Art and design publications devalue the essential work of writing. Low pay rates and flat-fee payments amount to freelance writers generously subsidizing publishers, who in the worst cases compensate writers less than a minimum wage for work. Art and design writers demand pay rate increases and improved editorial practices that compensate them for all of the time required to produce content for well-established publications.
Art, architecture, and design magazines often cover labor issues in these fields—most recently, unionization efforts at SHoP, Bernheimer, and Snohetta, striking graduate students, and advocacy projects of the Architecture Lobby. They cover abusive working conditions within the industry, exploitative hours at boutique firms, abuse of internships for free labor. Increasingly, they concern themselves with equity, racial discrimination, disability, inclusion, and predatory sexual abuse. We believe the exploitative labor practices of the architecture and design magazines themselves need to be made public, creating a mandate for increased pay rates and minimum assignment fees, late payment charges, and making publishers aware of the actual costs of the labor they ask us to do for free, so they will budget these costs into assignment rates.
Current industry standards are unsustainable and punitive for writers. The lack of consideration shown for working hours, last-minute requests, additional services with no additional pay, lack of timely payments of contracts, invoices, and fees, and lack of responses to pitches all amount to abusive practices. We recognize that many magazines operate on narrow margins and cannot pay at the same rate as commercial trade publishers. We all do pro-bono advocacy work at times, donate time to support emerging publications, or collaborate with publishers who offer editorial help and visibility to developing projects. But after a few years, even non-profit and emerging magazines need to raise money to adequately pay writers.
The National Writers Union represents freelance journalists of all types, including stringers, feature writers, and editors, for both print and the web, organizing national initiatives to raise standards. But freelancers may be prevented from setting common rates by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which treats price coordination among independent contractors as an illegal antitrust activity. Yet we can join together to make demands for minimum standards, inflation-based rate increases, prompt payment of invoices, contracts, and fees, and improved labor practices, and if necessary, to daylight bad actors.
We acknowledge the pressure that’s been put on publications over the last 15 years from lost advertising to the internet. But without writers, there’s no magazine. The response to pushback from writers about uncompensated labor cannot be to cut off assignments. As an industry, we are obliged to figure out a business model that doesn’t systematically exploit people.
Signed (listed alphabetically),
Jared Brey, Lisa Chamberlain, Eva Díaz, Billy Fleming, Deborah Gans, Sean Hemmerle Studio, Cathy Lang Ho, Aaron King, Elizabeth Harrison Kubany, Karen Kubey, Mark Lamster, Jeff Link, Bart Lootsma, Sam Lubell, Carlo McCormick, Samuel Medina, Bill Millard, Zach Mortice, Jess Myers, Enrique Ramirez, Timothy A. Schuler, Matt Shaw, Natalia Torija, Lisa Owens Viani, Ian Volner, Kate Wagner, Jenny Xie, Stephen Zacks, and Mimi Zeiger.
Notes for Editors and Publishers
Exploitative practices are widespread throughout the magazine industry, not only in art and design magazines. Many of the practices are inherited from industry standards of generations ago, such as abuse of kill fees, which are meant to be offered to the writer as a good faith payment for their work when they have earnestly attempted but failed to fulfill their assignments, not when the writer has delivered the agreed upon work as assigned—the magazine’s contract for the services of the writer—but the publication, for its own circumstantial reasons, chooses not to publish it.
Others are a byproduct of staffing cuts, such as the increased expectation that writers not only work for free to source and obtain photos, but also, in many cases, write captions for print layouts, obtain contracts for permissions, photo edit, and upload images for publication online. There used to be a full-time staff job called a photo editor. The work has a value and takes time, and the writer should be paid for it.
The perpetual excuse we hear about underpayment is that the news business is struggling financially. Meanwhile, highly capitalized news startups come and go, decade after decade, producing wealth for their founders. Major newspapers have revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Editors receive annual salary increases that respond to inflation and acknowledge their seniority and experience. Yet pay rates for stories have not increased for at least 25 years—probably much longer. In that time, the cost of living has increased by nearly 60 percent, and inflation by 75 percent.
Over time, this creates an unsustainable situation for writers who primarily work as independent contractors and are not doing it as a secondary occupation to supplement teaching careers or as a vanity project, living off of, as the cliché goes, inherited wealth. The additional, uncompensated labor demanded by publications is so time-consuming, lacking in regard for normal business hours and public holidays, and flagrantly disrespectful of the writer’s time that it is nearly impossible to sustain for the most long-lasting, widely published, and best compensated art and architecture writers and critics. Who knows when some editor is going to email the writer at 2 am about a story submitted three months ago—without the editor even having sent an acknowledgement of receipt, after having complained stringently about a deadline extension request—asking for a revision by the end of the next business day, as if the writer were not, necessarily, working on three other articles on deadline to earn a modest income at any given time. It’s time to start pushing back on uncompensated demands on writers’ labor.
We belong to a culture that tends to regard lack of wealth and poverty as shameful. It’s no wonder that reprehensible pay rates are rarely discussed publicly and are regarded as impossible to challenge by a class of workers that identify as professionals but are paid less than service workers. That has to end now.
There’s an implicit understanding within journalism about an author’s pitch, which is an email to the editor proposing an article. The pitch gives writers implicit intellectual property rights over coverage of a story for that publication. Unless it’s a widely known major project by a highly visible figure, once writers have found a project fitting for a particular magazine, with free photos already available, having obtained an understanding with the firm that it has not been published yet, the writer emails the editor—ideally as short as possible to not waste work on a speculative and unpaid process—and waits. Sometimes the editor never responds. Sometimes it takes weeks or months, while the exclusive withers away or the story loses its relevance.
The journalist is not supposed to pitch a story to multiple places because if both publications were to decide they wanted the story, it could create a conflict. The writer is not supposed to write about a subject for two different publications at the same time. At some ambiguous time, maybe after a week or two or a month, if the editor doesn’t respond or turns down the proposed article, it’s considered OK to pitch it to another publication.
For some magazines, the assignment process includes several rounds of follow up questions and sourcing documents that need to be completed. The chain of emails for the assignment process can grow to dozens of emails with the sources and editors, the word count of the messages sometimes already vastly surpassing the story assignment in length. In two recent cases, there were dozens of back and forth emails not including contracts, sourcing documents, and photography arrangements before the writing even started. In some cases, before even receiving an assignment, the writer has already done site visits and been tracking the project for more than a year, waiting for photography, and getting updates on its expected completion.
In the case of projects being handled by publicists and PR firms, or the in-house press office of an architecture firm or organization, an email with press information goes out to everyone in the industry simultaneously. This is basically a dead story for the independent writer: it will get assigned by the magazine editor to the usual suspects. The writer may receive an assignment, but they have no control at this stage of whether they cover it or not. They can reach out to editors they work with frequently offering to cover it, but they have no particular claim to the story. Fielding emails and invitations for previews, meetings, and press visits from publicists takes a large amount of time. It’s basically another form of uncompensated labor: the speculative research of finding information is not accounted for in fees offered by magazines.
Sometimes—too often—the architect or publicist is not transparent with the writer about whether a project has already been published. The magazine inevitably later finds that the project already has been written about and declines to assign a story. It’s another way the pitching process routinely wastes an author’s time and jeopardizes relationships with editors. This happened a few times to one writer in the last season alone.
Minimum Assignment Fee
Because of the limited attention a writer can devote to multitudes of subjects at any one time, writers have to set a minimum pay rate beneath which we will not accept assignments. Five or six years ago, $250 for a story that takes no more than one day of work more or less equaled a median income, or what the writer would be earning full-time if they were receiving assignments at that rate every day. Currently, it should be more like $450, based on inflation and all of the uncompensated labor that absorbs extra time, spilling over into second and third workdays.
The writer can reasonably turn around a short news story of 250 to 450 words in one day, including a half-day site visit or an interview with one or two sources, listening to it once or twice, taking notes, transcribing quotable parts, and composing the text. (One can no longer transcribe entire interviews, since it is not economically viable to do so, though there are programs available that can provide rough transcriptions.) A story of that length, paid at the going $1 per word rate, is one day of work. The writer cannot afford to take more time than that. For a publication that pays no more than $300 for a quick news story of as many as 500 to 600 words, they cannot expect the writer to spend more than an hour on edits and rewrites.
For the most part, $1 per word remains the highest and most standard rate in journalism, with the exception of the widest distribution, general-interest magazines, such as Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest, or the New Yorker. In design and architecture, $1 per word has been the standard rate for at least 25 years, without increasing anywhere, except, briefly, at one industry magazine. Vanity Fair increased its pay rate to $2 a word in 1984. Art, architecture, and design magazines have not followed this precedent 40 years later! According to some sources, $1 a word became a standard pay rate for magazines in the mid-1960s. It’s time for that rate to at least double.
Ernest Hemingway earned $1 a word plus expenses as a highly coveted author writing for popular magazines in the 1940s. In today’s dollars, a 3,000-to-3,500-word story earned him the equivalent of $50,000 per article. If he managed to get assigned and publish four or five articles of that length in a year, he would be making a respectable living as a journalist. Today, he would be living in dire poverty.
Another underlying factor in compensation is that features paid at the going $1/word rate might have been assigned at 2,500-to-3,000 words ten years ago. Today, art and design magazines rarely assign features longer than 1,500 words. At some places, 450 words is now the typical feature length. This means you would have to be writing three to four articles a week, 52 weeks a year to earn a median income. You cannot do that and also be doing extra uncompensated labor.
An article by Malcolm Harris originally published in Forge extensively researched the history of pay rates.
“The most common complaint is that the numbers just don’t add up to a good living. Without signing writers to exclusive deals, most magazines top out in the $1 to $2 per word range (exclusivity can get you $3). It’s possible to publish 30,000 words of freelance writing a year at those rates — about eight articles the length of the one you’re reading — but it’s extremely difficult to land and execute that many assignments successfully. And if you manage to pull it off and place a full year’s worth of writing in top-flight publications, you may make as much as the average personal trainer: $60,000.”
A magazine would have a hard time hiring an experienced editor for less than $80,000. One with a senior or executive role is likely to be paid upwards of $90–100,000. The prorated pay of independent contractors needs to match this range.
The question of pay rates is also an issue of equity and inclusion in the magazine industry. People from low-income backgrounds and members of groups that have been historically discriminated against cannot afford to subsidize magazines and work for less than the median income. The lack of inflation-adjusted pay-rate increases perpetuates a gross underrepresentation of low-income and historically-discriminated-against groups and leads to a severe lack of diversity.
Assuming the writer is experienced and can reliably produce copy in the form required by a magazine, from a time-management perspective, a working writer cannot afford to devote an unlimited time to multiple rounds of edits without additional compensation. Every hour of labor is valued at around $50. (The Editorial Freelancer’s Association’s spec pay rate is fairly outdated with regard to the per-word-count fees, but relatively accurate in terms of hourly rates). If it’s not paid for by the magazine, it creates a shortfall that needs to be compensated from elsewhere. It becomes a credit card debt or a withdrawal from a savings account. If multiple rounds of revision are commonplace for a magazine’s editorial process to achieve the high standard it is aiming for, the story has to be paid at a rate that corresponds to the extra days of labor required to achieve that standard. Magazines that pride themselves on their quality of writing or consistency of tone must pay writers for the extra work they demand to achieve that tone.
Editors often take for granted that the writer will do extra work to make up for staff reductions and to train inexperienced young editors who burden writers with unnecessary, trivial changes. Magazines sometimes ask for multiple rounds of rewrites after running edits through a whole battery of senior editors, when the original draft was written as assigned and had no inherent structural problems. After three edits and two rewrites, essentially changing the original assignment three times, at a certain point the writer must necessarily refuse to do further unpaid work on an assignment. In one recent case, a third round of edits came back with rude comments from a senior editor, which are simply inappropriate and a further burden on the writer’s time.
We recognize that editing can be a thankless task. But editors rarely give positive feedback on stories and are commonly inconsiderate in their comments. This creates an extra burden on the writer. Magazines that have an in-house culture of jokey familiarity with one another should beware of sending writers unprofessional, offhand remarks in comments to non-staff independent contractors. While the process may have become rote for them, churning through copy month after month, it requires considerable intellectual commitment on the part of the writer. Don’t waste their time with comments meant for your colleagues.
The purpose of the kill fee is to offer the writer a fee, often reduced, as compensation for work that the magazine has “killed,” ie. does not intend to publish for whatever reason. If it’s the fault of the writer’s failure or negligence in not producing the copy as assigned, it’s perfectly legitimate to offer a reduced fee. If the writer has produced a workable draft that the editors can edit and revise, and for one reason or another, whether because of timeliness, political circumstances, or the editor’s discretion, they choose not to publish, the writer must be paid the contracted amount.
The kill fee is not a tool for magazines, as is rumored to happen in some places, to assign twice the number of stories than they plan to publish and kill half of them, paying a reduced fee. It is not a tool for the editor to demand endless rounds of revisions, holding the threat of killing an article written as assigned. One editor recently tried to pay a “generous” reduced kill fee after the writer refused to do further edits in the case of an editorial process that essentially changed the original assignment multiple times through the comments of rounds of editors. This would have held up easily as a breach of contract on the part of the magazine in Small Claims Court.
In another recent case, an editor assigned a writer a news story that was filed on the deadline. After two months, without acknowledgement of receipt, the editor then decided to turn it into a feature assigned to someone else and offered a kill fee as compensation. This is essentially intellectual property theft: whether or not the writer’s text became a pretext for the new assignment or not, it was in the possession of the magazine. If the writer fulfilled their agreement with the magazine, it’s that writer’s story to extend into a feature.
Exploitative practices like these must be reformed. While other norms now considered to be morally reprehensible such as unpaid internships and uncompensated overtime seem to have largely been outmoded in the architecture field through daylighting of bad actors, magazines still continue to expect and demand that writers donate unpaid labor without question. They routinely threaten to punish those who push back, implicitly and explicitly, with loss of assignments. We as a community demand change.
Featured image courtesy of the Association of Independent Art & Architecture Journalists. Photos by Sean Hemmerle © 2023.