Death by Exposure

EARLIER IN THE WEEK, journalist Nate Thayer posted an entry to his website titled “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist — 2013.” Now, this is not any old journalist we’re talking about. Nate Thayer has written for dozens of highly regarded publications. He’s won meaningful and serious awards for his investigative journalism. The man interviewed Pol Pot.

His most recent work concerns the regime of North Korea. And it’s funny (actually, no, it isn’t) that when Dennis Rodman was in the news last week I speculated during a conversation that a Western journalist in North Korea could probably make some good money. We have such scant from-the-ground information about the Hermit Kingdom. A few North Koreans have escaped and come this way to tell their stories. Rodman, however, is the closest thing to a state visit ever to occur. Think about it: major league basketball’s bad-boy has more empirical knowledge of this rogue state than the CIA, State Department and White House combined.

Enter The Atlantic, a well-known and profitable American magazine. Someone there was impressed enough by Thayer’s work to issue a representative requesting a 1,200 word article on North Korea “by the end of the week.” During the exchanges which followed, The Atlantic employee noted that “we unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month.” Thayer was properly repulsed by the offer and very politely and professionally explained why he could not accept. I won’t excerpt from the correspondence. It ought to be read in full.

I’ve been thinking for a long while about what I have termed the Exposure Contract. It’s a simple proposition: We won’t pay you for your work, but you’ll get exposure. Thousands upon thousands of writers of all types and of all levels of proficiency have agreed to these terms. Within the background of this arrangement was a mental phantom, an unexamined notion that exposure is good. Write for free, and soon enough you will be exposed to the deep-pocketed agencies who will produce the cash. The problem with this assumption (and one wonders how it could have been overlooked) is that the Exposure Contract appeals just as much to the deep-pocketed outfits as it does to the publishers who really don’t have the money.

Nate Thayer does not need exposure, he needs to earn a living. However, I know many writers who would lunge at the opportunity to get exposure of that character. Thirteen million readers! Sure, but this is The Atlantic. When the work-for-no-pay model has been taken up at this level of the pyramid, it’s all over my friends. What do you think, exactly, that you are going to be exposed to? Let’s say it in unison, shall we: more publishers who will offer you yet more EXPOSURE.

I could end here, and I’m tempted to do so. However, there is one more observation I’d like to offer. The Exposure Contract involves a confusion of advertising and marketing. Most writers, and indeed most people, couldn’t describe the difference. In my experience, the terms are commonly employed as if they were equivalent. And this misuse exposes the limitation of exposure contracts. Exposure is a form of advertising. It puts your name and your writing in front of eyes. However, there’s no economic utility to this exposure in the absence of marketing, which is the active identification and targeting of effective demand (i.e., a market) and the provision of a commercial product. Advertising merely informs people that you exist. Marketing gives them something of yours to buy. Most writers don’t need the concept of advertising explained to them, but marketing is another matter entirely. That’s why they are susceptible to the kind of deal folks like The Atlantic are now trying to make.

Maybe it’s time we all took another look at this arrangement.

Postscript: The Atlantic responds. | And another point of view at Slate.

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