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Someone has to pay for ‘free’ journalism

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People who make their living by writing for publication had good reason to follow the recent hoo-hah over publishers who think paying writers for their work is optional.

What happened was that The Atlantic Magazine, a marquee name in the world of words, approached a well-established freelancer named Nate Thayer and asked him about "repurposing" work he’d done for an online site, The Atlantic was interested in a 1,200-word rendering of a longer article of Thayer’s pegged to ex-basketball star Dennis Rodman’s bizarre visit to North Korea.

When Thayer asked about terms, the magazine indicated it wasn’t proposing to actually pay him, at least not in cash money, but noted that its website reached 13 million readers per month, suggesting that exposure on that scale is worth a lot.

Thayer wasn’t persuaded. He replied: "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."

Word of the affair zipped around the Internet, triggering a flood of comment. The Atlantic apologized "if we offended him" — the way institutions apologize without contrition — and in the aftermath, dozens of other journalists chipped in their own tales of the wretched treatment and soup-kitchen pay they get, even from flourishing websites.

(It’s not much consolation to point out that for the most part, they still get something, unlike, say, professors. The latest indignity from publishers of academic journals, it seems, is to make writers pay them to have articles posted online. For junior-college faculty — who need not only to publish but to be cited by other scholars in order to qualify for advancement — the threat of being kept offline is like having their careers held for ransom. And incidentally, they get no money from print publication either. Not a dime.)

Getting back to the Thayer affair, the arguments over rights and wrongs pivoted on fairness, on the demise of professionalism, on the benefits of a higher profile, on the long-term consequences of underpayment on the volume and quality of significant journalism.

But I want to drag another consideration into the foreground: If the publications aren’t paying for the journalism they publish, who is?

I mean, all labour incurs costs. Somewhere in our marvelous market system, those costs are being covered. Somebody’s paying to feed Nate Thayer’s kids, even if The Atlantic won’t.

So we meet, once again, the insidious problem of hidden subsidy, one of the most perplexing ethical problems of journalism in the Internet age.

True, undisclosed subsidy is a long-standing issue. It popped up in the op-ed pages of traditional newspapers. There, articles written by outsiders for little or no pay offered policy perspectives under the guise of expert analysis, when they actually were sponsored by clients and paymasters who were rarely identified (and often weren’t even known).

The arrangement opens vast areas of potential corruption. But now, with the continuing failure of online advertising and subscription payments to replace declining offline revenues, publishers have quietly installed invisible subsidy as a routine, and unacknowledged, element of their operations.

Those writers who are being denied a fair wage for their work — who’s paying their rent? Someone is. They’re making money from somewhere. And it’s that money that gives them the wherewithal to produce the journalism they’re not being paid enough for.

So which of their stories are thank-you’s to previous clients, or concessions to existing ones, or auditions for work they hope to get in the future? Those are questions about ethics, but, more important, they are acknowledgements of the reality these freelancers are trying to negotiate.

And they’re questions that force onto center stage a fundamental problem that won’t be set right until the people who are being served — that’s you — start paying for what they get. The readers and viewers who benefit from the news and commentary they devour need to pick up the tab, instead of letting themselves be beguiled by the fiction that such work is "free," or is magically proffered by invisible benefactors with no agendas of their own.

There are bills that have to be paid. The reality is, one way or another we end up paying. We can pay with money, and some outlets are inviting people to do just that.

The alternative is to pay through a continuing decline in the quality and trustworthiness of the content we get. That’s the invisible cost we’re all bearing right now.


Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.


—The Miami Herald

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