Writers Rise to Kill the Kill Fee

There was actually a time when we thought one of the nicer features of the free-lance life was this: turn in a total piece of crap and you’d get paid something for it anyway.

But there’s another way of looking at the kill fee, and this point of view currently prevails: do the job you were hired to do and receive pennies on the dollar for your effort.

Consider the tale of Keith Watson, who dived into the swirling waters of the free-lance life, floundered against the current for a few years, and staggered out. Watson had risen to a station of celebrity in the newspaper game–TV critic for the Houston Post–when he decided to go into business for himself. An early assignment was to prepare “advertorial” copy for Houston City, a local magazine that calculated a special section devoted to spiffy Northwest Houston would bring in lots of ads.

It didn’t. So the magazine canceled the section, and Watson collected $225 for his article, a quarter of what he’d have been paid if it ran.

Houston City got back to Watson and hired him to write a profile of a prominent local publisher who owned a rival city magazine and an upscale Texas-wide monthly called Ultra. “I thought it was a bit odd,” Watson told us. “I was being asked to do a story about a competitor.”

By the time he handed in the piece, the editor who ordered it had been fired. His replacement, Watson says, not only killed the profile but passed it along to a friend of hers at Ultra. “It was an unflattering article in some respects, and so I was blackballed at Ultra.”

Again Watson was paid a quarter on the dollar. He pocketed $150. Watson survived five years as a Houston free-lancer by abandoning magazines for corporate assignments, certainly not the kind of work he originally had in mind. Then he looked around for greener pastures. He had a brother in Chicago. “I thought opportunities would be good in Chicago too. It was like a real city compared to Houston, which is like a drive-through lane.”

Watson arrived here in August 1990 and quickly signed to do a story for Chicago magazine. What Chicago wanted, he tells us, was 3,500 words on personal finance, with separate sections explaining how to maneuver shrewdly in the realms of accounting, banking, real estate, insurance, investing, and finding a lawyer. The working title was “Getting More for Less.”

The assignment didn’t ring Watson’s chimes. “Looking back on it, I think, this is crazy, why would I have taken this assignment? It’s obviously unfocused. I figured I had to go do a shitty assignment so they’d give me something decent down the road. So I went along with it.”

Watson says he worked six weeks, did 20 interviews, and turned in a 21-page story. A couple of weeks later a letter arrived from senior editor Jan Parr saying she and editor Hillel Levin had decided to kill the piece.

Watson offered to rewrite the article for nothing. Levin said no thanks. Chicago assigned someone else to the story and paid Watson a $437.50 kill fee, which by his calculations meant he’d been working for $2 an hour. The story that Chicago eventually published didn’t resemble Levin’s outline: it was now about finding a financial planner.

So Watson wrote publisher Heidi Schultz a letter asking for $1,312.50, the balance of the $1,750 he’d expected to be paid. He told Schultz, “I do not feel it is fair to punish a free-lancer financially because editors change their minds well after the story is assigned. Is this the way free-lance writers are usually treated by Chicago magazine editors?”

Well, of course it is. It’s the way free-lance writers are usually treated by editors all over the country. Schultz turned Watson down.

You did sign a contract, didn’t you? we asked him.

“The reason I signed a contract,” he said, “is that I knew I wouldn’t get an assignment if I didn’t sign a contract. As far as I know, writers always sign these contracts in which we agree to accept 25 percent of the pay if we do 100 percent of the labor.

“But I will no longer do that,” said Watson. “This is the last straw. I will never sign a contract with a kill fee ever again in my life.”

A lot of free-lancers feel like Watson. So many do that last year the delegates’ assembly of the National Writers Union overwhelmingly passed a bill of rights for writers, a cornerstone of which was killing the kill fee.

We talked with the delegate who proposed the bill of rights, Brett Harvey, an NWU grievance officer from Brooklyn. “Eight times out of ten,” said Harvey, “a piece is killed not because of the quality of the writing but for a variety of reasons that are completely outside the writer’s control. For example, the editor didn’t communicate in the first place what they wanted. That is the most common thing. An editor will say, ‘Give me a piece on the gulf war.’ They don’t give any details, and the reason they like to be vague is that when you turn in the piece, if they don’t like it they can say, well, you didn’t fulfill the assignment.

“Another problem is magazines overassigning. Lots of magazines overassign massively, expecting they’ll be killing two out of three pieces. Since they have so little financial risk, they can do that. It’s true, once in a while there’ll be a piece that comes in that’s inadequate. If a piece is inadequate, we have said in our bill of rights there should be arbitration.”

With the burden of proof on the editor? we asked.

“Absolutely. In the long run, what it will do will be to force editors to think about what they’re assigning and who they’re assigning it to. It’s true, a kind of shakedown will happen. There will be writers who won’t get used. But that’s the breaks. In fact, if your writing isn’t good enough, then maybe you shouldn’t be writing. What we’re trying to do is protect writers who are doing their jobs and then getting screwed.”

There are two obvious problems with all of this. The big one is how in the world the NWU thinks it’s going to be able to pull it off. Harvey isn’t sure. “Given the depressed magazine industry of the early 90s, magazines going out of business right and left, this is probably not a great time to be starting to institute a new standard,” he told us. “But on the other hand, what the hell, why not? I do think it’s going to be a long process. I think it’ll be kind of a squeeze play. We have a growing group of writers [with big names] who are expressing their willingness to sign on with this campaign. People are sending in pledge cards.”

The other problem is with writers without track records. We asked Richard Babcock, the new editor of Chicago, how he’d react to no more kill fee, and he said, “What it might do is disincline us to give assignments to some writers whom we weren’t very familiar with on complicated stories.” What’ll happen, said Harvey, is more writers breaking into magazines with stories done on spec–that is, without contracts or any promise of any payment.

Keith Watson was a new face at Chicago. The magazine didn’t know his work, and a friend who’d been a regular contributor helped him get the assignment. Even so, Watson did the story, damn it, and when he didn’t get paid in full he turned to the NWU’s Chicago local for help. Grievance officer Ron Dorfman wrote Babcock, who said in response just what you’d have said in his shoes, which was that all this took place on Hillel Levin’s watch and he saw no reason to second-guess Levin.

“Now I’ll get back to them,” Dorfman told us the other day, “and try to make the matter one of conscience.” And after conscience, there may be yet another remedy.

“I don’t know if anybody’s done it here,” Dorfman said, “but people in New York say they’ve had a considerable success going to small-claims court. Judges tend to think that it’s just common sense that if anybody’s assigned to do some work and does it, that they shall get paid, even if they’ve signed a contract.”

With an eye to the national bill-of-rights campaign, Dorfman wants to hear from any other Chicago writers who consider themselves wronged by kill fees. In the name of this cause, Watson told his story. “I really don’t think I’m going to get any money out of them,” he said. “Honestly, the issue’s more important to me than the money.”

Money’s coming in regularly now. In December 1990, two months after Chicago killed his story, Watson took a job as an in-house writer-editor for Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm.

The Ugly American Pavilion

Forewarnings of egg that’s due to arrive on the nation’s face in three months’ time are already appearing in the American media, most recently in last week’s In These Times. The subject of John Judis’s report was the American pavilion at the world’s fair that opens in April in Seville, Spain. “Almost all of the 110 countries represented had more original and relevant designs than the American,” wrote Judis after visiting Seville at the request of a PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, hired to tout the fair. Judis said the pavilion consisted of two geodesic domes that “looked like the halves of two giant golf balls plopped down on the expo’s lawn.” Judis was surprised to see that one press guide called the pavilion “incomprehensible” and another an “embarrassment” and concluded that Burson-Marsteller had invited him to Seville “because they wanted a writer willing to recount the travesty of the American pavilion.”

We’ve read in other places that the pavilion will be a humiliation. What’s startling about Judis’s report is what he says he was told by the American in charge of the pavilion, Frederick Bush. Bush said he approached American companies for financial and technical help and was consistently turned down. Judis writes:

“Bush told me that companies like CNN, Time-Warner and Dupont ‘consider themselves global or transnational and don’t want to be pegged as American.’ Some of the companies, he said, were concerned that being labeled American would cause Europeans to doubt the quality of their products.”

It might be time for some editor to publish a regular feature, “How low can this country sink?” Judis’s findings establish an early benchmark.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.