Don’t know if you saw freelance journalist Nate Thayer publicizing his e-mail exchange with an Atlantic employee who tried to get him to write for free for the website. It’s incredibly discouraging that a writer of Thayer’s stature can’t get paid for his work, but as Alexis Madrigal, the digital editor at The Atlantic Online, points out in this lengthy post, the economics of online journalism are terrible for writers. Excerpt:

Because the truth is, I don’t have a great answer for Nate Thayer, or other freelancers who are trying to make it out there. It was never an easy life, but there were places who would pay your expenses to go report important stories and compensate you in dollars per word, not pennies. You could research and craft. And there were outlets — not a ton, but some — that could send you a paycheck that would keep you afloat.

Then the digital transition came. The ad market, on which we all depend, started going haywire. Advertisers didn’t have to buy The Atlantic. They could buy ads on networks that had dropped a cookie on people visiting The Atlantic. They could snatch our audience right out from underneath us. And besides, who knew how well online ads worked anyway? I mean, who knows how well any ads work at all? But convention had established that print ads were a thing people paid X amount for, and digital ads became something people paid 0.10X for.

And while advertisers paid less, there was always more stuff for people to read. All kinds of writing poured onto the web. The median post was much worse than a random story plucked from the top tier of magazines, but the best stuff was and is as good as anything. Drawing on that huge base, there is always a lot of “best stuff” to read now.

There’s a whole lot more in that essay about the economics of online journalism than 99 percent of you want to know. But it’s really important for anybody thinking of taking up journalism or writing as a career to understand. Do you know how much newspapers pay for op-eds? Very damn little. You’d be shocked. When I was running an editorial commentary section, we had a very small weekly budget. It wasn’t that corporate was stingy. It was that the economic model that had sustained newspapering was collapsing, and there was nothing to replace it. Everything was going digital, but the loss of ad dollars was catastrophic. If you want to understand how this works, read Madrigal’s piece. Some writers think that they can be paid out of the pot of gold under the publisher’s desk, but that’s just not true.

Madrigal concludes:

Anyway, the biz ain’t what it used to be, but then again, for most people, it never really was.

Which reminds me of Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to Franz Kappus, the young poet who wrote asking the great poet  if he should commit himself to the writing life. Rilke said, in part:

There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity.

That’s true. That’s so, so true. And even if the answer is “yes, I must write,” how are you going to pay the bills? Read the first part of Madrigal’s essay. Here, I’ll get you started:

Man, I feel everyone on how scary it is to be in journalism. When I made the transition from a would-be fiction career paired with writing research reports into full-time journalism, I nearly drowned in a sea of debt and self-doubt. I was writing posts on my own blog, which almost nobody read, but it did, with an assist from my now-wife, get me a couple gigs writing for some known websites. I got paid $12 a post by one. The other was generous, and I got $50. I was grateful as hell to have this toehold in the world. I remember walking down Bartlett Street in the Mission and saying to myself, out loud, “I’m a writer. I’m a writer! I’M A WRITER!” It was all I’d wanted to be since I was 16 years old. And I was making it.

Except I was not making it. Every day that went by, I was draining the little bit of money I had. I started selling anything I’d acquired to that point in my life that had any value. After the last Craigslist purchaser walked away with my stuff, I stood there in the living room of our apartment staring at the books and crying.

If you are an aspiring journalist, please, please, please read Madrigal’s piece. Know what you’re in for if you choose this vocation. He’s not lying.