How about zero dollars per word—is zero good for you?

ZERO take 2There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon where a guy is standing in his high-rise office talking on the phone: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?”

I was reminded of this last week when veteran journalist Nate Thayer used his blog to publish an email exchange with an Atlantic editor interested in “repurposing” a piece Thayer had previously written if he would first revise it. For this, she offered the princely sum of . . . nothing.  (By these standards, humorist Calvin Trillin’s editor–the “wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky,with his offers “in the high two figures”–was positively profligate.) Thayer lost no time in registering his outrage.

“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,” wrote Thayer, later noting the irony of having once been offered an Atlantic retainer of $125,000 a year for six articles.

The post quickly went viral, with both supporters and detractors flocking to weigh in. To his fans, Thayer was a hero, finally saying “enough is enough” to ever-more exploitive journalistic overlords. To his critics, Thayer seemed both entitled and unrealistic, foolish in his alienation of the very people who might hire him.

A follow-up piece on—itself an acknowledged user of writers who work for free—used the flap as an object lesson in the ongoing devolution of journalism into a profession largely populated by those with ample resources. “Becoming a successful writer—or journalist or actor or wigmaker—is an ambition that, like pretty much everything else in society, is rigged in numerous ways to favor people who start off with money,” Cord Jefferson trenchantly observed.

Not much disagreement on that score. However, there was plenty about what the ultimate takeaway should be.

“When Thayer was being offered $125k/year I was being offered $140k,” noted my friend Anne, an expat American lawyer, now living in England. “I’d love to be on 2002 rates again—who wouldn’t? But the reality is much different.”

A commenter had this to say:

Maybe they expect people to write for free, because plenty of people are ready and willing to write for free. If you want to make a lot of money, go be an investment banker or start a business or whatever. If you want to write, then do that, but don’t whine about how you’re getting paid squat for doing it. You made your choice.

My friend spends hours upon hours working on his model trains which he displays and are enjoyed by many people who see them. He never once asked to be paid for his efforts. Don’t act like your calling is so much more noble and worthy than his.”

Law—one of my several previous professions (and another that, incidentally, is fast heading towards meltdown)—works by analogy:  Is X more like Y or like Z? In that spirit, I found myself musing over whether a freelance writer is, in fact, similar to a guy who plays with trains. As usual with analogies, I could see the facts both ways. In the pro column: Thayer enjoys writing. He, like the fanatic hobbyist, is doing it because he chooses.  In the con:  Writing is also Thayer’s profession, one he settled on with an eye to making a living at a time when such a plan didn’t seem wildly risky. No, he would likely never be rich. But he’d be paid more than . . . zero.

My favorite legal doctrine–and yes, as a matter of fact, I do know how geeky that sounds–goes by the name of reliance. (I also wrote about it here.) Simply put, if you induce me to “change my position” based on your claim or promise, you can’t later change your mind and just tell me to go away. For example, if you sell me a product to wash my car, I’m entitled to rely on the fact that it will do just that—and without stripping the paint.

Law school exams are called issue spotters. They consist of “fact patterns”—stories of sorts—packed with legal issues that the test taker must first identify then analyze. The world after the Great Recession is filled with tales like Thayer’s, with people whose lives have been upended by new technologies and seismic global changes. They (we) relied on what we knew, on what we were told.  If life were an issue spotter exam, it might pose the following questions: Was this reliance justified? Is there a remedy?

Note: Thanks to my writer friend Amy Rogers who helped me pull that New Yorker cartoon from the recesses of memory.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

19 thoughts on “How about zero dollars per word—is zero good for you?

  1. Great post! Two observations:

    1. Thayer was right to reject the offer of zero, but rather than reply in conventional fashion as he did, I think he should have responded in a more ironically dismissive way. Had he done so, his reply would have gone even more viral than it actually did. More important, it would have suggested a solution, a model, that the legions other professionals facing the same dilemma could follow.
    I am thinking something along the lines of this: “I appreciate your offer to help you repurpose my previously published article. As a starting point for concluding an agreement, I have attached a copy of Atlantic’s past offer to me dated xx/xx/xxxx, of a $125,000 retainer for six articles over the course of one year. Because I normally budget 150 to 250 hours of work per article, taking the midpoint of that range works out to an average hourly rate of $104. In recognition of our past mutually beneficial relationship, I am willing to adjust that hourly rate from year xxxx at an annual compounded rate based on the CPI, rather than using some more realistic gauge of how much my living costs have actually increased over that period. After the inflation adjustment, I will perform the requested edits for an hourly rate of $140. I have attached a sample contract containing my standard terms and conditions, and stating that I am to be compensated at the above hourly rate; a copy of this communication is being forwarded to the Editor-In-Chief.”

    2. Amy, in my opinion you were far too kind to the Gawker commentator’s viewpoint that professional journalism is economically no different from a hobby like collecting model trains.
    On the one hand, I admire your willingness (doubtless a product of your legal training) to seriously consider all points of view, no matter how baseless and ignorant they are. On the other hand, giving the Gawker commentator’s opinion the respect you gave it can do more harm than good – it’s a little like the NY Times drawing a moral equivalence between a mother and babies murdered by a teenage suicide bomber, and the bomber himself. You aren’t the Gawker writer’s parent, teacher or therapist; so you have no duty to listen and respond with sympathy.
    The right response, to my mind, would be to briefly refer to the historic role of the press in advancing American society, and the First Amendment’s special recognition of it. Then maybe illustrate the point with a recent example or two (probably fairly easy to find) of amateur “citizen journalists” screwing up an important story with human-life or public-policy implications, where real journalists got the same story right (and at roughly the same time). The point is: anyone who expresses an opinion like the Gawker writer’s, probably either never attended college, or else was drunk or stoned in all the classes they sat through and never opened a book. That point, too, should be expressed as part of a constructive response to the Gawker piece.

  2. It may be enlightening for some to check out Dan Miller’s boo, “48 Days to te Work You Love.” He makes the point – and he’s probably not the first – that the Industrial Age brought in an era when people were paid for the number of hours worked. But that model is somewhat unusual, and what were returning to is the model that’s prevailed through most of history: People are paid for RESULTS. So if Mr. Thayer’s writing is good and I’d assume it’ is if he’s been published in the Atlantic – then he should be paid; how much is simply a matter of negotiations. (One thought: Perhaps the editor was giving hi the option of editing his work before allowing an in-house editor have at it…. Either than, or it’s an editor who’s simply trying to take advantage of the shifting marketplace and the anxiety it ay produce in writer.)

  3. I tell people asking me to write for free that “exposure” is what people die of in winter and that I write for money.

  4. As much as I agree with Mr. Thayer’s right to be outraged by this, I would also suggest that we should recognize that it is the individuals at the lowest end of the economic ladder who are suffering the most from this same dynamic of unreasonably high expectations rewarded by unreasonably low returns.

    Just this week, for example, I spoke with an extended family member, who is in his mid-twenties and has no college degree, who lamented to me that during the past one week he had once been turned away from his job upon arrival for his shift (a machinery breakdown that caused a closing for the day, but nobody bothered to call him even though the closing was known about far ahead of his arrival) and twice sent home after half of his scheduled shift (at half the pay of course). With no good prospects for a better job at the moment, he simply accepts this.

    I know other part-time, minimum wage employees who are expected to come into work upon short notice whenever called. They likewise tolerate this because they have no other certain employment opportunities. They further know that if they don’t cooperate with such expectations that their employer can readily fire them and replace them with someone who will meet those expectations. This makes it impossible for them to work and go to college at the same time in an effort to move themselves up the economic ladder. But how dare anyone point out that such expectations for employment essentially violate a sense of right and wrong or fairness. They should just be thankful to have a job…right?

    How often do we hear criticism of the raising of the Federal Minimum wage? This is often accompanied by the argument that we are really just hurting the people at the lower end of the income scale…because they deserve the right to work full-time and still earn far less money than is needed to purchase the most basic shelter and food.

  5. I think the context is what was key here — the insanely lucrative previous job Thayer was offered previously at the same publication, contrasted with — why don’t you do some editing for us free.

    It was a reprint, not asking him to write a 2000-word feature gratis or something, so I think his reaction is a tad overblown…but I understand it.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Carol! Not sure if you saw, but you got a shout-out from me in a comment below. I also just recommended Blast-off to a reader seeking to put her freelance writing on a more solid track.

  6. Two thoughts on this. First, the model train analogy is annoying because it assumes that the only distinction to be made is whether you can or cannot write. If that were the case, then there would be no recognizable difference between a first grader and John Updike. But there is a difference, so let’s not pretend there is no such thing as good writing that is worth paying for.

    Second, I’m concerned that in the current economy, the value of certain kinds of labor is approaching zero, and one reason is that there are so many people willing to work for free that there’s no incentive to pay. People are desperate, and hope to get exposure in return for volunteering their time and effort (especially young people). But the longer we price our effort at $0, the more likely that price will become the new normal. We can’t all have in-demand skills like software engineering, but hopefully if we hold out for compensation, we might see some. Eventually.

    • Hey Matthew! Thanks for your–as always–thoughtful and insightful comments. And so great to see your blog up and going! I just shared it on the Plan B Nation Facebook page.

  7. I can relate to Thayer’s outrage. He deserved to be paid for a reprint of work he had created originally for pay. Photographers expect the same (and that’s another problem on the Internet, particularly). What’s more, the editor wanted it revised. More work, more pay. And if he’s a paid writer who gets reactions and feedback and dare I suggest, adoration, from his hungry audience — that’s marketable too. Yes, everybody writes. More accurately, blogs. (As a verb, yes.) And blogging is not the same as writing, IMHO. And displaying model trains is in no way similar to writing! It is similar to blogging though. And therein lies the difference: one is a craft and one is a hobby. It’s true no one pays that guy for the sheer joy he brings with his train displays; but as a backyard astronomer, I’m not expecting NASA to cut me a check any time soon either. And just because “plenty of people are ready and willing” to write doesn’t mean they are ready and ABLE to write compellingly.

    • It isn’t even as simple as wanting to reprint it. They wanted him to edit it it. They wanted him to do unpaid work.

      The simple answer is “no.”

  8. I think what needs to be distinguished here is the fact that a large percentage of writers are professionals. Many have graduate degrees in journalism or creative writing, and spend years perfecting their craft. The internet has changed everything. Everyone who is not a writer, suddenly is a writer and willing to do it for free or pennies. This is what the NWU is fighting for every day. Look at Ms. Huffington – she’s made millions off of free labor from writers. More writers need to respond like Mr. Nayer. I have done the same, even though I have never come close to his $125,000 retainer. Also, writers need to be careful with their copyrights. Don’t sign a contract unless you understand what you are giving away. Just say “no” – you’ll feel better -and find a publication that values your work.

    • Thanks, Nina — and the point about the rights resonates. In addition to what you say, it’s important to be aware that keeping the copyright may not mean very much if you’ve given away digital rights. (Try selling a book when you don’t own the digital rights.) I had a major media outlet attempt to reassure me that I shouldn’t worry about what they were asking me to sign away since I would retain the copyright–having practiced law in that area, I luckily knew that wasn’t the case.

  9. There are times when it’s fine to write for free, however I side with Mr. Thayer in this instance. I advise writers to go ahead and write for free when and if they see a real value in doing so: for example, starting a blog to develop expertise in a subject they want to write about for $ in the future, or to attract readers to a blog, as I’ve done myself with The Atlantic. However, the difference between us is I approached the Atlantic, eyes wide open, with the goal of attracting readers to one of my blogs (which paid off). In Thayer’s case, the Atlantic came to him, using the tired old “exposure for payment” offer to get something *they* wanted. Pay up, boys.

    As for the Gawker commenter who said his friend likes to work on trains and HE doesn’t expect payment so why should someone who likes to write expect to be paid? Ah, so I get it now: my father, who’s a chemist, loves chemistry — therefore, he should test municipal water supplies for free. And my husband, a brilliant MIT-trained computer scientist loves writing code. So hey, rather than bring home a paycheck every week, he should just donate his code to the well-funded Cambridge startup that hired him. My mechanic? Loves working on cars! Next time I bring my car over I’ll ask him for an oil-change on the house, and tell him I’ll tell all my friends he gives the best lubes. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled with the exposure.

    For almost 15 years, I’ve filed something called a Schedule C with the IRS, where I declare the income I’ve made, as well as the tax-deductible expenses I’ve incurred, for my job. Yes, that’s right … in the eyes of the IRS, my freelance writing is a job, not a hobby. Last I checked, the Schedule C doesn’t include a checkbox that asks me if I enjoy my work.

    • There’s no “LIke” button on this blog.

      Diana – Consider this a [LIKE] for your comment.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Diana! By the way, I’m a Renegade Writer fan–I have a copy of your Query Letters that Rocked packet from a class I did with your partner Linda Formichelli and Carol Tice.

Comments are closed.