’s what the guy does for a living; he accuses successful writers of plagiarism. Anyone who’s a journalist we get all kinds of wacko letters all the time, so it didn’t really strike me; I forgot all about it. But then it was republished in everything from Slate to Poynter to every ethics site, MediaBistro, everything you could think of. If you now punch in my name on Google, before this Atlantic thing, if you punched in “Nate Thayer plagiarism,” you wouldn’t have gotten a single hit. Now you have about 300,000. It’s even in my Wikipedia page, whoever the fuck creates those things, there’s a whole thing on it. So there is a real downside on the quality. And with the pressure we’re all under to get stuff out quickly, and to get as many page hits, if you’re going to accuse someone who’s right in the middle of that 15 minutes of fame for standing up for the ethics of journalism, and say that he’s actually a plagiarist—that’s a pretty sexy headline. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant.
Stoker: The sad thing is, this is one of the things you teach, if there’s a journalism 101 out there, that you always verify. Think about how many professional journalist failed to verify this story, except for the Columbia Journalism Review.
Thayer: Well let me tell you. I’ll finish this. So the one call came from The Columbia Journalism Review. And I said look, I’ll provide you every telephone number of every source, the missives—because it was all on email; I had the quotes from them—everything you want, because it’s total bullshit. And you know what they’re answer was? Well, thanks a lot, but my editor wants to get the story out ASAP, so we will get back in touch with you. So The Columbia Journalism Review, the very arbiter of ethics in journalism, runs a headline titled, “Nate Thayer Plagiarist, question mark?” When I grew up as a journalist, if I wrote a story with a question mark, my editor would come back to me and say, look, your job is to fucking answer the question, not ask questions. Go back to work. But that’s not how it works now. Because it was a big story, they needed to catch the wave. So when I called them back and said I’d got them the documents and you see it’s not true, I said it would be nice if you actually wrote that. And they said, well, we didn’t accuse you of being a plagiarist; this other guy accused you of being a plagiarist. So this whole new world, once it’s out there, it can’t be taken back. And that’s really dangerous. You can’t have a correction or a reaction.
Yglesias: That doesn’t seem that dangerous to me.
Thayer: Well it’s dangerous to me. I don’t want to be called a plagiarist.
Madden: Well it’s not that new. There used to be a lot of crap that had been published in daily newspapers.
Thayer: If I was doing the story, I have never done a story in my life where if it involved them, I didn’t call and contact them.
Madden: I agree, but I’m sure that happened at some point.
Audience: If you put a piece of crap in a print newspaper 50—no, 20—years ago, not as many people are going to see it. You can’t deny that.
Yglesias: The old school newspaper way though, is that you write a story, it’s out there, and if the story is 100% wrong, I mean, all of its facts are wrong because it was written by a sociopathic liar, then in the following day’s paper, somewhere where it’s designed for nobody to see it, in tiny print, there’s like this tiny thing that says, oh that thing we ran yesterday was wrong. And the physical paper is just sitting there, in microfilm, until the end of time. Where it’s like now, if we do something wrong on Slate, we actually change it. And then we note in the correction right there that it used to say this, but now it doesn’t, because that was wrong. And so like wrong stories on the web do not live forever the way wrong stories in print used to. And obviously it’s true that bullshit spreads much faster than it used to but the flip side of it is that actual news spreads much faster than it used to. If something interesting and important were to happen right now, we would all know about it in a few minutes instead of tomorrow morning. So communication is faster on the Internet—that’s a little banal—misinformation is faster. But right information is also faster. It comes down to do you as a reader, do you as a writer, do you as an editor care about getting things that are true or things that aren’t. I don’t think there’s a large number of people walking around under the impression that Nate Thayer is a plagiarist.
Lerner: He said that punching in “Nate Thayer, plagiarist” gets that result? Well, you can just punch in Nate Thayer, if you’re researching a panel like this. It still comes up in the first four or five articles.
Thayer: Yeah, you bet. Not to prolong this, but in this country and in the UK, we’ve spend decades trying to balance free speech with freedom from being slandered, and it’s a very very complicated process. We’ve done an excellent job both in the US and the UK. None of that is covered in cyberspace. You can say anything you want, and there’s no legal consequence.
Lerner: You can still sue for libel. But, I’m afraid, speaking of not prolonging, that we are going to have to end. We have actually talked for more than an hour and a half. As an ethical statement, I will say that I did not offer to pay anybody on the panel. There was a half-hearted offer that I’ll buy you lunch. So if anyone wants lunch, I’ll buy you something.
Yglesias: Well, I got a tote bag.
Lerner: There were tote bags and water bottles, that’s true. I’d like to thank the panelists for being here. Thank you all for coming out.