Earlier this week The Atlantic suffered embarrassment when a web editor asked journalist Nate Thayer to write a knock-off of a piece he’d done for NK News. Thayer asked how much, how long, and when—the questions any freelancer asks—and was offered first nothing, then $100 for 1,200 words. He took umbrage. Only a few years earlier, Atlantic editor Michael Kelly had offered Thayer $125,000 for six stories a year.

This was a peek under the rocks of professional journalism. Websites are content hungry and cash poor relative to the output they need, and freelancers can’t make a living. Alexis Madrigal explained The Atlantic’s predicament at length. Felix Salmon at Reuters was rather concise:

How can the Atlantic have fallen so far, so fast—to go from offering Thayer $21,000 per article a few years ago, to offering precisely zero now? The simple answer is just the size of the content hole: the Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week. When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down.

…if you work [on staff] for theatlantic.com, you’re not going to find yourself in a narrow job like photo editor, or assignment editor, or stylist. Everybody does everything—including writing, and once you start working there, you realize pretty quickly that things go much more easily and much more quickly when pieces are entirely produced in-house than when you outsource the writing part to a freelancer.

These are subjects near and dear to my wallet. TAC’s situation is similar to The Atlantic’s, in that our budget for freelance web content (and freelance content of any kind) is strictly limited. I’ve never asked a freelancer to write a knock-off for nothing, but then TAC isn’t at the mercy of metrics: The Atlantic trades in volume, whereas we produce content in line with a specific mission of reinvigorating the conservative mind, and raw numbers aren’t a direct measure of success in that.

There’s another difference in scale, too: as Salmon says, “the Atlantic now employs some 50 journalists, just on the digital side of things.” TAC employs five or six—for print and web alike. The same half-dozen souls are our in-house graphic-design, technical, and promotional staff as well. This is a very lean machine.

Myself, Mark Nugent, Maisie Allison, and Jordan Bloom are TAC’s core editorial staff, ably assisted this spring by interns Jonathan Coppage and Matthew Taylor. Rod Dreher and Daniel Larison are also full-time as writer-bloggers—their work is readily on display. Less visible is the work the core staff does writing, rewriting, editing, assigning, reporting, reviewing, headlining, photo editing, social networking, fact-checking, troubleshooting, and pitching in with fundraising and publicity, among many more specialized tasks. For my part, I spend days crunching tiny numbers, talking writers off windowsills, and telling people “later” or “no.”

Where do freelancers fit into this? Over ten years, TAC has developed a stable of more than 200 contributors; these people are already on my mind when I think about assignments. I’ve made a point of including at least one byline new to the magazine in each print issue since I became editor, so I’m on the lookout for new blood in that regard—and, for that matter, for really scorching new talent whenever it’s to be found.

But I’m also lobbied constantly by the writers with whom we already have relationships to publish more of their work, as well as their friends’. Demand to appear in our pages and on our site has grown rapidly, while our financial resources have not—nor has my time. We pay for just about everything (our web rates are competitive with The Atlantic), but that means I have to weigh our investments very carefully. I don’t have the margin to give new writers much of a chance; dollars wasted on failed experiments are dollars diverted from dependable veterans who are just as hungry as the tyros.

Even the veterans nowadays have to offer something that staff can’t already provide. On the web that means every piece has to have a clear, interesting angle sure to get attention, not just a few new facts of the sort that were once enough to justify a print piece. The facts matter, but on the web it’s more important than ever to show upfront why they matter.

In print a writer could take it for granted that no reader would pick up a magazine unless he or she already cared about its content. Once the cost of purchasing it was sunk—thanks to a sexy cover or a single story with an unmissable selling point—the reader was a captive audience and could be counted on at least to browse the rest of the issue, taking time to see which of the articles that didn’t spur the purchase might be better than expected. On the web, articles don’t have a captive audience already invested in a package. Each story has to fight for its own attention.

From the outside journalism can look like a lot of fun. It is, which why people do it for such poor pay. But the flexibility that may seem like one of the field’s most attractive features—write what you want; commission anything that’s interesting—requires margins that few editors, let alone freelancers, enjoy today.