Nate Thayer Kerfuffle, Showing Everyone’s Internal Biases

I love looking at the comments on a really juicy NYT article because it’s a great way to find out all the weird perceptions and feelings that a certain American population has on a topic.  You get all the weird, nonsensical, prejudiced sometimes verging into race/classism, e.g. everything that most of these people would never admit in an aisle of the Whole Foods or a fancy dinner party, at least to a stranger.*

The Nate Thayer kerfuffle is that, but exploded, where everyone has their own slightly different angle on it.  In short, the Atlantic asked a very famous journalist to cut down an originally reported piece he had written for another publication by 75% and offered to pay him…wait for it…. nothing.  Well “exposure” but for someone who has won (and refused) a Pulitzer, that’s pretty much nothing. ** He, understandably cranky and to make a point, published the entire, civil, email chain on his blog, which shows among other things, that they weren’t really too upfront about the whole no pay thing and that, at most, they would have given him $100.


Opinions exploded all over the place, generally clumping into six groups, three on each side:***

I.e. who is Nate Thayer thinking so highly of himself and better than us?  This makes sense; we like to think ourselves better than others, not the other way around.  We also really don’t want to think about how working hard =/= success.   It scares us and once you add some jealousy, thus in short, we decide that Thayer is uppity, unrealistic, ungrateful, and possibly lazy.

For the other side we have:

You wouldn’t expect your dentist/janitor/software designer to work for free, so why your journalist?/You can’t eat exposure/Good for him

The Atlantic website wouldn’t exist if it didn’t make money/it made a shitload of profit last year/it sucks as a company if it can’t make money somehow/what’s the point of exposure or clips if even the Atlantic doesn’t pay

This is an example of corporations constantly making record profits while the relative income of average Americans has gone down.

I.e. we somehow identify with Nate Thayer or his situation and we’re angry.  Thayer is ex post example of ‘making it’ and if he still gets shit upon, what hope is there for the rest of us, the still-awesome but not quite as much ones.  I think it also hits a vein of people being mad at corporations who seem to keep just trekking along, whining about how difficult it is, while the rest of us are limping around grabbing things, Walking Dead-style.

Personally, I veer towards the second position.  I think we should call the Atlantic out for their ballsy bad behavior.  Remember not only did they not expect to pay Thayer, but they also thought they should get free stuff that someone ELSE**** already paid for.  I also want all of us to learn the distenction between I write something for free that consumers get to read for free and I write something for free that consumers get to read for free, but in the middle someone gets to make money.

And while, I do think that exposure can be a benefit or payment of some sort, if companies want to actually pay in that way, they need to really think about what value they’re offering and at least try to give a fair trade.  Imagine how this would have played out if they asked for a 200 word blurb that would function as advertisement leading to the story rather than asking him to rewrite it as an in essence stand alone article. Or even if they had been upfront about not paying him and that he would be doing them a favor, not the other way ’round.

Full Disclosure:  All of these links are things you get to read for free on the internet!  Some corporations may make a profit if you click.  I do not get paid for rambling.  Photo is from Inggmartinez under a creative commons licence.  I would probably have written for the Atlantic for free if they asked me, just so my mom would have bragging rights; now they would have to pay me at least five shiny silver dollars or a nice printout for my mom.  There are now accusations that Nate Thayer plagiarized.

*Notably some people do not have this filter.  I once had someone tell me on an informational interview that if more people who “looked like us” had worked at a place, he might have not quit.  He said it in a whisper, couched as “just between us,” and I still don’t know what the fuck he meant by looking like us, but assume that it had something to do with perceived shared race or class backgrounds.

**Although it’s never said outright, it seems safe to assume that they weren’t planning on paying the original publisher, NK News, anything either.

***Isn’t that tidy?  Just like when I was taught there were only nine schools of social science (in all of history) in a ten-week-long class.

****Poor NK News.  It’s still not clear if they paid Thayer but since he says that he doesn’t work for free, presumably they paid.   I think they should come out and say how much so we can discuss how much real journalism actually costs (in comparison to regurgitated blog posts, mine included).

9 responses to “Nate Thayer Kerfuffle, Showing Everyone’s Internal Biases

  1. You parse it all very nicely.

    “It scares us and once you add some jealous, thus in short, we decide that Thayer is uppity, unrealistic, ungrateful, and possibly lazy.”

    How about the (putatively unimaginable) idea that Nate — after 25 years as a journalist writing on serious issues and helping out other journos along the way — is WORTH paying, and paying well? Your surgeon doesn’t accept (pun intended) a cut rate even in his first year in practice, nor does your dentist or accountant, people we know to have acquired and perfected specific skills.

    We pay many professionals well because we know damn well it takes skill, intelligence, etc. to do them well. But OMG what if a journalist also expects — not begs, not pleads, no hopes for — decent pay for those skills? The shrieks can be heard around the world.

    Nate has been a journo for 25 years. That puts him in his mid 40s or so. By the time you’re 20 years into a profession, you know what you’re doing, you’ve acquired credentials and you expect people to get it. Being properly paid is one standard way to show respect. So is…respect.

    Everyone now fancies himself a Writer because they whack away at a keyboard.

    Thanks for the link.

    • No problem!

      I think it’s also notable that, along with conflating Thayer to most other writers, the general negative discourse also conflates his piece – 4k of (seeming) original reporting and writing – with blog posts. There’s something about how we think about writing and the value of writing and research right there.

  2. Pingback: Why Nate Thayer’s expectation of payment pissed so many people off | Broadside

  3. Excellent post! I love the Great Nate Debate. I think that integrity and respect are shown in different ways by different publications. When smaller websites and online mags send out a polite request to link or republish, even well-fed writers are often willing to share their work for free. It’s nice to help each other out. But when the editors of an already-established, money making publication itch to republish something, they of all people should respect the sweat and time that goes into the writing of a good story or article.

  4. This explains the quality of writing coming from The Atlantic lately. With the exception of one, or two, writers some of what I see makes me shake my head. This explains Lori Gottlieb and her book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

  5. Egad… the excellent usage of the English language by trained, experienced and *so* much better than I’ll ever be at writing is leaving me feeling a bit depressed.

    I have in the past written a few small things, mostly for free, but once in a great while, something I actually got paid for. This was during a period in my life when my Father and I ran “Byrd Data Services”. An impressive sounding name — I had given some thought to it, “Data” & “Services” back then actually meant something — that was designed to make it look like we knew what we were doing.

    We were a business that did everything we could to make money in a very small village — Milverton, ON — our primary business was bookkeeping and income tax preparers. I also headed the computer related side of things… I purchased parts, assembled systems, wrote software (dBase and it’s offspring), repaired and generally helped people out with their computer problems.

    I also did resumes, business cards, posters, and even learned Calligraphy so I could create dedications in Bibles. This is a very specialized sort of writing I suppose, but it generated real money income.

    Now I have my blog here on WordPress and I am trying hard to write posts that people will want to read. I am very proud of two posts I wrote:

    and my most pleasing to me post:

    I like these 3 posts above all of my other ones for a few reasons: the most important reason is that they are all *original* works. I pulled them out of the air and wrote them. The latter two are based on my real life. And the last one… well… it’s true, it’s a funny post, and even my blog-hating room-mate thought it was a good read. Coming from her, that it as good as it’s going to get.

    So… I want to write. And I do… I have written more in comments and replies than I have on my own blog.

    I like commenting and replying; it gives me a chance to present my own thoughts on something and sometimes a discourse will evolve out of it. I certainly have an opinions on just about everything and I’m not afraid to use my keyboard to express them. I try not to use emoticons or other such devices… I think they are a bit like cheating. If you have to use an emoticon to express an emotion at the end of a paragraph or a post, then you have not conveyed your emotions clearly enough. 🙂

    I can be biting, sarcastic and hard to get along with. But I can also be one of the people you meet on the internet who will be a good friend. Someone who reads what you write, thinks about it, and then acts on it; usually by writing something at someone.

    Even comments I have made that express a differing point of view than the person who’s blog it is have been very kind towards me after reading my comments. I suppose it was because I wrote what I felt about the things she was writing about in a well-reasoned way. After a few more posts from her, and comments from me, we had developed a mutual respect for each other, and even a few of her regular posters commented, usually favorably, on the comments and replies I had left.

    I write, people read. And some day I hope to get paid to write. My blog started out as a semi sort of biography, a way for me to tell my story. And trust me, there are some things about me you will want to read about. They’re not all good things, but they are interesting.

    Who knows… maybe, someday, someone, somewhere will pay me to write on a regular basis for real money. That is my dream.

    In the meantime, my best friend finally scoped out my blog and wrote to me:

    Hi rob

    Got up to use the wc, checked my email on my tablet (it has dr who audio books), saw your email and took a quick look at your wordpress blog. You blew me away! You could pick up some side work on craigs list. It looks very professionally done (compare it to and you will see what I mean). I used to belong to a small business group and one thing that I was always asked was if I knew anybody who could help build a good looking wordpress blog/web site. As it is php based, I couldnt help and didnt know anybody who could do wordpress design work. You have a job skill my friend.

    Good night (yaughn…..)



    That short letter really made me feel good about my blog. And gave me a small glimmer of hope that even if I don’t get paid to write, I *might* get paid doing something I have some experience with… graphic design. A blog is for many people, myself included, the cover on our book. People want a good cover on their book, and a good look and feel to their blogs. And some people are willing to pay for it.

    Will I do some for free in order to get the horrible “E” word? Probably. But I hold out some hope that my work will be noticed, my blog will be favorably noticed, my comments and replies thought of as well written considering they are always written on the fly… no going back for proof-reading… this is content as it spills from my thoughts down through my fingers to the keyboard and then off to the digital world.

    And damn… I love it!



    • When we were in college, we defined writer as anyone who had gotten paid for a piece of writing/to write something. While clearly that’s a little short-sighted (while I love my editing clients, neither they or I would call them “writers”) as well as snobby, I think there’s nothing wrong with considering oneself a writer and bragging about any writing accomplishments. I love that so many people do call themselves writers in our era of anti-intellectualism.

      There’s certainly an aspect of self-selling on my blog for sure. Although I started it to rehone my writing and analysis skills, I’m very aware of the self I present and the potential to use my blog as part of my portfolio as a free-lancer. At the same time, there is that tension with the commodification of self – the dreaded concept of personal branding and the realization that, for example, writing about my depression is probably not advised professionally. I have a lot of posts on selling oneself/blog/community/writing, particularly UNDERselling oneself. It is seductive, even when we know better, because it is such a complement especially for something we aren’t “known” for. When I was editing this post, I realized that I would never edit for free unless it was a good cause or a friend, but writing? That *is* tempting even though I know better.

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