When Nate Thayer posted his exchange with an Atlantic editor asking him to contribute to the site for free, he sparked a huge debate over whether writers should ever be expected to go unpaid. The short answer, if you ask me and most journalists, is no. But as a writer who has written for free, the no comes with an explanation.
When I first started writing about food, I found I could land super short pieces about things like local whiskey, seasonal ingredients, and roundups of the best brunch deals. Unsurprisingly, not a lot of outlets were interested in my oddball food stories about the architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen designs, or the dead English romance novelist Barbara Cartland.
So I found a home for the more esoteric things I was interested in researching and writing about at the Atlantic, which did not pay me. My first post for the magazine’s online food section was about a Spanish-language sticker book full of recipes for imaginary animals and my second was about Cesar Ramirez’s then newly launched dinners at Brooklyn Fare.
As a young writer, between writing for paying publications, copy editing, and cooking to make a living, this for-free work gave me some space to write just a little longer and a little weirder than the other gigs would let me. So I tried to find time for it when I could (usually when I had a fringe idea that just wouldn’t fit anywhere else, like a story about Victorian cookbooks or eating cow spleen).
Writers who give away their work are shamed by more established writers for not valuing their writing enough, and for perpetuating this messed-up system built on free work. On the other hand, writers who won’t work for free (or for very, very little) can’t always find a home for the stories they want to tell.