Freelancers and editors, we will figure this out

Whose fault is it?

That’s the question that’s rattling around my head after the dustup between freelance journalist Nate Thayer and The Atlantic.

For those who may have missed it: Thayer was asked by an editor at The Atlantic if he could condense his feature story “25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy” into a 1,200-word version that would run on The Atlantic’s website. The catch was that he’d be doing this extra work for exposure, not money. (That’s quite a catch. Editing 4,000-plus words down to 1,200 is no easy task.)

Thayer’s blog post chronicling the exchange inspired a lot of follow-up. Of particular note:

  • The comments on Thayer’s post morphed into a virtual support group / troll target.
  • Reuters’ Felix Salmon used the moment to note differences between print freelancing and digital freelancing. (This was my favorite of the fallout pieces.)
  • Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic wrote … you know, I’m not sure what he wrote. He was angry and passionate and I think he meant to defend his colleague and his publication. His response was a jumble of thoughts — many of them smart — but my real takeaway from his piece was that everyone is anxious about this stuff.

At first, I read these posts because they’re gossipy. I enjoy watching journalists go after each other because a snarky journalist is often an entertaining journalist. Anger leads to focus and focus leads to excellent word choice. These folks do know how to turn a phrase.

But as I read more and felt my own anxiety rising, I tried to understand the bigger pressures at play.

And that’s when I picked up on the weird blame thing that runs through all of this.

We’re all so incensed. Freelancers think the editors are low-balling on purpose. Editors complain that freelancers don’t understand the economics of digital.

Pointed fingers. Thumped chests. Pitchforks and torches.

Yet, there’s nowhere to march. The rage can’t be released.

Why? Because the question I posed at the beginning — Whose fault is it? — has two answers:

1. It’s no one’s fault.

2. It’s everyone’s fault.

Digital evolved out of a stew of history and context, propelled by a fundamental catalyst: information exchange always chooses the path that’s faster and easier. In that sense, there’s no one to blame. It all just happened because that’s how information works.

But we — all of us — also made digital what it is through our collective adoption. We’re the ones who commoditized content. We turned to digital services and devices because they offered better options than their ancestors. In that sense, everyone is to blame.

Now, this is supposed to be the “so what?” part of the piece. It’s where I outline my brilliant five-step plan for the thoughtful advancement of the journalism and content industries.

Well, I don’t have a plan. No one has a plan.

I’m optimistic, though, and that counts for something. (Stop rolling your eyes.)

All the anger and anxiety we’re feeling can be productive. It shows we care. We want to assign blame and move on. We want to figure this out because we like doing what we do and we want to keep doing it.

That makes me think we’ll get it together. Yes, this smacks of blind faith. I’m okay with that.

There’s more to it, though. There’s also a business here.

I believe digital publishers will find their natural revenue levels — and those levels are not at or near zero. In time, publishers will regroup and build those levels up. They’ll want to do more and get better, and that improvement will require finding and paying people to do better work for better fees.

We’re already seeing hints of this. Take a look at Quartz or BuzzFeed or Gawker. There’s no slideshows. Not a pop-under in sight.

These outlets still have revenue gimmicks, that’s true, but they’re new gimmicks. They aren’t clinging to old ad and sponsor methods. The people behind these sites are trying new things, and these new things are much closer to the mark.

That’s a small signal, but it’s a positive one. We’re circling closer to the sweet spot of content, audience value and revenue. Once we hit that, we’ll move into the building phase.

It’s important to take a step back. To look at where we were and where we are. The process isn’t fast enough and it’s still frustrating, but fundamentally we’re improving.

So that’s the only plan I can see. Keep getting better. Keep getting closer.

And if we do that, I believe we’ll figure this out.