Few topics are as potentially toxic as the question of how one gets paid for creative work in the digital economy.
This week has seen the latest round of recriminations on this topic following Nate Thayer’s posting of correspondence with The Atlantic, in which he was invited to edit a previously published 4,300 word article down to 1,200 words for no pay. Thayer’s post went viral, attracted more than 100,000 views on his blog, sparked widespread social media debate, and led to an apology from The Atlantic.
As someone who writes, lectures and produces freelance, I have a personal interest in these questions. I’m regularly asked to work for free. Only this week I was invited to present a new keynote lecture to the annual meeting of a European organisation, something that would have taken at least three days to prepare and required two days of travel, yet there was to be no recompense beyond the necessary economy flight and overnight hotel stay. Needless to say, in the absence of any other perceived benefits, this invitation was respectfully declined.
As much as examples like this invitation and Thayer’s experience invite a moralising response, we learn little about how the new media economy works through venting our disgust. Instead we need to probe deeper into what such moments reveal about the cultural economics of our current moment.
To that end, in repsonse to Thayer’s post, Reuters’ Felix Salmon detailed the new dynamics of online journalism, showing that while there are good digital journalism jobs available, overall the structure of publishing online means “the web is not a freelancer-friendly place.” Alexis Madrigal’s impassioned defense of The Atlantic editor’s perspective also revealed how an online operation differs from (often misplaced) assumptions about the good old days of print magazines. And paidContent’s Matthew Ingram spelt out how the almost infinite supply of quality writing available at no direct cost means few people are going to make a living directly by submitting work to traditional outlets.
This doesn’t mean that people don’t value good writing, or that there aren’t successful new publishing outlets, like Marco Arment’s The Magazine, which is digital only (and a testament to simple design), runs no ads, pays its contributors, and is already turning a handy profit.
What this latest debate shows is that in the context of infinite supply, creative practitioners will rarely be remunerated directly for their work, regardless of whether that work is in the form of words or images. Instead, as I’ve long argued, the dynamics of the new media economy means those of us working independently will have to be compensated indirectly from diverse sources. We all have bills to pay, but we may not get the money to do so from the words we write or the pictures we produce, but from value created around those words and/or pictures. Above all else, we have to forgo the easy moral outrage and develop a more sophisticated understanding of the role ‘free’ plays in relation to paid in a structurally open system like the internet. Creative experimentation is the order of the day. I know personally how hard this is, but it is now unavoidable.
Photo credit: Rebecca L. Daily/Flickr