The new economics of media: If you want free content, there’s an almost infinite supply

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Writer Nate Thayer set off the media equivalent of a fragmentation grenade on Tuesday, with a lament about the state of freelance writing that sent virtual shrapnel flying in all directions. The main target of his ire was The Atlantic, which he says asked him to rewrite one of his pieces and offered to pay him nothing — and this was seen by many as a symbol of the parlous state of online writing, not to mention the general decline of the media. Is that fair? Not really. But there’s no question the economics of content have changed.

The article that The Atlantic wanted Thayer to repurpose was a long feature about how the relationship between North Korea and the U.S. revolves around basketball, pegged to a recent trip by American basketball star Dennis Rodman. Olga Khazan, a relatively recent addition to the Atlantic‘s editorial staff, sent an email asking Thayer to submit a shorter version for the magazine, and when the writer asked how much the Atlantic was prepared to pay, the editor said zero — but offered exposure as an inducement:

“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.”

The economics of writing have changed

Needless to say, Thayer was a little offended at this, as he describes on his blog (he also provided a somewhat more colorful response to New York magazine). For Thayer, and for many who responded both on his blog post and on Twitter, this was just another sign of how far the media have fallen, and how little people value good writing. Eventually, the Atlantic‘s editor-in-chief apologized for offending the writer, saying the case was “unusual,” and that all the editor was trying to do was help Thayer’s work find a larger audience.

Felix Salmon tried to analyze what happened to Thayer in a blog post at Reuters, and came to the conclusion that freelancing is a lot harder to make a living at than it used to be — in part because online media works in such a way that having staff writers is a lot more efficient than using outside contributors. But I think he missed the most important aspect of what Thayer’s treatment says about the practice of writing now, and the economics of digital media (writer and editor Jane Friedman has a good overview of the issues).

In some ways, it’s odd that the Atlantic would even bother to ask Thayer for permission to run a condensed version of his piece: many outlets would have simply excerpted large chunks of it with links back to Thayer’s original — the way that GlobalPost did — since that costs nothing and achieves virtually the exact same thing (Thayer even mentions this possibility in his blog post). Whether you believe this is right or wrong, it arguably serves a purpose in the media ecosystem. And we are more or less stuck with it, whether you like it or not.

Some will always be willing to work for free

As former YouTube staffer Hunter Walk pointed out on Twitter, and Matt Yglesias noted at Slate, there is no shortage of free writing out there — in fact, the supply of free writing is theoretically infinite, since there will always be people who want to write and are willing to be compensated in other ways: by broadening their reach, enhancing their reputation, etc. This is why new publishing platforms like Medium and Svbtle are having some success, not to mention the rapidly expanding LinkedIn “Influencers” program.

This same process was famously — or infamously — also the foundation of The Huffington Post, and sparked a huge amount of controversy about that company’s practice of not paying its bloggers. As a number of people pointed out at the time (including me), there will always be people who want to write for free, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unless, of course, you are one of those writers who used to profit from the lack of marketplace competition.

When it comes to things like media, your real competition isn’t the product that is better than you, but the one that is good enough to satisfy your customers — and if readers are happy to patronize media outlets that use writing they got for free, or writing they have aggregated and excerpted, there is precious little that freelance writers or any of us can do about it. Our only option, as a number of commenters at Hacker News pointed out, is to make it clear that we want better quality writing by actually paying for and/or clicking on it.

The part that Thayer and his supporters aren’t talking about is how much easier it is for writers of all kinds to make a living if they want to — not by submitting their work to a handful of traditional outlets, but by turning it into e-books and Byliner singles and other formats, something that has expanded the field of writing more than just about anything since the printing press. Are there new economics for writing? Yes. Are they unrelentingly evil and negative? No.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / patpitchaya and Poynter

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