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How about zero dollars per word—is zero good for you?

Posted by Amy Gutman  March 17, 2013 09:21 PM

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ZERO take 2There’s a clas­sic New Yorker car­toon where a guy is stand­ing in his high-rise office talk­ing on the phone: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?”

I was reminded of this last week when vet­eran jour­nal­ist Nate Thayer used his blog to pub­lish an email exchange with an Atlantic edi­tor inter­ested in “repur­pos­ing” a piece Thayer had pre­vi­ously writ­ten if he would first revise it. For this, she offered the princely sum of … noth­ing.  (By these stan­dards, humorist Calvin Trillin’s editor–the “wily and par­si­mo­nious Vic­tor S. Navasky,with his offers “in the high two figures”–was pos­i­tively prof­li­gate.) Thayer lost no time in reg­is­ter­ing his outrage.

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,” wrote Thayer, later not­ing the irony of hav­ing once been offered an Atlantic retainer of $125,000 a year for six articles.

The post quickly went viral, with both sup­port­ers and detrac­tors flock­ing to weigh in. To his fans, Thayer was a hero, finally say­ing “enough is enough” to ever-more exploitive jour­nal­is­tic over­lords. To his crit­ics, Thayer seemed both enti­tled and unre­al­is­tic, fool­ish in his alien­ation of the very peo­ple who might hire him.

A follow-up piece on—itself an acknowl­edged user of writ­ers who work for free—used the flap as an object les­son in the ongo­ing devo­lu­tion of jour­nal­ism into a pro­fes­sion largely pop­u­lated by those with ample resources. “Becom­ing a suc­cess­ful writer—or jour­nal­ist or actor or wigmaker—is an ambi­tion that, like pretty much every­thing else in soci­ety, is rigged in numer­ous ways to favor peo­ple who start off with money,” Cord Jef­fer­son tren­chantly observed.

Not much dis­agree­ment on that score. How­ever, there was plenty about what the ulti­mate take­away should be.

When Thayer was being offered $125k/year I was being offered $140k,” noted my friend Anne, an expat Amer­i­can lawyer, now liv­ing in Eng­land. “I’d love to be on 2002 rates again—who wouldn’t? But the real­ity is much different.”

A com­menter had this to say:

Maybe they expect peo­ple to write for free, because plenty of peo­ple are ready and will­ing to write for free. If you want to make a lot of money, go be an invest­ment banker or start a busi­ness or what­ever. If you want to write, then do that, but don’t whine about how you’re get­ting paid squat for doing it. You made your choice.

My friend spends hours upon hours work­ing on his model trains which he dis­plays and are enjoyed by many peo­ple who see them. He never once asked to be paid for his efforts. Don’t act like your call­ing is so much more noble and wor­thy than his.”

Law—one of my sev­eral pre­vi­ous pro­fes­sions (and another that, inci­den­tally, is fast head­ing towards meltdown)—works by anal­ogy:  Is X more like Y or like Z? In that spirit, I found myself mus­ing over whether a free­lance writer is, in fact, sim­i­lar to a guy who plays with trains. As usual with analo­gies, I could see the facts both ways. In the pro col­umn: Thayer enjoys writ­ing. He, like the fanatic hob­by­ist, is doing it because he chooses.  In the con:  Writ­ing is also Thayer’s pro­fes­sion, one he set­tled on with an eye to mak­ing a liv­ing at a time when such a plan didn’t seem wildly risky. No, he would likely never be rich. But he’d be paid more than … zero.

My favorite legal doctrine–and yes, as a mat­ter of fact, I do know how geeky that sounds–goes by the name of reliance. (I also wrote about it here.) Sim­ply put, if you induce me to “change my posi­tion” based on your claim or promise, you can’t later change your mind and just tell me to go away. For exam­ple, if you sell me a prod­uct to wash my car, I’m enti­tled to rely on the fact that it will do just that—and with­out strip­ping the paint.

Law school exams are called issue spot­ters. They con­sist of “fact patterns”—stories of sorts—packed with legal issues that the test taker must first iden­tify then ana­lyze. The world after the Great Reces­sion is filled with tales like Thayer’s, with peo­ple whose lives have been upended by new tech­nolo­gies and seis­mic global changes. They (we) relied on what we knew, on what we were told.  If life were an issue spot­ter exam, it might pose the fol­low­ing ques­tions: Was this reliance jus­ti­fied? Is there a remedy?

Note: Thanks to my writer friend Amy Rogers who helped me pull that New Yorker car­toon from the recesses of memory.

© 2013, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

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Originally published on the blog Plan B Nation.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Amy Gutman is a writer and lawyer with eclectic interests and a resume to match. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Psychology Today, and the Chicago Tribune, among other venues, and she is the author of two suspense novels, both published by Little, Brown. Currently a lecturer in the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst, she lives and works in Plan B Nation. More »

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