How much should contributors be paid for online journalism? (update)

At Popular Science, we’re pretty good about paying for work; I’ve certainly never asked someone to write a piece for free (photography, sadly, is a totally different story. I feel for photographers!). – editor Dan Nosowitz in a discussion between editors on paying writers

There’s been a lot of talk in the past few days after Nate Thayer posted on his blog about an editor asking him to write for free. There’s a good summary of the events here. To any freelancers, it’s a common enough occurrence. If you haven’t seen Fuck You, Pay Me, start there. The Atlantic has issued an apology to Thayer, no doubt due to the attention given Thayer’s blog post.

One of the most interesting things to come out of the discussion, though, is a branch thread (?) involving editors and writers from a number of well-known online and print publications on the subject of paying writers for work. It’s called How Much Should A Writer Be Paid, If Anything. The quote above, about the sorry state of payment for photography for online journalism, is cherry-picked from well down in the discussion, but the rest is definitely worth a read for insight into how online publications compensate their contributors. It’s a very interesting look behind the curtain of pageviews and budgets.

And while the situation for writers isn’t rosy, the quote at the top shows it can be even worse for photographers (as we all know). I was happy to read last year (search for “Well, I think it has to do with paying people”) that the NYT’s Lens blog has started paying photographers. Ironic for this discussion, the Atlantic’s In Focus blog, one of the premiere photography showcases online, doesn’t pay photographers last I checked (see update below; the blog does pay for wire service subscriptions). As more and more media entities get into the online photography game, it’s important to make sure photographers are paid fairly for their work.

Update: Thanks to In Focus editor Alan Taylor for adding to the discussion with his comment down below.

12 Responses to “How much should contributors be paid for online journalism? (update)”

  1. Alan Taylor

    Hello, just one note (I’m the editor of In Focus). It is true that I am not budgeted to pay for outside photographers, but that’s because almost all of my budget goes to pay for existing agency contracts. So there is significant money going out our door for photography, just not directly to the photographers. I am envious of Lens blog and Burn, and hope to work into a position where I can join them in paying for outside work, though I’m still not sure how to get there. This is all a very interesting – if gut-wrenching – discussion, thanks.

    • M. Scott Brauer

      Thanks for the response, Alan. I’ve updated the post to reflect what you wrote. Love what you continue to do with In Focus, by the way, just wish there was a way freelancers could get paid for their work online more consistently.

    • Michael Kircher


      Thanks for being willing to give us your input.

      Forgive my ignorance, but what is it about the In Focus model that makes it difficult to pay freelancers? What are Lens blog and Burn doing that’s different?

      • Alan Taylor

        Hi Michael,

        When I joined the Atlantic, they were publishing very few photographs. In order to be able to tell my sorts of photo stories nearly every day, I needed access to large resources of images of consistent quality, quick turnaround, and wide range, something I only agencies can provide. We worked out a monthly budget, which was nearly 100% consumed by several agency contracts. So I am now in a position (like anyone else) to either ask for more budget (which I have done), or cut down or eliminate one of our contracts, to free up money for freelancers. I really rely on what the agencies can provide, so cutting back makes my job much more difficult. Since my budget hasn’t been expanded, and I have almost nothing to offer freelancers, I’m sort of stuck.

        On the other hand, when an outside photographer approaches me (which happens often), I’m always up front about my inability to pay, but happy to provide them as much credit and attention as I am able. 95% of the time that works out well for all parties involved. Sometimes I get told off, sometimes the results disappoint the photographer, but it’s for more positive than negative so far – and I’ve been doing this for almost five years now.

        I wish I had a larger budget, I wish I could pay decent amounts, I wish working with freelancers were simpler (that’s another benefit of agency photos – very little back-and-forth, predictable interaction). That time matters when I’m the only person in the photo department, finding, composing, publishing a big story nearly every day, then tending all the social networks and comments.

        So, when I say I’m working to get into a better position, most of that is hoping my work can justify a budget bump, for help and/or freelancers. It’s really tough, and trust me, I feel extremely fortunate to have a job doing this, but it really is work.

        Hope that helps.


  2. Michael Kircher

    Thanks, Alan.

    So to my reading it is possible to free up some money for freelancers, but it’s just makes your job more difficult. This is not to be judging you personally. I understand where you’re coming from. Just thinking out loud.

    For me, to have places like The Atlantic so willing to ask photographers to give up their hard work for free, makes it doubly hard for the photography industry to ever get out of this sort of “well, they gave me credit” rut. How does it ever end? That for me is the real question. How do we collectively put an end to it?

    • Alan Taylor

      Well, in general, I do not go out and ask photographers for their work for free. I feel pretty awful approaching someone like that. If they approach me, I tell them what I can offer, and they can take or leave it (not being flip, I am very polite and direct, and _completely_ understand when people decline). I do not rely on, nor expect free photographs, and am honored and thrilled when people agree.

      As to how we put an end to this situation… God, I wish I knew. I do not have budget approval, nor am I independently wealthy, and I don’t know how to set up a publishing entity that can both stay afloat and pay for good photojournalism.

      I’m not alone in that – so many are trying to figure that out. Kickstarter and will help some, but are not larger answers. The Atlantic lost significant money for more than a decade, and is only recently becoming profitable. Perhaps if it continues to trend well, and past debts are paid down, I can get a budget bump – but even so, I’m just one single outlet.

      The times I’m most happy to publish photos provided to me freely are when I can help promote a book or kickstarter project, something tangible that I know the attention can boost, and will end up in the photographer’s pocket.

  3. Rachel Megawhat

    Very interested to come across this, having this week come across website owners that claimed to believe they actually had a right to my imagery for free I was moved to write this blog post I hope its of interest to other photographers.

  4. Paul Drabble

    Just following the line of thought that its possible to “free up some money for freelancers, but” it makes a picture editors job “more difficult”

    How short sighted is this? Its Madness! What happens when photographers cant make a living as photographers because no one commissions work anymore?
    where are the agencies and publications going to get their images then?

    The day is comming!
    The last two months(January/February) as a full-time professional photographer my business TURNED OVER, NOT PROFIT, TURNOVER!
    January £859.10
    February £293.10

    How many months at those level do publications and agencies think I sustain before I hit bankruptcy and/or a job stacking shelves for minimum wage?

    If anyone is thinking its because I’m a bad photographer go check for yourselves

    Well am I rubbish at what I have made a living at for almost 20 years or do people just undervalue photography and the photographer?

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