Twenty-five years in the business, and I still occasionally get put in the position of being a schmuck. In 2009, I got a call from an editor at Condé Nast Portfolio, one of the last big, glossy, well-paying magazines. I like this editor. She used to buy stories from me when she was at Wired.
She said Portfolio’s editor, Joanne Lipmann, wanted a profile of SEIU President Andy Stern. Would I be interested in writing one? Of course, I said. It would be at least a $10,000 assignment, maybe more. Thing is, the editor said, Joanne wants a memo first — just laying out what the story would be — before she assigns it. One page only. (Turns out, all proposals to Portfolio have to held to one page.)
I worked a few days on the memo. It took some time, for example, to ascertain that Stern would cooperate with the profile. But word came back that he would, and then I spent time reading about Stern, reading earlier profiles of him so I could be sure I was tilling old ground, talking to people to find the hot new angle. I sent it in, my editor liked it, and I began talking with Stern’s press person about scheduling interviews.
Then word came back. Joanne has lost interest, my editor said. The memo was great — all of us argued for it — but she’s moved on to other things.
I don’t blame Joanne for asking for the memo. It’s a good idea to do some spadework before assigning a multi-thousand-dollar story. But she could have had one of her paid staff do it. Or she could have paid me.
So now, if this ever comes up again, I have to work with them this way: No. I won’t do free work. If Joanne won’t assign the story without a memo, then I need to be paid a $1,000 for it in the event she “loses interest” in the meantime. Probably this means I won’t get assignments from Portfolio in the future. But that will free up my time to do work that actually pays something.
My only consolation is this: Because of poor ad revenue, Portfolio not long afterwards announced it was going from twelve issues a year to ten. It’s Pyrrhic pleasure, to be sure. That’s two issues fewer to which to sell stories. But there’s pleasure in sharing the pain.