Nate Thayer tells a story about his negotiations with The Atlantic over writing a story specifically for them, where the “They pay us with bylines” meme is taken to an absurd level. They ask him to write for free.
Read the email exchange and weep!
I can share a story of my own. It’s not exactly about journalism but it’s about what we journalists go through trying to make a living with our skills as communicators.
A few weeks back, I got an email from a recruiting firm about a “ghost” blogging job for the CEO of a high tech firm. I figured this was a small start-up company but I like those and said I was interested. I received a call from the young lady who breathlessly asked me to report for an interview with her agency, telling me “The company will probably want to hire you tomorrow!” I rearranged my schedule and went downtown and signed some endless paperwork presumably so the recruiters could present me to the client. In my conversation with the recruiters, I learned the name of the company. It was a multi-billion dollar financial services company, and I knew a bit about their business having covered some of what they do while Real Estate Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. I also was able to easily research back through their layers of management to see that despite the happy contemporary face they marketed to the world, it was in reality a refreshed online version of predatory lending run by the old school billionaire bunch. I figured working for them was a bit like working for Satan but what’s a hungry journalist to do?
Of course, I conveyed none of this knowledge to the recruiter. I figured they could afford to pay a decent hourly rate given their size. The recruiters seemed very excited about my credentials, and my potential with the client.
About one week later the recruiter called to say that the firm had found someone else to do the ghost blogging for them. “They found someone to do it pro bono,” she said, her voice quivering a little.
Hmm, I thought. That’s a tidy slap in the face.
I suspect forces at work here beyond just the simple monetary dynamics of the job. Through LinkedIn, I learned that the person making the hiring decision had a very high level public affairs position and was undoubtedly familiar with my critical coverage of the greedy tactics endemic to lending during the real estate bubble in the mid-oughts. That likely played into the company’s decision. But that’s a connection the young recruiters would not have made. Who knows if they really landed a blogger for free.
So think about this the next time you meet an under-employed journalist. If she did a good job watchdogging her beat, the industry she reported on might not value her insight and talents. In fact, they might want to kick sand in her figurative face now that she is no longer protected by the legal and salary resources of a newsroom. As much as the public needed to know the truth, that industry needed for her to shut up.
Truth is not necessarily the hallmark of public relations. And that’s what a good journalist does her best to deliver – the truth.
It’s just one of the many complexities journalists face when looking for work.
It was not bylined work, so they were not paying to access any of my journalistic “halo.” As a digital producer, I do help folks with marketing but not with my byline. You can’t pay me to say good things about you under my byline – which is solidly attached to my reputation as a journalist. I write about this in a Medium piece called The Byline that Can’t be Bought.
Hire me full time and take me captive with a salary, benefits and fully disclosed affiliation to do your marketing – with this I would gladly cross the street. Do you find this confusing? If so, let me know.