March 06, 2013

#AtlanticMonthly: The sorry state of "big-brand" magazine journalism

So, the "global editor" at Atlantic Monthly (a likely inflated, definitely pretentiosu, title), Olga Khazan, emails a freelancer, Mate Thayer, with some decent high-level track wrecord as a writer, and asks him to reword a previously-published, 4,000-word piece, into 1,200 words, for the Atlantic, and do it for free.

Because it's all about the exposure, and Atlantic is offering so much of that.
We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.
To a guy who got paid, however much, for originally doing this as a 4,000-word story. And, as I said, has a track record:
I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.
How do we know this? Thayer blogged about the issue, including posting an exchange of emails, which is where the info above comes from.

That, in turn, got the panties of Atlantic Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal in a knot. He takes about 1,200 words himself to bemoan his parlous situation, kick Thayer in the nuts adn at least partially throw Khazan under the bus.

Nice trifecta, Alex.

Here's a few thoughts of my own, taken from comments to that post.

Nate's response wasn't nasty at all. The only problem was that Nate didn't cc it higher up the Atlantic food chain. Oh, and he wasn't asked to write for peanuts, but literally nothing.

Otherwise, the real "answer" is stop asking people to write for "exposure" in the first place if you have a good idea they won't. Maybe somebody from Demand is that desperate, though.

Also, even if Khazan is new to the Atlantic, she didn't come up with that idea out of the blue. Either she's done that elsewhere, or that's been SOP at the Atlantic before her. If the latter, look in the mirror, Alex. If the former, you  all hired her probably knowing that.

And Madrigal strikes me as being like Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias and other Brat Pack types. They collectively illustrate the huge power of luck; secondarily, some of them, individually, illustrate the Peter Principle. The semi-incestuous mix of smug and self-congratulatory goes with the territory.

If this is what Harvard-grad, Beltway-to-NYC-axis journalism is becoming, I hope the death it dies is slow and painful for the Alex Madrigals of the world. Because at some point, your libertarian Yglesias and Klein friends will give you the cold shoulder when you fail, too. Hell, even Clay Shirky thinks you have collectively screwed the pooch on this one.

And, speaking of, Olga Khazan? Unless you're giving Madrigal or somebody higher up blowjobs under the Atlantic coffee table, I'd advise you to get out now.

Update: Add Felix Salmon to the douchebag list:
The point of my piece is that the concept of "a writer" is becoming increasingly outdated. As Choire and Alex know, digital journalism is about so much more than just writing. But they do have this model where they solicit contributions from writers, and then do all the rest of the work themselves. I think Rob has much the same model. It's digital, but it has one foot in the old world of writers write, editors edit, etc. It's an interesting intermediate step. ... 

For people who don't need to pay rent from their freelance writing income, I'm a fan of paying in things like boozy lunches or cases of wine. It costs less and means more.

And, that Branch, where Salmon posted? Beyond the bullshit about paying people in booze, it seems like a more incestuous, more insider version of G+ or something. If people just stop fucking reading mags that primarily rely on such incestuous insiders, maybe they'll all die slow, painful deaths.

Anyway, this isn't only true of fancy-pants magazines. Smaller magazines, newspapers, etc., especially for online content, are trying to get more and more people to do more and more stuff for free.

And, it's clearly moved to the book-publishing world

In fact, John Scalzi addresses critics, claiming that he's trying to diss e-book publishing, by saying publishing houses have been pushing shite business models for decades.

And, beyond newspapers, that's happening more and more in America in general. 

Update 2: Ezra Kelin's also on the douche list. Again, just shock me, since I named him above. Thayer's reply to Atlantic also got Erza Klein's knickers in a knot.

Charles Pierce gives the likes of him a royal smackdown.
Ezra, dude, all of journalism is not the op-ed page. Most of the people you cite above couldn't cover a one-car fatal on 128 on a Sunday night. Somebody has to do the grunt work that involves calling the cops or the coroner, or the drunk high-school baseball coach, and not whoever is on call at the Center For American Progress that day.
It gets better, though!
I can assure you, Ezra, that out there in the wide world of journalism, reporters are now being required to do entirely too much work for free — whether that's Tweeting or uploading video or whatever else is demanded to fill the other "platforms" with "content"  — and they're being made to do it because their union protection is down to next to nothing, and because their benefits packages were (at best) gutted and (at worst) looted, and because the people who own the media companies know they have the whip hand on their employees as surely as the people at Hormel know it. I may not have a Wonk Blog, but I know how wages get suppressed, and why. And whatever happens at the upper levels of an industry invariably happens ten-fold at the lower levels, and that's only part of the reason why The Atlantic can go fk itself.

Meanwhile, being a Brat Pack libertarian means getting others to work for "exposure" so you can drop 1.2 million large on some exclusive Beltway digs, like Yglesias. 

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