On March 4, Olga Khazan, the new editor of the Global section of the Atlantic, sent an email to Nate Thayer, a veteran journalist covering Asian political affairs. Khazan had seen an article Thayer had written about North Korea and liked it. She wanted to know if he could "repurpose" it for the Atlantic website.
"We unfortunately can't pay you for it," she wrote Thayer. "But we do reach 13 million readers a month."
Thayer was appalled. He explained that he was a professional journalist "not in the habit of giving my services for free to for-profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children".
Khazan apologised and explained that the Atlantic was out of money. She told him the most they paid for an original story was $100, but they did not have $100 at the moment. All they could offer Thayer was "exposure" to benefit his "professional goals". Thayer's professional goal was to pay his bills. Outraged, he posted the exchange on his blog. It went viral within hours.
The news that the Atlantic - one of the oldest and most venerated publications in America - paid its writers little or nothing came as a shock to many, but not to journalists struggling to make a living in the post-employment economy. Freelance rates have plunged over the past decade, a decline tracked on the crowd-sourced website Who Pays Writers? (the answer: hardly anyone).
Some journalists say this is not a big deal. Unpaid labour should be expected, even treasured. In an article called "People Writing for Free on the Internet Is an Enormous Boon to Society", salaried Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias arguedthat if people demanded money for their labour, the world would be deprived of important works. "This Nine Inch Nails/Carly Rae Jepsen mashup is amazing, for example," he wrote.
"The problem in journalism is not that people are writing for free. It is that people are writing for free for companies that are making a profit."
Atlantic employees say they feel the freelancers' pain, but there is nothing they can do. Editor James Bennett apologised for offending Thayer and added that "when we publish original, reported work by freelancers, we pay them". This claim was dismissed by Atlantic contributors who were paid nothing for their original, reported contributions. In a lengthy defence of the Atlantic's publishing practices, Technology editor Alexis Madrigal argued that while the game of journalism "sucks", it was too late to change the rules: "You still have limited funds. You still can't pay freelancers a living wage."
But then where is all the money going? "The Atlantic is two things every legacy publishing company would like to be: profitable and more reliant on digital advertising revenues than on print," writes Forbes magazine. 2012 brought the Atlantic a record profit, beating out the record profit of 2011, with 59 percent of earnings coming from digital revenues. Not every writer at the Atlantic is suffering for their craft. When the Atlantic recruited staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, they sent his daughter ponies and offered him a lavish six-figure salary. Thayer had once been offered $125,000 by the magazine to write six articles.
The problem in journalism is not that people are writing for free. It is that people are writing for free for companies that are making a profit. It is that people are doing the same work and getting paid radically disparate wages. It is that corporations making record earnings will not allocate their budgets to provide menial compensation to the workers who make them a success.
The post-employment economy
The Atlantic is far from the only publication to withhold wages, nor is journalism the only field. In academia, adjunct professors live in poverty doing the same work as the average professor paid $73,207 per year. In many industries - including policy, entertainment, and business - interns do the same jobs as salaried employees and are paid nothing or next to nothing. "We need to hire a 22-22-22," said one new media manager quoted in the New York Times, meaning a 22-year-old willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year.
Shortly before the Atlantic story broke, a video depicting income inequality in the United States went viral. Based on data from a 2011 study, the video showed that most Americans seek a more equitable distribution of wealth than what they believe exists - but that the reality of income inequality is far worse than they had imagined. When income was graphed, the middle class was barely distinguishable from the poor. 80 percent of Americans have 7 percent of the nation's wealth, while 1 percent of Americans have 40 percent of the nation's wealth.
The video noted that 92 percent of Americans think this is wrong. So why does it continue? The answer lies in a combination of fear and myth-making that has characterised public perception of the economy since the 2008 collapse. Americans are taught to believe the economy is in a permanent crisis - a position seemingly validated by their own experience.
But has the permanent crisis become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Economic analyst Eric Garland notes that since 2008, executive compensation has steadily risen, but the myth of hard times is peddled to both frighten and lure a permanent supply of unpaid, precarious labour.
"You're only 28. Or 33," he writes, mocking the corporate pitch. "You have a long career ahead of you. You can get paid later! After all, we don't have budget for interns this year. We used that money to increase executive pay at a rate five times greater than the cost of living. Because the economy is terrible right now! And we're at all-time record highs of corporate cash reserves and profits. But it's terrible!"
The economic crisis is a crisis of managed expectations. Americans are being conditioned to accept their own exploitation as normal. Ridden with debt from the minute they graduate college, they compete for the privilege of working without pay. They no longer earn money - they earn the prospect of making money. They are paid in "connections" and "exposure". But they should insist on more.
I understand why they do not. When the Atlantic story broke, many journalists were tempted to write about their own mistreatment. Some did, but others held back. They did not want to seem angry or ungrateful. They did not want to risk losing what little they had. They were told to pay their dues, and now they are paying for it with their dignity.
In the post-employment economy, is self-respect something we can afford? Or is it another devalued commodity we are expected to give away?
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.
Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.