Friday, November 07, 2008

Stupid Magazines

I was recently invited to submit some work to a new luxury magazine. That’s right—a magazine celebrating wealth, leisure, and conspicuous consumption. The editor sent me a list of possible topics including an examination of whether one should buy, part own, or lease private air travel, a spread on the custom interiors of the yachts of the world’s super-rich, and profiles on “Russian billionaires and their money: How they earned it and what they spend it on.” These are the one-off features for the first edition, and will be added to the regular stories on the current most attractive countries for basing off-shore businesses and the world’s poshest postcodes. The commissioning editor assembled and sent out these story ideas whose every tagline ends with, “when money is no object,” in the week Washington Mutual was devoured whole by JP Morgan Chase, a large hunk of London’s City was spontaneously laid off, the country of Iceland collapsed, and the US Congress was sweating over a preposterous bailout plan it would shortly reject, add another $180B to in special interest money, and finally pass in despair.

The story ideas were accompanied by a long-winded and dissembling paragraph on the humble scale of the magazine’s editorial budget and that therefore, Vivo, the world’s newest international luxury magazine, with headquarters in London and Dubai, unfortunately could not pay its writers. However, writers who brought with them contacts who proved lucrative would, at some future point when presumably the rag would have become the nouveau riche’s favorite monthly guide to untrammeled money-flinging, be “rewarded.” This, however, was not to say that we would be encouraged to “sell” anything. Except, of course, our fondness for social justice and our dignity.

This is obviously a laughable and outrageous example of the everyday iniquities served to people with talents other than capitalist pig-doggery. That a magazine glorifying new and unchallenged wealth is not able to, or willing to, offer its contributors even the usual niggardly compensation accorded freelance writers just makes it all the more eminently bloggable. Oh, the irony! Even an American can see it!

But actually, my guess is that most magazines not owned by Conde Nast operate by the same financial model. To an extent, it’s understandable. Writers want to be published and are often willing to work for little or no money, as long as they get a by-line, especially when they are starting out. I was. Contributor compensation is one thing a publisher can scrimp on, unlike the immovable costs of printing and throwing launch parties. Sometimes, however, one has to ask whether the magazine is betraying its own raison d’etre by paying little or nothing to the brains and labor behind it.

Take my old glossy, New York Moves Magazine. It looked like an upscale operation. It was printed on high-quality, thick paper, its office was in a hip loft space in Tribeca, and it threw regular parties in various venues of middling swankiness (though these might have been “rented” with advertising space). The only people I knew of to be on a proper payroll were the managing editor and the art director, both of whom were clearly paupers. Long-term readers of my blog will recall that my relationship with New York Moves came to an end when it surfaced to both the publisher, Moonah, and me that the editor, Richard, had been paying me twice the rate Moonah had allocated. In my fight to retain the salary, I had several arguments with Richard, the gist of which was basically,

Me: “I’m worth that much and more. Put some pants on and stand up for me!”

Richard: “I know you are but we simply don’t have the money and Moonah, who wears my pants, will never agree to it. ”

I never took the argument to what I now see as the next logical step:

“Why, then, should you bother to maintain this crummy magazine at all?”

If this seems an odd response to the modus operandi of this and countless other enterprises—theatres, art spaces, literary journals—consider that the “concept” of this magazine is supposedly a celebration of female empowerment. The subline is “Fashion and Lifestyle for the New York Career Woman.” They even dedicate an issue every year to New York’s “power women,” successful career women who would probably never dream of giving their time away. In his mission statement, Richard says, “I wanted to create a magazine for smart women that treated them like the sentient beings they are.” The magazine sets itself up as an arbiter of the ever-advancing status of womanhood. So how can it claim in good faith that female empowerment is its main interest when it expects women--and its staff is mostly female--to work for pennies or for free? What is more empowering than to be able to feed yourself and pay your rent through hard work and painstakingly-developed talent? Or, perhaps this is clearer: How discouraging is it to not be able to feed yourself or pay your rent despite your hard work and painstakingly developed talents? So many womens' magazines purport to be created with the same concept in mind—the empowerment, the advancement, the celebration of all things female—and, so many of them work on a similarly sigh-inducing budget. New York Moves and all its indistinguishable sisters preach empowerment but offer their own staffs only the opportunity to be used. The operation is hypocritical at its core.

Then there's the implied insult to the readership, and not only that of cynically selling an idea they do not uphold in practice. I wonder how all the upwardly mobile, educated, ambitious career women who read these magazines would feel if they knew they were being lectured on new-wave feminism by 20 year-old interns doing work experience for their B.A.'s at the New School? Likewise, how would Donald Trump feel knowing that the “pimp my yacht” feature he’s reading in Vivo was written by some part-time coat-check boy who’s only ever seen a yacht on Dynasty? Some of the writing that makes it to print makes me wonder if people ever feel insulted that magazine publishers, or editors, assume they are not discerning enough to recognize bad writing or weak thinking. It's not unheard of for good writers, even ones with some experience of the world, to be willing to write (or edit, or design, etc.) for free or little money, but a lot of the time in magazine publishing, people work at the level their skills merit. Face it, when people get really good at what they do, they start to expect to get paid for it. Most exceptions to the rule occur for the opposite scenario: the mystifying ability of people with paltry talents to land plum gigs at otherwise reputable publications (Independent, I’m looking at you and your sex columnist!) Apart from the occasional exception, the reader gets what the magazine pays for.

Maybe this is an overly-idealistic expectation, but no matter how noble the convictions and progressive the message a project has, if it is unable to function without violating those convictions and that message, then the project is a fraud and should be quit. When Oedipus realizes that he has lived his life mired in the horrors he sought to escape, he doesn’t rationalize the disaster. He doesn’t say, “Well it’s not ideal; of course I really wish things could be different, but on the bright side, if I hadn’t married my mother and killed my father I wouldn’t be where I am today, so I might as well just carry on.” No, he stabs his eyes out. These magazines, on the other hand, are run by people so arrogant as to believe their vanity projects more important than the ideologies which supposedly form the foundation of those projects. Instead of, er, stabbing their eyes out, they rationalize their hypocrisy and carry on. At New York Moves and its like, where they pretend to support Women’s Advancement while denying their own women this most basic tool for advancement, or at Vivo, the magazine dedicated to other people’s money, the survival of the magazine itself justifies the negligence of its philosophy, its content, and its creators.

All of my adult life I’ve been asked to work for free. My education was enormously expensive, and it taught me to do things that I fight and fail to use in even a humbly gainful way. The only steady and above-board (and still pathetic) money I’ve ever been able to make has been in jobs I didn’t need to graduate from middle school to perform. I’ve never had much patience for the common attitude that if I wanted to ensure that I could make a living I should have gotten a ‘proper’ degree and then a ‘proper’ job. It’s akin to saying that art and ideas are not important and that sensible people don’t bother with them, and if they do, they shouldn’t expect any better than to live out their lives as paupers. I think we can and should expect better. Putting the guilt on those pursuing traditionally risky vocations is just letting the people who exploit them off the hook. For every writer, or actor, or artist, or designer (and the list goes on) willing to “give it away” there are many others who can’t get a paid job as a result. No one at the helm of an enterprise will conduct it with integrity unless he is compelled to do so. And no one, not the apathetic consumers, not the opportunistic employers, and not the breathless interns or workers resigned to hobbyism, is providing that necessary compulsion.

I can’t think of an ending sentence. Maybe I should get an intern. Any takers?

6 comments:

Lisa Romeo said...

Wow. Well said. Too bad not well paid. I know the drill. Publishers pay the printer, the internet service provider, the delivery drivers, the post office, etc. That's because not a single one of them would ever consider getting paid in "prestige" or "copies."

Steve Bodio said...

First, BRILLIANT.

Second--- and all too true, maybe even worse than you know. I have written for magazines in the past year that pay me less than they did in the eighties.

Twenty- something editors now make more than most writers, and order them around. A publishing house that paid me a paltry $4000 advance for my first book in 1984 offered me a three thousand dollar advance for book on spec last year. When I laughed at them they told me they would never publish me again. Good.

Except for the blog I will never write for free-- it is a rule. Cheap, yes, but all those good reviews must mean something. Can't eat 'em but...

Third-- that magazine boggles my mind, but then-- Dubai? Hubristic skyscrapers, skiing indoors in the desert? It is all like that. They also pay six figures for falcons and more for Italian guns with pornographic engraving. You know, they won't last.

Isaac Sweeney said...

When did the value of the writer, who provides the bulk of a magazine's saleable content, decrease so much? Is it writers who are willing to sell out or is it publishers who aren't willing to dish out?

Matt Mullenix said...

Larissa and Steve: What if there is no justice? That seems damn likely to me. What's the writer's fall-back position then?

I offer myself for example. I have a fraction the talent of either of you, a public school education and no formal training as a writer or editor. My job, as a writer and editor, suffers mightily for all that.

But it's a job in the field. I keep reminding myself. It is maybe not ideal, but what would be the idea writing job for me? Paid three times as much to blog about falconry would be ideal, but there can't be many of those jobs around.

I write promotional copy and public remarks for university administrators; if it wasn't me, someone else would be doing it. I just replaced a guy who went on to a better paying PR job. I'm replaceable also.

So I hedge my bets and do some aditional web design for my institution, some graphic design, some penicl pushing. I keep a couple steady freelance clients. I stay prepared, although do not expect, to mow lawns for a living if I need to.

And meanwhile I fly my hawks and try to be a good dad and husband and friend and find some time to read. I expect I'll be dead at some point.

I don't want to die angry or disappointed.

smartdogs said...

Well, now the "quality" of writing that I see in a lot of newspapers and magazines these days starts to make sense. -- When publishers create an economy designed to appeal to writer's egos instead of rewarding (heck, even compensating) skilled work -- they get what they pay for.

But as consumers - we don't.

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