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Journalism Doesn’t Pay

money-piggy-bank

Nate Thayer, an award-winning foreign correspondent for nearly 30 years, chronicles “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013.”

The post is amusing and I commend it to you. Long story short: He was approached by the Global editor of The Atlantic to repurpose a piece he’d published elsewhere on Dennis Rodman’s basketball diplomacy. He inquired as to the compensation, was informed that there would be none other than exposure, and declined. The long version is funnier.

Alas, unless you’re a Christopher Hitchens—and there were damned few of those even when Hitchens was alive—it’s next to impossible to make a good living selling freelance journalism. Especially short form pieces. And doubly especially in the foreign affairs market.

While I’m occasionally paid for op-ed length pieces that I publish at magazines and newspapers, don’t really expect to be. And the fees are generally modest enough to qualify as a stipend.  Essentially, I’d have to publish five of them a day five days a week to make a living. That level of productivity is, shall we say, difficult to sustain.

This situation is, alas, partly enabled by people such as myself who have a day job studying and writing about public policy and are all to happy to publish their work gratis. It’s how we get our work out there.  And that’s why almost everyone writing short pieces for The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, National Interest, and other sites that publish foreign affairs commentary on a daily basis are professional academics, think tankers, or regularly employed journalists.

Via Elizabeth Dickinson who teases the post “if you ever wondered why so many war reporters are under the age of 30 . . . .”

UPDATE: Atlantic Technology channel editor Alex Madrigal has a lengthy and thoughtful response to Thayer’s complaint.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    Cognitive Surplus.

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  2. There are plenty of jobs for journalists. All you have to do these days is go to work for the government. Public Affairs, Media Affairs, Community Affairs, Constituent Affairs — there are dozens of ways of describing media departments and dozens of job titles for journalists who go to work for governments at all levels these days and spoon feed the few for profit media journalists that remain with press releases, chaperoned visits and interviews, and digital press kits. Congratulations regular commenters on this blog, you are getting the government you want!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 7

  3. mantis says:

    I would have loved to have become a journalist, and am trained for it, but I need to make a living, so I didn’t.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  4. john personna says:

    @Let’s Be Free:

    There is a similar apparatus on the corporate side, is there not?

    What do you call those pre-rolled news marketing stories for local television news?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  5. @john personna:

    “There is a similar apparatus on the corporate side, is there not?”

    Absolutely correct. And look at what we are getting out of the government, corporate axis.

    With profits at record highs, today the DJIA hit all-time record intra-day highs.

    Meanwhile, west of the Hudson River and beyond the Potomac, the number of Food Stamp recipients is at a record high, tens of millions of people are unemployed, underemployed or stopped looking for work. Taxes are rising, incomes are declining and real wages are falling. The President has nominated as his OMB fiscal watchdog and management director a woman whose career and experience are in giving away money. He’s put forward names of people to lead the EPA and the Energy Department who will move heaven and earth to make sure you pay more for energy over the next four years. Obama’s Vice Chairman of the Fed is assuring the country that the central bank will run its currency printing presses indefinitely. Remember, it is all Bush and Boehner’s fault. What a wonderful world!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 9

  6. C. Clavin says:

    Well yeah…no doubt…but you’re focused on a fairly small (albeit tremendously important) niche of Journalism. I don’t know anyone who has ever though freelance journalism was a path to riches.
    I worked in TV news for 15 years (80’s and early 90’s) and plenty of people were making 6 figure incomes. Many of the same people are still in the game and making far more today. (my “I knew them when” list would impress)
    I would also say that given what passes for journalism these days…stenography…low pay is warranted. Gregory gets up in Boehners grill and everyone is suprised. Really? I thought that was his job?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  7. mantis says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I worked in TV news for 15 years (80′s and early 90′s) and plenty of people were making 6 figure incomes.

    Times have changed, I assure you.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. andrew e. says:

    Can I interest you in writing for the Government of Malaysia?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  9. C. Clavin says:

    @ Let’s be free…

    “…He’s put forward names of people to lead the EPA and the Energy Department who will move heaven and earth to make sure you pay more for energy over the next four years…”

    Please explain the mechanism, in a realistic world, that would cause energy costs to come down significantly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Given the quality of journalism in this day and age you can make a good argument that in many if not most instances zero pay is too much.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  11. C. Clavin says:

    @ Mantis…
    Perhaps.
    But just this AM I had a text conversation with a woman I’ve known since back then…who is making 7 figures today.
    It’s not unlike any other field…a few do extremely well…and far more toil for far less.
    I just saw an documentary/propoganda piece on the Eagles…and Don Henley talked about guilt in the early days because he couldn’t understand why he made it and so many of his friends didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t ever.
    Why is Bill O’Reilly (pretend journalist) making gazillions and foreign correspondents (real journalists) make bubkis?
    The world is f’ed up…and it ain’t ever going to change.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Drew says:

    “Gregory gets up in Boehners grill and everyone is suprised. Really? I thought that was his job?”

    And when he finally grew a pair, and once in a lifetime got off his knees and got in Sperling’s grill, everyone was surprised. That’s his job to, not the other kind of job for his Dem pals.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

  13. Mr. Replica says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Gregory gets up in Boehners grill and everyone is suprised. Really? I thought that was his job?

    Everyone knows that when journalists/reporters ask republicans hard hitting questions, those media people are automatically part of the “LSM” and in the tank for Obama. If a reporter asks Obama or other democrats hard hitting questions, they are doing their job. If you get a chance to interview the president you MUST interrupt him every chance you get, or else you did nothing but ask softball questions.

    At least the Bush/Cheney administration had the balls to keep the media and everyone else with a voice in line. Talk bad about them, you are automatically UN-American and you hate freedom. That’s really how it should be in a democracy. I have no idea why Obama just didn’t keep that tradition, too.

    (Then again, Meet the Gregory is kind of ridiculous. He probably smelled the blood in the water around Boehner and realized he could take a bite or two.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  14. MBunge says:

    “Alas, unless you’re a Christopher Hitchens—and there were damned few of those even when Hitchens was alive—it’s next to impossible to make a good living selling freelance journalism.”

    And in that case, it’s not clear what was actually being sold to the editor who paid for the piece… journalism or Hitchens?

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. mantis says:

    @C. Clavin:

    But just this AM I had a text conversation with a woman I’ve known since back then…who is making 7 figures today.

    But she’s been working in the industry for decades, no? I work with TV journalists all the time, and it’s not the same for people starting out, or even folks who have been toiling for years. Not even ten years ago, I used to see crews of three come out for virtually any story. Then it dwindled to just a reporter and a cameraman, and nowadays I occasionally see a poor young reporter carting around and operating the camera him/herself in a crew of one. Newsrooms are shrinking, advancement is more difficult, and jobs for those starting out are extremely scarce. And that’s TV, which is doing better than print news.

    It’s not unlike any other field…a few do extremely well…and far more toil for far less.
    I just saw an documentary/propoganda piece on the Eagles…and Don Henley talked about guilt in the early days because he couldn’t understand why he made it and so many of his friends didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t ever.

    The music business is a good analogy, actually. Those who succeed are very few, and they are either very talented, very lucky, or usually, a mix of both. It’s really not like most other fields. It’s much harder to just get by in that industry (unless you’ve been around a long time), let alone succeed and prosper.

    Why is Bill O’Reilly (pretend journalist) making gazillions and foreign correspondents (real journalists) make bubkis?

    Because O’Reilly just has to sit down and bloviate, and lots of people watch. Real journalism takes time, intelligence, persistence, and resources, and in the end the audience doesn’t even care in enough numbers to make it profitable.

    The world is f’ed up…and it ain’t ever going to change.

    Agreed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  16. @C. Clavin:

    “Real world mechanism to bring energy prices down?”   No problem.

    It’s called increasing supply.  Natural gas prices have plummeted because of.it.
    Maybe, like Obama, some didn’t notice because they don’t pay utility bills. Here is a graph that shows how much.

    http://www.aei-ideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/gas.jpg

    Here’s my blog post on how locally, up north, gasoline prices benefit from the Bakken Oil Fields.

    http://gradyent.blogspot.com/2013/02/yes-we-can.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  17. C. Clavin says:

    Let’s be Free….
    So your one solution is to point to one small sector of energy that has benefited tremendously from fracking…which is a process that is not only environmentally questionable but also depends on high oil costs to be profitable? Typically that is called cherry picking and/or propaganda.
    And your other solution is for everyone to move to North Dakota?
    I would also note that those two things are happening on Obama’s watch…which undermines YOUR ENTIRE premise.
    Let’s be Dumb…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  18. Rick Almeida says:

    @Let’s Be Free:

    In other words, this crooked country won’t report exactly your preferred take on exactly your preferred issues.

    Here’s a hypothesis: there is a small market for your vector of preferences, and it’s saturated. Most people disagree with you, and the market reflects that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  19. @C. Clavin:

    Cliff, where did you learn about propaganda, from your union bosses at the NALC?

    Only someone who has a small mind from sorting and delivering too many letters would think a source of energy that heats most of the homes in this country, heats most of the hot water, that’s taking over in the propulsion of locally and regionally operated trucks and buses, that has thousands of industrial applications, that is rapidly gaining share in electricity generation and that, if the industrial icon of the left Warren Buffett is to be believed, is making making inroads in the propulsion of railroad locomotives, is a small sector of energy.

    While you are talking about dumb, why don’t you let us know wherein your buddy Jon Tester finds the Consititutional right to Saturday Mail delivery.

    Thank you!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  20. ernieyeball says:

    @C. Clavin: (my “I knew them when” list would impress)

    Impress us.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. @Rick Almeida:

    Rick, you can save a lot of keystrokes next time by saying you, Rick, is Sheeple and I, Let’s Be Free, am not.

    Thank you and have a nice day!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  22. Hello World! says:

    I have a friend who runs a real estateblog in his spare time that features 1 story a week. He make 4000.00 permonth because of his ads and hits . It seems to me there could e money in journalism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. wr says:

    @Let’s Be Free: “Rick, you can save a lot of keystrokes next time by saying you, Rick, is Sheeple and I, Let’s Be Free, am not.”

    Yes, because nothing declares you to be an original thinking more than mindlessly repeating one of Rush Limbaugh’s idiot neologisms. “Sheeple.” Oy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. superdestroyer says:

    The same effect occurs on consensus standards committee. In groups like USP, ABR, ANSI, ASTN, IEEE, etc the only people who have the time and inclination to work on standards committees are government employees and college professors. Their day job allows them to have the time and income to work on the committee. People working in the private sector do not have the time nor the income stream to volunteer for standards committees.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. ernieyeball says:

    @wr: When he first hit the syndicated airwaves, one of Brush Lintoff’s blustering edicts was “I’ll tell you what to think!”
    Apparently his acolytes still worship his word.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. grumpy realist says:

    @superdestroyer: Wrong, wrong, wrong. I participated in quite a few standards committees when I was working at a Japanese corporation.

    Look–standards committees get formed by people who are interested and are willing to put the time in. If a corporation is too dumb to realize that it has a wonderful opportunity to get its oar in and allow one of their employees to use part of work time to do standards committee work, then too bad for it. We’re not responsible for fixing their stupidity.

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  27. grumpy realist says:

    (What’s amusing is the very same corporations who couldn’t find the $$ to allow one of their employees to work on a standards committee are the very same corporations who are willing to pay 10 x $$ to a Washington lobbyist down the road to “fix” the fact that they didn’t have any input into the standards committee….)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. superdestroyer says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Yes, I have always found that odd. That a committee on safety will have a ton of government people, a few government contractors (usually from very specific contractors such as Battelle), and a few college profressors. What is usually missing is the private sector because SMEs are paid out of one funding stream and the lobbying are paid out of another.

    The only organizaton that I have worked on that seem to not be dominated by the government/academic world as ASTM.

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  29. Argon says:

    James, Alex Madrigal’s post is being beaten senseless in the comment section. He’s also being ruthlessly and I believe appropriately mocked at The Wonkette. If you’d like to read the thoughts of some professional writers about the subject of being asked to write for free consider John Scalzi’s two posts at Whatever (second post here, and follow links in that post to the original). Basically all these articles laugh at the ‘exposure’ compensation justification. The Wonkette and others in the Madrigal comments correctly note that The Atlantic is a profitable enterprise and fully capable of paying its writers. As Scalzi would indignantly comment, with good reason, ‘F**k you. Pay me.’

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  30. James Joyner says:

    @Argon: But John Scalzi is an extremely well-established author who doesn’t need exposure. Of course he’s not going to write for free.

    Madrigal and I are talking about different things, to a certain extent. He’s talking about getting young, fledgling writers a portfolio of published work for little to no compensation. I’m talking about people who are otherwise salaried who publish outside their institutions for professional reasons. Academics and policy wonks, in particular, do it as a matter of course.

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  31. Argon says:

    James, the author cited in this latest brouhaha is also an established writer. And actually, Scalzi advises less established writers to not give their product away.

    Again, The Atlantic is a profitable business. Its web presence is part of that profitable company. It’s beyond the pale for them to ask writers to give away their work for free. Why not ask editors to forgo pay too, those who could profit from the exposure and experience working at such a well-respected organization? Heck, why did they ever pay Megan McArdle? She would probably have worked for fewer kitchen implements.

    The Atlantic is acting like a skinflint and trying to profit off of writers’ ignorance. Not exactly laudable behavior for a high-class rag.

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