World Federation of
Science Journalists

Pay up, pay up, or we blow the whistle

October 13, 2009 posted in Sci.Journalism
This is a story about money, and how to help freelancers when they are ignored, cheated or stalled when it’s payday. The National Association of Science Writers in the United States has a “grievance committee,” that has successfully taken up their cause. Here’s how it works.

(We have to protect the identity of the freelancers – who could be shunned by would-be employers – and the organizations who didn’t want to pay them.)

Exhibit One:
Last October, a writer submitted a story to what he calls “a big, popular magazine that you can buy at newsstands all over the country.” In November, “They transferred the story to a different editor, who was swamped, yes I do believe that, but who nevertheless didn’t even read my story for three months.” Then came a call saying the story was being killed, and offering a 25 per cent kill fee.

The freelancer “went berserk, but privately,” and then contacted NASW. There was an exchange of letters. The committee argued that the full fee should be paid. Then the editors called to say they had changed their mind, they wanted the story after all, but rewritten with a slightly different angle. Thanks to the NASW intervention, the writer is happy, “So that’s where I stand – no kill fee, but an opportunity to actually write the story, which will be fabulous.” And fully paid.

Exhibit Two:
A writer published story in a financial magazine aimed at a professional community and was never paid. The company told him to be patient, it was just having “cash-flow problems.” After nine months of waiting, and no cheque, the writer saw an item about the grievance committee in the NASW Bulletin.

“I thought, ‘This is exactly what I need.’” He gave the committee all the details of his story. What happened next was gratifying. “A week later, they phoned and asked me where they should send my cheque for $2,400. This was fast.” Here’s his timeline.
  • Story accepted March 5.
  • Invoice sent March 6
  • Story published April 30
  • Invoice reminder May 12-14
  • Excuses, excuses July 8
  • Pay-up-now letter ignored Dec. 12 
  • NASW contacts publisher April 15 
  • Publisher pays in full May 11 
This kind of success (there are a couple of cases a month) happens because of an implicit threat to expose delinquent publishers if they don’t pay up. The team who does it consists of committee chair Dan Ferber in Indianapolis, Robin Marantz Henig in New York and Ellen Ruppel Shell in Boston. They work mostly by e-mail after one of them phones the unhappy freelancer.

“Some grievances are quite old,” Shell says. “People sometimes have done work a year ago and still not been paid. Or their work has been killed and they haven’t been notified or paid. Or it’s been published and they’re not paid.”

About a quarter of all cases are “open and shut” – unambiguous refusals to pay for work done and published. The committee’s view is that exposure would dry up the supply of writers willing to work for an offending publisher. “It’s more than I like to see, but it’s happening,” Shell says, “and we have repeat offenders.”

The NASW board is planning to discuss “how long we’ll continue to protect repeaters. I’m surprised that a number of very well-known publications are doing this,” Shell says, reflecting that this may be a result of hard economic times.

But maybe not. “Writers historically have not had much power, nor have perceived themselves as having power. As a result, they are vulnerable to exploitation.” Shell is hoping for a possible spill-over of the committee’s pressure into the world of writers who are not members of NASW and who don’t know where to turn.

She says the committee was formed during a bad time in the history of Seed magazine. “Seed was quite delinquent in paying writers, some of whom became concerned that they would never get paid at all.” The magazine eventually folded because of deep financial trouble and was later resurrected. The committee reports that with the new Seed, there have been no complaints.

“We want NASW members to know that the grievance committee is out here and ready to serve,” Ferber says.

But if you don’t have a contract, letter of agreement, or at least an electronic e-mail trail documenting an agreement with the publisher, the committee can’t do much to help. And if you don’t work in the U.S. and belong to NASW, there’s no such structured help available either.

The World Federation of Science Journalists polled its member organizations and so far none have reported a helping hand similar to the NASW’s grievance committee.

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