Yesterday, the Twittersphere was lit aflame — as the Twittersphere is wont to be — over the Atlantic’s attempts to republish an article by Nate Thayer.
Despite wanting Thayer to edit his original 4,000 word piece down to 1,200 words, an editor from the publication explained that the Atlantic was unable to pay him a dime. (This coming from a magazine with circulation of 482,267, and which hosts a sold-out, $2,800-a-ticket conference in Aspen.) In response, Thayer published his correspondence with the editor on his blog, making him an instant hero to underpaid hacks everywhere.
Putting aside the fact that Thayer completely missed his target — kneecapping a newly hired, mid-level editor at the Atlantic for not having a large enough freelance budget to pay for pieces, rather than her bosses who actually control the budget — the resulting debate is an interesting one.
Earlier today, the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal jumped right in, defending his colleague (see how that’s done, The Onion?) and his magazine, explaining how the Internet has further crushed the economics of publishing and laying down a challenge for anyone who “can show me a way that this can be reversed for a large general-interest magazine.”
Ok, I’ll take a swing.
First, though, to get to the meat of this debate, we have to chew through the fat of why journalists need to get paid.
For one thing: Let’s lay to rest the notion that payment equals pro. A professional writer is a professional writer, no matter whether he’s being paid or not. Likewise, you can throw money at an amateur, and he’ll always be an amateur. The reason professional journalists need to be paid is not because money somehow magically makes them better at their job, but because real journalism is their job. The fact that some pros maintain their own blogs, or occasionally write stuff for free is utterly irrelevant to the argument.
Journalism, as a job, takes far more than 40 hours a week. In fact, paycheck or not, a professional reporter never stops working: building their network of sources, traveling, doing hours of background research, chasing down additional leads and sources — then writing, rewriting, and writing again. And that’s before the time-sucking editorial process required to turn a solid story into a world-changing one. None of that is conducive to holding down a job at Starbucks or delivering mail to pay the rent.
At NSFWCORP, we pay our writers — and pay them well, including expense accounts and health benefits for full-time employees and an average of $1 a word for freelancers. We have just launched a book publishing arm (ebooks and print) which pays authors a ridiculous 90 percent royalty on first month sales (80-50 percent thereafter) in order to encourage writers to publish their books with us too, as opposed to a major publishing house, or via self publishing.
“Many aspects of NSFW[CORP]’s model reflect a desire to put the writer first.” – Jeff Bercovici, Forbes
We do this not because we’re benevolent, but because we’re selfish. I want our writers spending all of their time writing for us. When they get a scoop, I want it on our pages. When they write a book, I want us to publish it. Paying good salaries goes a good way towards ensuring that.
Also frequently lost in the debate are all the other bills that need to be paid to maintain a professional journalistic organization. Bills like…
Support staff and infrastructure
Real journalism requires a surprisingly large support team. Editors and fact-checkers and editorial assistants and (paid!) interns, obviously. But also lawyers and accountants and designers and developers and cleaners. Laptops don’t come cheap in large numbers, nor do desks or audio studios or real estate. And if you’re expecting people to work 21 hour days, a pool table becomes an essential service.
Travel and other reporting expenses
Real journalism means leaving the house. At NSFWCORP, that’s not just a motivational poster, it’s a rule. Prior to last year’s US election, we relocated Senior Editor Mark Ames to a fortified compound in Salt Lake City for two months in order to figure out what life would be like under America’s first Mormon president. His expense tab began from the moment he bought a Mustang from a woman he met on the flight in. Around the same time, we sent Josh Ellis to Juarez to have his teeth ripped out in Mexico’s most notorious border town, and Yasha Levine to track down American drones in the middle of the desert. Looking at our editorial budget spreadsheet — which I always have open in a window somewhere — in February, we spent an average of $1,000 per editorial head on travel, not including additional expenses.
Training and mentorship
Journalism school rarely makes journalists. But for many talented young reporters, it’s the only type of training available to them, unless being given the login to a blog and being assaulted daily by commenters telling them how stupid they are counts as “training.” It’s not a coincidence that most of NSFWCORP’s reporters are either ancient (by which I mean over 35) or straight out of college. There’s an entire generation of writers who have been taught that SEO-grabbing journojism, spread out over 100 posts a week, is what’s required to make it in media. That takes time to undo, and it requires a proper (paid) training program to avoid. At NSFWCORP we hire talented kids as interns and editorial assistants, and then pay them to learn from the cynical old hacks who stalk our halls. (Those cynical old hacks get help with education too: in the form of a weekly Amazon book budget, Lexis Nexis access for all editorial staff and Kindles on every surface.)
These are just some of the costs of doing real reporting. Citizen journalism can be done on a shoestring — there’ll always be an Iraqi with a laptop or a junior soldier with a memory stick full of low-level secrets — but it isn’t sustainable, and often simply doesn’t work. Even crowd champion Julian Assange knew this, which is why he partnered with the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel to actually make sense of his Wikileaks trove.
The Atlantic understands this too. That’s why it pays its stars a small fortune to write features (editor David Bradley lured Jeffrey Goldberg by sending him a pony, and once-upon-a-time Nate Thayer himself was offered $125,000 to write six pieces for magazine). And that’s why, to fill its pages without becoming a total Business Insider clone, Atlantic editors are forced to combine three models: 1) convincing their print stars to throw a bone or two online each week, 2) having editors and writers do rewrites and link-outs to interesting stuff they’ve found elsewhere, and 3) finding great writers who have already been paid by other publications and hoping they’ll allow the Atlantic to republish for cheap or free.
Which brings me to Alexis Madrigal’s challenge.
Madrigal is right to say that, even if the Atlantic wanted to pay everyone who contributes to the site, it couldn’t afford to do so. Advertising-supported sites like the Atlantic are trapped in a nightmare of their own making: reliant on delivering millions of page views to shift huge amounts of ad inventory which at best barely covers the cost of production.
It’s not just the Atlantic. Over on Slate, Matthew Yglesias has a telling line about the realities facing online general interest magazines in his contribution to the Nate Thayer brouhaha:
I love writing, and would definitely write blog posts even if nobody paid me to do it and I had to go get some other job. But would I do it every day? Would I think as hard about SEO lines? Would I make sure to get up early to have timely commentary on BLS Employment Situation Reports? Obviously not.
“Would I think as hard about SEO lines?”
Yglesias is one of Slate’s better-paid contributors (the hyphen is important) but even he is expected — contractually required, perhaps — to “think… hard about SEO lines.” He understands that his only hope of keeping a paycheck is to keep driving pageviews by, say, using linkbait-y headlines like “People Writing for Free on the Internet Is an Enormous Boon to Society” and bashing out trollish blog posts in response to trending scandals. That’s not journalism in any sense that doesn’t make me want to eat glass.
Ad-supported current affairs journalism is just a horrible, thankless game. The number of page views you have to drive to escape the curse of belly fat ads would barely fit on the screen of a pocket calculator. There is no universe in which it’s possible to maintain a site like the Atlantic or Forbes or HuffPost or, increasingly, Slate or Salon without falling back on linkbait blogging and cheap or free syndication.
But here’s the good news. In less than a decade, this state of affairs will have finished shaking out, leaving behind two very distinct categories of media company.
On one side there’ll be the ad supported sites like the HuffPost, Buzzfeed, the Daily Mail, and Forbes who have embraced their role as aggregators, choppers, and filterers out of other people’s work. There will be far fewer of these sites than there are now, but those that remain will be highly profitable, fantastically soul-destroying places to work.
On the other side will be the publications which have figured out a way to pay for all of those real costs of journalism I listed above. They’ll have combined a variety of business models to allow them to run almost entirely ad-free, funded in large part by readers. The New York Times will likely be one of those companies. The New Yorker will be. And so will a handful of startups. This group will be significantly less profitable than the content farms (who will constantly try to acquire them), but their comparative poverty will be offset by prizes, and employees who can look their friends in the eye.
At NSFWCORP we fully intend to be part of that latter group — but it won’t be easy. Lacking the war chest of more established publications, we’re having to innovate every aspect of our business that doesn’t involve compromising our commitment to journalists, infrastructure, and training. We’re doubling down on a paid subscription strategy, while expanding our reach by creating ways for subscribers to unlock content for social sharing. We’re constantly expanding on to new platforms (print!) so that the costs of journalism are spread across a number of revenue streams. A single reporting trip might be spread across a series of audio reports, three or four weekly online Dispatches and then a print feature / ebook. (Inevitably, though, some reporting trips end up with no story at all. And that’s okay too.)
We’re happy to work with publications on the other side of the aisle too. For $150 a month, aggregators and page view driven sites can republish up to three of our Dispatches a month, including our custom art. They also get unlimited unlocks for anything else they want to share. If those fuckers are desperate for cheap, brilliant “content,” we’ll gladly sell it to them.
Next week, to coincide with the Print Edition, we’re announcing a whole load of other features designed to improve the NSFWCORP experience for subscribers, while also piling more money on to our bottom line. If we continue to grow at current levels we’ll break even at the end of the year.
AND YET, AND YET.
None of this guarantees success. After we announced the Print Edition, lots of usually cynical editors and journalists Tweeted us as an example of a business that’s “proving” you can pay for great journalism and make money. We haven’t proved a damn thing. Between now and the end of the year, a thousand things could go wrong. Our print edition could flop, our digital subscriptions could tank, our writers could all flee for some even better funded startup. We could get sued into oblivion. For NSFWCORP to be a sustainable business, protected against all of those risk factors, we need to be generating at least a million dollars in revenue a year. Then we’ll have proved something.
But we’re lucky. We’ve got very little to lose by trying to do something different. The Atlantic, on the other hand, faces a much tougher decision. Continue down its current path, expanding its reliance on free, republished content and page-view-grabbing stories like this, this, this and this in the hope that it’s one of the last pageview giants standing? Or bet the farm on a subscriber-funded model, knowing that a sharp drop in ad revenue will inevitably accompany that decision.
If it chooses the former, then Madrigal is going to spend a lot more of his time defending the magazine he loves against claims of profiting from the labors of others. If it chooses the latter then he and his colleagues might not even have a job in twelve months.
But that’s the reality. NSFWCORP has picked a side, now the Atlantic has to do the same.
Belly fat ads and begging for scraps, or prizes and a pool table?
Tricky, tricky, tricky.
Subscriptions to NSFWCORP’s print edition go on sale at the beginning of next week, limited to 5,000 subscribers before issue one. To be notified the moment subscriptions go on sale, join the announcement list here.
(Illustration by Brad Jonas, NSFWCORP)