Most journalists take pride in championing the underdog, exposing injustice and fighting exploitation. But when it comes to their own working conditions many are curiously submissive, accepting high stress and low wages as the inevitable by-product of their trade. Which is why Nate Thayer’s tirade against the Atlantic Magazine Tuesday was all the more exceptional.
When award-winning journalist Thayer had the temerity to ask about the word count, deadline and fees for rejigging an article on North Korean basketball diplomacy following a request from the Atlantic, the magazine’s Global Editor Olga Khazan wrote:
“1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month.”
In a post on his blog entitled ‘A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist – 2013’ Thayer 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.”
His comments sparked a much-needed debate on how much – if anything – freelance journalists should get paid for their work, with Thayer’s blog attracting over 100,000 views and the Atlantic simultaneously expressing regret while blasting Thayer for having the cheek to publish private e-mails.
Having worked as a freelance journalist for over a decade, the issue is close to my heart – and even closer to my pocket. I vividly remember the nauseous feeling on losing a lucrative gig with UPI that quickly plunged me into debt and left me wondering how I was going to pay my mortgage and put food on my kids’ table. One of the offers I had shortly after this thunderbolt was from a national UK newspaper that wondered if I’d like to be their Brussels stringer for a hundred or so pounds per published article – on condition I was permanently on call should a story break. I said I’d think about it. I did – for about as long as it takes to say ‘you have got to be kidding’.
There is no doubt that making a decent living as a freelance journalist – as opposed to a freelance hack-for-hire or PR peddler – is hard. And it is getting harder as revenues are slashed, freelance budgets are cut and editors demand writers work for free in return for ‘exposure’. But journalists have not helped matters by accepting this Faustian pact in order to build their brand, boost their ego or bolster their clippings portfolio. If you are unsure about how uniquely stupid and self-defeating journalists have been in agreeing to this modern-day form of slavery, the next time you need work done on your house try asking the builder if he wouldn’t mind working for free for a couple of days. If the response is not ‘go fuck yourself’ then you have probably found a builder who used to be a journalist before he was laid off.
Now most freelancers will occasionally work for free if the cause is right or the temptation of getting published is too strong. I occasionally write a blog about European affairs for an online publication about the EU because it’s a healthier way of expressing myself than ranting on Twitter or writing anonymous comments in capital letters on blogs. I don’t get paid but there again I don’t need to. I’m not a freelance writer anymore and earn a steady income as a journalism lecturer.
And here we get to the crux of the issue. If you are a full-time politician or think-tanker, lobbyist or academic there is no earthly reason why you should get paid for voicing your opinions. That is your job and you get paid for it. But if you are a freelance journalist who makes a living from writing and have penned a well-sourced piece drawing on your contacts, experience and balanced judgement – as Thayer did about North Korea – then you should be rewarded for your efforts. Anything else is exploitation of the most cynical kind – especially when publishers and shareholders are often reaping handsome profits from the unpaid work of others.
Of course, opinionated blogs written by amateur blowhards are different from polished pieces by professional journalists, right? Wrong. In my short career as a fledgling journalism lecturer I have lost count of the number of times I have heard a speaker declare “we are all journalists now.”
What these new media missionaries mean is that because everyone can now create content and build audiences online they are essentially the same as journalists. This reasoning has the fatal flaw of confusing tools with skills. I don’t call myself a mechanic because I can change the oil in my car engine. I don’t have the gumption to describe myself as a chef because I can knock up a decent salmon ceviche. And I certainly don’t qualify as a doctor just because I can diagnose my daughter with a fever when her temperature hits a hundred. So the next time someone calls herself a journalist because she writes an occasional blog about cupcakes or sounds off about Obama’s birth certificate on a TV gabfest, take it with a huge pinch of salt.
Of course, this begs the question ‘what is a journalist?’ Fortunately, real journalists know what they do and why they do it. The public also have a fair idea who journalists are – even if it is based on movie images of dodgy hacks in dirty trench coats thrusting microphones in people’s faces. Even those who dabble in journalism – whether doing pseudo-reporting for NGOs or editing annual reports for multinational companies – know in their heart of hearts they are nor real journalists but editors, spinners, educators or just ordinary folk expressing themselves. In fact the the only people who seem perplexed by the question ‘what is a journalist?’ are journalism professors at conferences with titles like ‘Social Media 3.0’ or ‘Whither the Newspaper?’
Everybody has a different definition of what a journalist is – or should be. Some believe it is the duty of reporters to shine light in dark places and hold truth to power – although try telling that to the 24 ‘Sun’ newspaper reporters on bail for allegedly paying police officers for stories. To me, most of these more prosaic definitions ignore the simple fact that journalism is a job that people do for money as well as love – or as the fridge magnet I bought in Washington D.C.’s Newseum put it: “Will write for Food.” In Belgium, where I live, you have to prove that you earn most of your income from journalism to receive a press card and the few benefits this brings. It is a simple definition – and one likely to offend free press fundamentalists who believe reporters should not be corralled in any way – but it seems to me a sensible way of differentiating between professional journalists and those who claim to be, want to be or pretend to be.
The discussion about ‘what is a journalist’ may seem better suited for a J-school lecture but it matters in the real world – because if everyone is a journalist, nobody is. If editors don’t see any difference between amateur bloggers and professional writers, and refuse to pay either for their work, then freelance journalism is dead. And it means that the public will trust journalists even less – because they will have no way of knowing whether the article they are reading is the work of a spin-doctor masquerading as a reporter, a blogger letting off steam or a professional journalist they can rely on.