Dying of exposure

Why write for money when you can write for exposure asks Lee Zachariah. Unless you have to pay the rent, that is.Lee Zachariah

Until recently, the best career advice one could receive was ‘Find out what you love doing and find a way to get paid for it’. 

Although this meaningless mantra would, if universally applied, quickly lead to a world without garbage collectors, sewerage workers or Channel Ten CEOs, it was just motivational enough to pass the time in the career counsellor’s office.

It’s difficult to give that advice nowadays to anyone wishing to enter journalism. Discouraging young people from following their dreams would be caddish, so perhaps we should adjust our advice slightly and invoke Charles Bukowski: ‘Find what you love and let it kill you.’

I don’t say this just so I can enter the inaugural ‘Least Ironic Article About the Death of Journalism’ category at this year’s Walkleys. No, I have a second reason.

A few weeks ago, writer Nate Thayer posted a series of emails between himself and the editor of The Atlantic, in which the editor had asked if Nate would be willing to work for ‘the exposure’ instead of money. Those who have checked the exposure-to-money exchange rates recently will know that, as Thayer himself pointed out, exposure does not pay bills or feed children.

Because everyone in the world now identifies as a writer, it’s not difficult to sympathise with Thayer, but let us first play devil’s advocate and identify the mitigating circumstances: this was not an article that was commissioned by The Atlantic, but rather a potential reprint that Thayer had approached them with; the editor actually comes off as a reasonable human being; it is actually possible that the exposure may have led to the paid work Thayer clearly deserves.

Before my editor gets too excited at my sudden endorsement of journalistic slave labour, I merely strive to remind everyone that there is less money everywhere. Publications have been forced to completely rethink their business models, which is why you’re reading this on a screen instead of paper made from a tree.

Of course, The Atlantic doesn’t get to use that excuse until it asks middle management, publishers and vendors to also work for free. If a magazine read by 13 million cannot afford to pay writers for content, then, as Thayer himself said, how can this be a sustainable business model?

And that’s what we’re all afraid of: maybe this is a sustainable business model. We know there’s no shortage of writers willing to work for free. They may not all be Wordsworth, but they’ve probably absorbed enough cultural references from The Simpsons (or whatever its current equivalent is) to cobble together an interminable Buzzfeed Top 15 Magazines Staffed By Vagrant Writers list.

Thayer’s publishing of his correspondence may not have resulted in any money going directly to him, but it continues to fuel the debate over the state of journalism. And, ironically, has led to commentators such as myself making money by writing about his case. Although I would like to thank Thayer for this opportunity by sending him a percentage of my fee, I’m sure he’ll be satisfied with the exposure my article will get him. After all, times are tight.

Lee Zachariah is a writer and critic best known for ABC comedy program The Bazura Project and the film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. Find him on Twitter @leezachariah.


Encore Issue 9This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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