How kill fees ruin writers, hurt magazines and destroy journalism

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Just about every journalism contract contains a clause called a “kill fee” that states that if the magazine decides not to run a particular story then it will pay out only a fraction of the agreed upon rate. The writer is then free to sell the story to another publication. The logic behind this policy is that the clause is insurance so that a writer won’t simply accept a contract and then write a half-baked and poorly reported story and then run off with the full payment. Unfortunately the kill fee serves a much more diabolical role in the modern magazine industry. Not only it is bad for writers, it also exposes magazines to potential libel suits and degrades the overall quality of journalism in America.

Last week I had a conversation with a former editor at the New York Times Magazine who told me that they kill between 1/4 and 1/3 all assignments they issued to their on-contract writers. The magazine killed a much higher percentage of stories that they assigned to freelancers who weren’t already on the masthead.

While a kill fee is supposed to be insurance against bad writing, the NYT magazine was using it in a different way. A story can be killed for literally any reason: not only because of poor quality, but because an editor no longer thinks an idea is fresh, or that a character doesn’t “pop” on the page, or the piece was covered in another magazine between the time it was assigned and then scheduled to be published. (Those are three reasons that I’ve had stories killed over the years). Instead publications now routinely use the kill fee system as a way to increase the overall pool of material they can choose from to publish.  They intentionally over-assign and account for a certain percentage of killed pieces in advance.  Stories that are on the bottom of their list don’t make the cut.  This policy has nothing to do with the quality of what a writer submits, rather a business model that intentionally transfers risks reporting onto the backs of their authors.

Anyone who has written for a major publication knows that there is a wide gap between what a writer pitches to a magazine and what they encounter when they are actually reporting a piece in the field. This is the basic  disconnect between any proposal and the reality on which that proposal hangs. There is no guarantee that when a reporter gets out into the field that they will find the juicy narrative anecdotes that will make a piece sing on the page. Still, the only way to find out what is happening in the world is to actually do the work, travel to the locations, report the hell out of what you find and then try to write it up.

Let me give an example. A year or two ago I took an assignment with the NYTimes magazine about an epidemic of counterfeit drugs in India that had been reported on by several NGOs. The pitch went well and I flew across the world to look for evidence. When I got to Delhi, however, it turned out that the issue was essentially made up by major pharmaceutical companies in order to keep their market share secure from loose Indian patent laws. It was a different issue from the one I pitched, and the editor wasn’t interested in the actual facts.  I spent a month searching for evidence of a large-scale counterfeit market that Big Pharma had promised but couldn’t find anything strong enough. When I came back to America I sent the best draft of the piece I could to my editor. He didn’t like it. So I rewrote it. He wanted stronger anecdotes, so I rewrote it again. Over the course of the next seven months I rewrote the draft at least 9 times from scratch looking for better angles and more powerful anecdotes.  In the end the editor, who never really gave me much useful feedback despite my endless rewrites,  killed the piece. The NYTimes issued me a 25% fee as per the terms of their contract.  I had spent the better part of a year working on the story.

There are two major problems with this. First, I worked in good faith that the story I published would eventually appear in the pages of the magazine. If the same editor had hired a painter to slap a new coat of paint on his house, but at the end of the day decided to that the color wasn’t quite right, he would still have to pay the painter a full rate for the work that he did do.  Apparently the same rules don’t apply to writers.  Instead I had spent a great deal of effort on a piece that not only would never appear in print, but that I didn’t even receive the expected fee for.

For those unconcerned about writer’s finances lets talk about the second problem. Think instead of what this does to a journalist in the field whose paycheck, rent, insurance, loan payments and everything else literally depends on the salaciousness of their story. The journalist may have an incentive to take extra risks during their reporting–going to increasingly hostile and difficult terrain in the hopes of finding the right salacious anecdote. Or, perhaps even more disheartening, they might decide that the only way to get full pay is to simply make things up. In the last decade the media has been racked by one journalism scandal after another where poorly reported stories resulted in lawsuits and made the public at large distrust major news organizations. Just this year a Rolling Stone reporter completely failed to check a rape allegations at UVA resulting in what will likely be a costly libel lawsuit. Would it be any shock if the reporter worried that her story might get killed if her details weren’t cover worthy enough that she was seduced by the perfect anecdote? Who is to say that I wouldn’t have been able to save my story, seven months of work and 75% of my income if I had just played a little more fast and loose with the anecdotes that I came up with when I was reporting in India? Certainly I had incentive to do so. The only thing that stopped me was a general sense of propriety in my work.

If, on the other hand, publications paid people for the work that they actually conduct in the field, then there would be less financial pressure to take extra risks or make up facts while on assignment. Publications, in turn, would have to worry a little bit less about the safety of their reporters and the quality of journalism that they publish. It’s not as if the major magazines don’t have enough money to pay writers for the work they do in the field. Last year the New York Times posted a profit of $92 million. Conde Nast, the publisher of GQ, Wired, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker in turn, spends less than 1% of its gross revenues on words.

The policy of magazines paying almost nothing for killed stories needs to change. When a reporter goes into the field they need to be secure in the knowledge that the magazine has their back even if the world turns out to be more complex than the original pitch.  Killing the kill fee would be good for writers and good for the magazines they write for.

33 Comments

  1. Christopher Ketcham   •  

    Scott — from one freelancer to another: I’m with you. Fucking a, am I with you!

  2. Virginia Sole-Smith   •  

    It is totally disgusting how magazines use the kill fee system. Also disgusting: How often they don’t even honor the 25% (I had a piece killed when FITNESS Magazine died this week — since I hadn’t filed a first draft yet, it doesn’t qualify for kill fee status in their eyes). But what is a writer’s recourse on this one? Are you demanding that editors raise your kill fees or take them out of contracts? And if so, is anyone still assigning you work?

    The only work-around I’ve figured out over the past decade is to over-accrue assignments just like the magazines over-assign. I deliberately set an income goal each year that is 25% higher than I actually need it to be — that way, when stories are inevitably killed (or editors leave/magazines fold) I still pay my mortgage. Of course, it’s far from ideal if you look at it on an assignment-by-assignment basis because I still end up doing some work that goes unpaid and I can’t always sell a story elsewhere once a magazine has killed it. But it’s the best I’ve come up with so far.

    • sgcarney   •     Author

      The kill fee isn’t only abusive, but it could also be the target of a FTC suit since it offers incredibly unfair and uncompetitive terms to writers. I often do sign contracts with kill fees in them but negotiate hard on all points. I also only write one or two articles a year, but when I do write them it’s to build into another project that will actually generate me real money (like a book or TV show).

  3. Ian   •  

    Scott,

    I completely agree with you on the double standards that exist for writers. In light of your painter example, kill fees seem to serve as another roadblock to writers. Writing is a slippery slope; while companies require it like oxygen, they feel as if it’s a lower type of work. Painters produce a physical result. Writers (often) don’t. Is that the reason? Whatever it is, companies need to start recognizing writers as what they are: the lifeblood of organizations. Certainly not the only necessity, but a necessity nonetheless.

    Ian

    • Renee   •  

      I don’t know if it’s a lack of a physical result. I think perhaps people/companies think that anyone can write, so they don’t necessarily need to pay for it. Just because people can write doesn’t mean they write well.

  4. michele c. hollow   •  

    I recently wrote a post for an agency. The editor I was working with wrote back saying this was “spot on.” His next email, however, said the client wanted a different slant. So, while the editor admitted that I followed his instructions to the letter, his poor communication with his client cost me the full fee. I did get a kill fee, but I should have received the entire amount since the story was “spot on.”

  5. Sarah   •  

    Using a kill fee as a way to produce a pool of material from which to draw is rude and unprofessional. I wish I knew more about book publishing to assess if journalism could take some hints from it (but probably not).

    It’s disappointing that this piece in particular was killed. Reading about the effects of an unsecured supply chain and borders on the distribution and availability of prescription medication is absolutely fascinating.

  6. James   •  

    “It’s gross revenues …” ?

    • sgcarney   •     Author

      Thanks. Typo fixed. If there are others let me know.

  7. Robert Andrew Powell   •  

    I very much appreciated this essay. Kill fees suck. I was especially grateful to see you touch on the writer’s strong incentive to give the editors what they want, even if the facts don’t match up. But doing away with the kill fee won’t end that incentive, I don’t think. If the writer doesn’t produce what the editor wants to see, and if the editor then must pay the full fee for that copy, then the writer is very unlikely to get the chance to work on another story. Which means the writer has even MORE incentive to make stuff up.

    • Scott Carney   •     Author

      I’m not sure about that. A lot of times if you get a story killed an editor won’t want to work with you again, anyway. It’s not like the fee comes out of their salary. Besides, sometimes getting a piece killed can end up working out to a writer’s advantage if they can resell the copy elsewhere.

  8. Kendall Powell   •  

    Quite appalling situation as you describe it, Scott. In J-school I was taught kill fees were ONLY supposed to be used to kill stories that were unacceptably written or did not fit the assignment (granted, these are ambiguous descriptions that could be twisted for almost any purpose). Think I’ll be paying much closer scrutiny to the wording of these clauses from now on and always asking for it to be at least 50%. (Somehow that used-to-be standard has slid down to a measly 25%).

    Another solution is to have a clause in the payment terms that says payment upon acceptance shall mean that within 2 weeks of filing a first draft, an editor must read the article and deem it “editable” and this shall serve as acceptance. At least that way, you might be paid in full before any bloodshed begins.

    But I agree that, ideally, we should kill kill fees.

  9. Kendall Powell   •  

    Oh and writer beware: recently a colleague found an extra in her kill fee clause that said if a story was killed by Big Mag, the writer could not resell it for 90 days. Exclusive killed stories! Definitely not a good development. She did not sign it.

  10. Jennie Dusheck   •  

    I ran into the same thing in a different context. In 1992, I contracted to revise a college textbook manuscript. The acquisitions editor said they were going to give up on it if I couldn’t save it. By mid 1996, I’d finished rewriting it and helped to plan all the art, outside reviewers were enthusiastic, the book had a print date scheduled.

    In an excess of excitement the acquisitions editor told me that she had 7 other manuscripts for the same subject (biology) and the same market and that she’d canceled the contracts of the other 7 authors. I asked my developmental editor if this was really true and she said yes and that two of the contracts were for completed manuscripts that could have gone to press, just like mine.

    I was supposed to be flattered. But I just felt like a lucky survivor of a slaughter. I could have spent 4 years working on a book only to have it killed for marketing reasons, despite first rate reviews, or the publisher just having to choose one book over another. I assume at least a couple of the other authors got to keep their advances. I never knew.

    It’s now standard in the college textbook industry to include a clause allowing the publisher to take back the advance if they don’t publish the book—for any reason. I tried to negotiate that clause for a shorter version of my book and it was a dealer killer for the publisher. They wanted the right to recover the advance. Nor were they willing to define what would make the manuscript acceptable to publish. They insisted that was to be at their whim after the ms was complete, though they didn’t use the word “whim.” They kept saying “marketing decision.”

  11. Jennie Dusheck   •  

    PS. Scott, this is a fantastic series of posts!

  12. Anonymous Indian   •  

    To quote:

    “A year or two ago I took an assignment with the NYTimes magazine about an epidemic of counterfeit drugs in India that had been reported on by several NGOs. The pitch went well and I flew across the world to look for evidence. When I got to Delhi, however, it turned out that the issue was essentially made up by major pharmaceutical companies in order to keep their market share secure from loose Indian patent laws. It was a different issue from the one I pitched, and the editor wasn’t interested in the actual facts.”

    I like how you blithely glossed over the fact that the editor wasn’t interested in the facts of a story. The editor I assume works for the same publication that has taken it upon itself to do pieces discrediting India.

    • Scott Carney   •     Author

      Did I gloss over that part about the facts? It looks pretty pointed to me. That said, I think you are implying some extra motivation on the part of the the editor than is really there. He didn’t assign the piece because he wanted to discredit India. It’s sort of weird that you would even think that.

  13. Dan Keller   •  

    As a medical writer, I had an experience in which an editor killed a story because the quotes were too good. I was writing from a medical conference about what was new in anti-hypertensive therapy. The speaker said essentially, “Nothing, zero, zip, nada” and then went on to delineate several of the recent trials on new classes of drugs that had failed. The editor told me, “He couldn’t have said that.” I offered to play her the audio recording. She then moved the goal posts and said, “That’s just one man’s opinion.” I agreed but told her that the man was the head of the the hypertension council of a major cardiology professional society and was the lead author of a major textbook on hypertension, so it was a very informed opinion. She killed the story anyway, and I never wrote for her again, having decided that she was a moron. She did pay a kill fee.

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  16. Anon   •  

    Was any of the information you gathered on that counterfeit drug piece ever published elsewhere? If the whole thing was more or less manufactured by pharmaceutical companies then I think it’s important the facts in that come out.

    • Scott Carney   •     Author

      It’s a huge story and I’d like to write it some day, but my experience on this piece has made me pretty cautious. There was an amazing piece in Fortune that showed that the Indian pharmacompany Ranbaxy doctored down its own medicines. The story I should have written was how companies like Pharmasecure (a drug verifying company) gets funding because it fits a narrative about black market drug suppliers selling cement in pills and lets American and European drug manufacturers cast suspicions on the cheaper pills that India produces in order to prop up their own market share. The real culprits, as the Fortune piece identifies, are the accredited drug manufacturers. This is the sort of story that an intrepid reporter could spend a year on and still not get to the bottom of.

      • Anon   •  

        Excuse my ignorance, but what exactly is preventing you from releasing the stories now or doing more work on it? Does the NYT have some sort of right to the story where it can’t be published elsewhere (I certainly hope not)? Is it an issue of funding/time, where you don’t feel like it should be released as is and needs more work, but you don’t have thee means to finish it? Is it that no other news organization is willing to run the piece?

        I don’t know if you are familiar with the video game industry, but I’m picking up on a lot of parallels. Oftentimes companies hire contract artists and other content creators for a single project, overwork/underpay them, and then fire them without benefits or any sort of compensation once their work is done, and since video games are such a poplar thing now, there is no shortage of new talent willing to work in poor conditions to have the cycle restart. There’s also general issues with publishers mistreating developers and sitting on IP rights and stuff like that. You also reminded me of copyright/patent trolls, who send out legal notices en masse to people who allegedly infringed on their patent or copyrighted work and then have to take their stuff down or pay money or they will be taken to court, and often the people affected can’t afford the lengthy court battles involved and just pay up, even when the companies alleging the infringement often don’t have any say to be demanding the takedown or no infringement is occurring.

        Maybe something like this already exists, but are there any methods for journalists to crowdsource funding for stories? Lately, crowdfunding for video games has really taken off, where potential consumers help fund or partial fund video game’s based on a pitch from the developers, partially or entirely skipping over there being a publisher.

        • Scott Carney   •     Author

          Fascinating parallels to the video game industry. Thanks for pointing them out. My guess is that it’s similar in a lot of creative fields related to publishing. I could, of course, finish the story, but it would require another trip to India and some extensive background research. I might do it down the road as a part of a larger project that I have in mind, but not immediately. For now I am focusing my energies on writing a book on a totally different subject.

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  19. Amy Westervelt   •  

    Ugh, I have lived this scenario too many times to count without flying into an afternoon rage. You know what I would love to see? Publications paying a reporting stipend up front instead of a kill fee on the back end. Then they’re still not out the money if the reporting doesn’t turn up the story that they wanted, the reporter’s time is more or less covered (probably better than a kill fee, worse than the fee for a published story), and the whole process goes more smoothly. If such a framework existed with your NYTmag piece, for example, okay you would have been out the larger fee but at least you wouldn’t be out the time and frustration of nine rewrites.

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  23. Kat   •  

    I hear you but I don’t hear you.

    Yes the kill rate is cheap. Yes I can see how it can be manipulated.

    But no. You are no longer a journalist when you choose to write lies. You’re an overworked and underpaid marketing content writer. If I had been in your shoes and “the editor wasn’t interested in the actual facts” then that would be it for me. I would find someone else to take the story about Big Pharma. If I was that committed I might even just write it to have it out there and published. I would also out the editor for being a POS.

    Yes I am sure kill rates can be considered no bueno when they’re abused but what I took away from your well written and interesting editorial above is that you probably should have chosen integrity over schillery. Had you done so then you wouldn’t have wasted all that time and effort.

    I respect you for sharing your experience and sorry you had to go through it. My take on it is probably not what you wanted to hear but it is what it is.

  24. max   •  

    You gotta look it from both sides. I’m not a writer, but I hire writers. And just today I got a piece I hired someone to write and they did a pretty terrible job. I just want to end things quick and clean and find someone else who can do a better job. If you don’t like the terms of a kill fee then don’t sign those contracts. A contract is an agreement–don’t agree to things you disagree with! If you can’t accept those terms, try and negotiate better terms. If the client is inflexible, then find other clients. Also posting the profits of a few successful media companies doesn’t say much as the health of an industry. You’re leaving out the graveyard: all the newspapers and magazines which failed in recent years.
    https://nyoobserver.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/adrev-600×423.jpg?quality=80

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