People deserve to be paid for their work. And if you haven’t been paid, neither explanations nor justifications will really suffice. Let’s accept these points as read.
Time Warner owes me $400. This was for an article I wrote for Southern Living about the architectural decor value of salvaged doors. They show no intentions of settling this debt, though to be honest, the last time I seriously pursued collection was in 1993, a year after the piece was accepted.
In 2001, I received a tax bill for $2300. This was because an entertainment website for whom I had written a movie review declared that they had paid me $5000. (They had actually paid me $50, six months late.) By the time the IRS got around to chasing me, the website company and all its assets had evaporated. I was able to resolve the tax bill amicably after suffering a prolonged weeklong heart attack.
Freelancers are powerless supplicants to the media industry. Every place I’ve ever edited, written, or published — large or small, cool or corporate — has taken advantage of this fact, unconsciously or otherwise. In this way media businesses specifically are little different from business generally; finance officers are taught from birth to cling to liquidity like grim death. You only pay out cash when you absolutely have to. And in a low-margin high-overhead business like media and publishing, freelancers have to fight for everything they’re owed, because they’re so easy to push off. When I freelanced for a living, I resigned myself to that part of the freelancing life. You could get mad about it, but it wasn’t going to stop. You had to pursue everybody, all the time.
That does not make it right. Which is why, as an editor and publisher, I do not absent myself from the freelance payment process. The void of responsibility was always what had me weeping with rage as a freelancer — the sympathetic editor giving me the accountant’s never-answered extension, so sorry, hate those suits, you know how it is. I understand the temptation to abdicate from the process though, because editors are themselves usually powerless to effect payment. By bowing out, you can stay on the side of the angels, with the freelancer, and wash your hands of the whole affair.
I think that’s professionally and ethically dishonest, and it’s the dirty secret of those who shout the loudest for the church-state divide in publishing. It’s a very convenient way to avoid responsibility, to even avoid advocating for the freelancers internally. You don’t deal with the business side. You don’t talk to those guys, or maybe you sent them an email or forwarded that voicemail, but that’s all you can do, you’re not in charge. It sucks, but it’s not your job. So sorry.
As I got into editing and running budgets, I stayed between the freelancer and the money, trying to get the latter to the former, and to always at least communicate, even if I had no reassurances to provide (yet). Silence and nonresponsiveness are most maddening. No news is worse than bad news. For me, this means a lot of hassle, legwork, and bureaucracy, not to mention arguments with my colleagues and boss. And it means I’m constantly responding to freelancers asking about payments, and absorbing anger from those who feel they’ve been wronged. Just like chasing money was part of freelancing, doing this stuff is part of the job I have now. It’s not some grand sacrifice or gesture on my part; it’s how it should be, in my opinion. But it very, very rarely works this way. I’ve certainly never encountered someone like me, as a freelancer.
If you want to know why (other than immediate cash flow) that media companies often don’t pay on time, it’s because they themselves are often not paid on time. The roles get reversed on the publisher when dealing with deadbeat clients, and there’s no common element among them. Giant multinational corporations may require daily harassment to cough up a few hundred dollars. Seemingly respectable brands suddenly decree they’re adding 120 days to pending invoices because the upcoming holiday shopping season looks weak.
So what are your options? You could go ballistic and alienate the client, guaranteeing they’ll never do business with you again. And as for the money they owe you, what are you going to do — sue that giant multinational corporation over the ad page they didn’t pay for? No, you’ll smile tightly, and keep calling, and keep calling, and eventually you’ll get paid. Probably. Then you can pay some freelancers. In the meantime, you probably want to keep payroll going and your infrastructure up. Shutting down till the money catches up with itself is suicide. Unless you’re one of those publishers with deep cash reserves and can float the money out while you wait on your own income? Show of hands, Nick Denton’s company excepted? But so what. No one feels sorry for a company, even a media company.
The necessary question is why does it get like this in the first place? A flawlessly run business would have anticipated any such eventuality and planned accordingly. I have never worked with or for such a business (Nick Denton’s company not excepted). Let’s take BlackBook for example, which is just over 14 years old as a company. For most of that time it was only a very beautiful, very cool niche New York downtown magazine that did lots of amazing things and never made a cent in profit. BlackBook got by on its looks and connections and the reputations of those involved, and the deep pockets of those who wanted to get next to those people. The financials were a nightmare that haunts us to this day, as freelancers who weren’t paid for work done many years ago can attest. But though not perfect, it’s improving dramatically in terms of proper payment schedules, and the goal is to settle up with everyone and get on time for all future payments before the end of the year. Those who did work for us more recently will be settled long before that.
BlackBook is now a tech startup with a legacy media business; we produce mobile city guides for a variety of partners, based on the foundation of the original BlackBook guides. That side of the budget, which I have always run directly, has suffered from lateness occasionally as we wait to get paid ourselves, per the above. But it’s nothing compared to that magazine budget, which no one has really wanted to take full responsibility for on the payments-advocation side. It’s just been too ugly for too long. Hence complaints like Natasha’s. Obviously that needs to change, so it will. As noted elsewhere, anyone who thinks they’re owed freelance payments should email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll look into it and respond personally. That goes for you too, Natasha — I emailed you this afternoon already, so get back to me and we’ll resolve.
I don’t pretend to believe every freelancer will be pacified by what I’m saying here. I dislike enduring public abuse as much as the next guy, but I recognize it’s the freelancer’s right to air such grievances and blow off steam, given there’s not much else to do for recourse. So I don’t resent that, and I will try to fix the problem.