An (almost) Deadly Journey on Diamond Mountain

In 2012 Ian Thorson and his wife Lama Christie McNally attempted to find spiritual perfection on a mountain top in Arizona. Only a few loyal followers knew where they were and the supply drops were increasingly sporadic. Water was scarce, but they collected what they could of it in a tarp and a plastic jug after a lucky snowfall. They lived there for almost a month before Christie and then Ian fell sick with dysentery. At first Ian was filled with rage by his plight–going as far as hitting himself on the head with a piece of hard plastic in the cave. They packed an emergency locator beacon and a cell phone with them, but Christie waited three days before she sent out a call for help. It was too late for Ian.

Two months after Ian Thorson died her the arms I traveled to Arizona to try to understand the world through his eyes. I wanted to know why she hadn’t pushed the button that would have saved his life earlier. I wanted to see the place where it happened and feel desolate climate of this part of the world. Most importantly, I wanted to see the cave where Ian spent the last month of his life.

The journey could have killed me.

People at Diamond Mountain all told me that even though they knew where the cave was, no one wanted to visit it. Bad things had happened there and no one wanted to tempt fate.  The sheriff Larry Noland implored me waive off my expedition. He tried to scare me with storiesof poisonous cacti, impossible heat, bears and rattlesnakes in every rocky crevasse. But I was adamant and convinced a local rancher to escort me at least part of the way.

It was only a mile and a half, but it was the hardest hike of my life.  It also turned out that Noland was right on almost every scary story that he told me. I heard rattle snakes, got stuck by a poisonous cacti. Luckily there were no bears.

What I did discover, though, was that McNally and Thorson spent their last days together in a small cave that offered magnificent views the retreat valley below, but very few amenities to support them. At one point the cave had been home to a Hohokom Indian who had stashed, but never recovered, a giant pot of grain on the dirt floor. I also learned that merely visiting the spot was dangerous enough to almost kill me. The rancher, Jerry, turned back after I pushed up a steep gravel slope. He was out of water and thought it too risky to continue.  I pushed on and found the cave. Getting back, however, was even more difficult than coming up.

This is a video I shot on my way back down. I think the pain in my voice explains much more than I ever could with with a keyboard.

This was the beginning of a project that would take me almost two years to complete. First with a story in Playboy magazine, and later as a book “A Death on Diamond Mountain

Inside Pacific Standard Interview where I swear like a sailor

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A week or so ago Noah Davis, who writes a column for Pacific Standard called How Do You Make a Living, noticed the posts that I’d been doing about the broken model for freelance writing in this country. The series explores career paths as diverse as taxidermy to puzzle makers, but very few industries are as coercive or just plainly unfair as freelance writing.

One thing, however, did surprise me when I read this interview. Apparently when someone asks me about the freelance business I can’t help but to swear like a sailor. It’s not something that I realize that I’m doing, but I guess this really does get under my skin.  Below are a few excerpts. Or hell, just read the full interview here.

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Fragile Freelancers and the Fate of Journalism

Earlier this month Project Word released a one-of-a-kind survey on the ways that freelance journalists make their livings. The 34-page report, titled “Untold Stories: A Survey of Freelance Investigative Reporters,” was part of a collaboration between 22 different journalism organizations and included responses from more than 200 investigative reporters. To no one’s surprise, the survey found that freelances are in in dire straights.

Among the more shocking revelations were that:

  • 44% of respondents said they were being paid less now than 5 years ago. 22% said that their income was half no than what it used to be.
  • Inadequate support for investigative journalism has deprived the public of a minimum of nearly 600 stories that could have served the public good.
  • 92% of 137 freelancers reported experiencing “anxiety on a daily basis over finances.

The study lays out the plight of increasingly marginal freelancers in visceral detail, and peppers in writer’s own language for how they have struggled to make their livings.  Amidst bad contracts, limited reprint rights, declining pay, endless debt, and anxiety ultimately freelance investigative journalism is more charity than a career path.

Here are my favorite three quotes:

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Why ISIS probably isn’t selling organs

organs CroppedIn the last few weeks disturbing reports surfaced out of Iraq that the stating that the Islamic militant group ISIS had expanded its terror operations to include organ trafficking. The reports originate from a lone official in the Iraqi embassy and reference dozens of bodies in mass graves missing their internal organs.  The story has since been reported everywhere from fringe new sources like the Jewish Press and the right-wing Freedom Center all the way to more respectable outlets like CNN. FOX news has jumped all over the organ harvesting story and repeated it in numerous reports. In the last week I’ve received two interview requests from major news organizations who were aware of my book The Red Market and wanted me to comment.

It’s true that there is a long history of organ theft  during times of war–most notably during the war in Kosovo and more recently Israel security forces in Palestine. I have no illusions that ISIS would be happy to get into the organ trafficking business if it meant that they could make a little money to support their ongoing terrorist operations. However, I just don’t believe that the reports are credible or that ISIS really has the infrastructure to make it work.

In the six years that I spent investigating organ trafficking networks the recipient and the donor were always in the same city when the operation took place. This usually meant that the recipient flew to India, Pakistan, China or Egypt and the donor was sourced from a prison or a nearby slum. Sometimes they were paid, sometimes they were kidnapped. Occasionally both the donor and the recipient would fly to a Caribbean Island or South Africa for the operation.  I never have heard of a single case of a kidney or heart being harvested in one country illegally and then being sent by air to another one.

The reason boils down to logistics. Transplants are highly coordinated affairs and require the cooperation from hospitals, ambulance services, laboratories, police, customs officials and other government agencies. Everything needs to be timed perfectly or the brief window of keeping the organ alive for transplant will pass.   Continue reading…

What Hollywood can teach Magazine Writers

How is it that a screenwriter in Hollywood can get paid a six figure salary by simply giving a movie studio the option to see their work before anyone else does? How are some authors able to convince publishers to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars on their book advances?  And, why is it that freelance journalists are almost perpetually broke and rarely make more than two dollars a word?

best-literary-agent CroppedThe answer to these questions lies in the history of these different industries. At one point most journalists had staff jobs at newspapers or on the mastheads of magazines. They were expected to produce a lot of material, had stable salaries and their work pretty much always belonged to the companies they worked for. Hollywood and book publishing were different. No one was guaranteed work. Writers came up with their own ideas and then sold them to movie studios and publishers on a freelance basis.  They hired agents who knew the industry, looked out for their interests and held auctions to drive up the price of their work. Book publishers and studios paid the increasingly high prices and still turned a profit.

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Brian Williams and the Myth of the Intrepid TV Journalist

Brian Williams in Iraq

Brian Williams poses next to a soldier and some big piece of military equipment Iraq in 2003.

For almost a decade NBC anchor Brian Williams has repeated a story that when he was reporting from Iraq the helicopter he was flying in was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. It turns out that he was lying and for the last week he has been at the center of a media whirlwind with people across the country calling for his resignation. After he apologized, investigative sleuths dug deeper into other statements that he has made over the years and it appears that quite a few of his stories don’t check out. A lot of digital ink has been spilled on the affair, but I think that there is a larger issue at stake that has a lot more to do with the American public’s lack of knowledge about the media rather than Williams’ own statements.

Television is a medium for entertainment, and just about everything that appears on it is carefully produced behind the scenes. While it often appears that television hosts are investigating black markets, on the front lines of a war, or painstakingly filing FOIA requests to uncover government corruption on their own, the truth is that while the information they may present might be accurate and fact checked, the representation you see is almost always a fabrication. Before an anchor appears in the field producers, researchers, fixers and investigators have already tracked down leads, scouted potential locations, shot B-roll and prepped the interviewees and had them fill out release forms. When the anchor arrives on the scene the story is wrapped up in a tight little package and most of the time all the host has to do is shoot a few hours of film and then fly hope to begin prepping another story. The host gets the credit for the story and the TV viewing audience gets to identify with a single personality from one broadcast to another.

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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.  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.

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Are you Pitching to a Silo or to a Market?

At this point it’s no secret that writers get a pretty lousy deal in the publishing business. Every day someone asks me if there’s a way to fight back. In fact, there’s one common practice that writers take on that hobbles them from the very start, and it’s our fault that the problem exists at all. Most journalism schools, editors, and old-time-freelancers advise new writers to only pitch one magazine at a time when they are trying to sell a story. In turn, most editors assume that pitches are exclusive material and will go as far as to say that they wont even consider an idea if another publication is reviewing it as well. This is called “silo pitching”, and it’s the surest route to penury for a writer.

 

That silo pitching is the standard method to market story ideas to publications is indicative of just how scared writers are of the people they work for. Most writers tell me that they would never take their ideas out to multiple publications because they worry they might be blacklisted and never find work again. Loyalty, they say, also has its perks because a good editorial relationship might secure future assignments. Unfortunately the loyalty that writers feel to their editors is rarely reciprocated. At the mainstream magazines editors almost always take a very long time to respond to pitches. Even after an initial expression of interest, an assignment can take months—yes months–to finally receive a green light. Sometimes editors don’t even bother to respond in the first place which means that a good idea that might have found a home at another magazine could malinger and die in the inbox of the first editor you sent it to.

 

A more serious problem with silo pitching is that by extending exclusivity to a single magazine in advance means the the writer has effectively given up any ability to negotiate the contract when it comes time to sign. There’s never a chance to allow the market to value a writers’ work by getting input from multiple potential buyers. Instead the writer has almost no option than accept whatever deal the magazine puts up. This is why bad deals are now the industry standard. Forget the lamentable payment terms, most magazines now also suck away film and reprint rights, offer low kill fees, and won’t pay their writers until months, and in some cases, years after the magazine has appeared in print.

 

Silo pitching completely violates any attempt for a writer to receive a market value for their work.

 

In Hollywood and in book publishing exclusivity deals are well compensated. A good script writer might make upwards of $50,000 a year from a single studio just so that they have the right of first refusal on whatever they come up with. That journalists give away this right by default shows just how sick this business actually is.

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The case for $20 per word

WARNING: I’m about to make statement that is so revolutionary that you might begin to question my sanity. It’s a goal for writers that will seem not only unattainable, but impossible: as if I’ve been living on an entirely different planet. What I’m going to propose is that writers at mainstream magazines–particularly the ones in the Conde Nast empire, but also Wenner Media, and Hearst–should be paid not only a living wage, but one that values them in the same way that magazines sell their writing to advertisers.  I’m going to suggest that writers at the top magazines in America should make at least $20 per word.

 

The number is ten times the standard going rate of $2 that most magazines pay (check out current rates at my crowdsourced Google Doc).  However, given the current economics of the industry, I have to argue that it also is the only fair rate for our work after you account for how much print advertisements sell for. Take for instance the fact that average rate that Conde Nast sells a single page of advertising to their clients for is about $130,000. Magazines vary pretty widely in their page count, but over the last few days I’ve counted the adds in about a dozen different issues and the smallest magazines have about 30 ads, the fattest more than 100. For argument’s sake, lets saw that the average Conde Nast magazine has 50 pages of advertising. After they give their clients a steep discount, they reap about $70,000 per page in revenues. It’s pretty conservative to say that a run of the mill Conde Nast magazine makes at least $3.5 million per issue. At the very most, the fattest mags in the empire run about 40,000 words for a total payout of $80,000 to writers. That’s only  1% of its gross revenues dedicated to words. However, if you were to ask just about any reader I’m pretty sure that they would tend to agree that words and stories make up more than 1% of the value of a magazine.

 

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Crowdsourcing Journalism Rates

For the last few years I’ve been keeping a list of editors, word rates, contact details and brief notes on different magazine and website editors with my colleagues at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. It was crowdsourcing on a relatively small scale to help us figure out where the best home for our writing would be. However, I’ve come to realize that the list might also be useful for another, perhaps more noble goal. So I’ve scraped off the personal and identifying details and added a few new columns.

 

I’m throwing the database online and inviting writers from all over the world to add what they know about the size of the market. Help out and contribute by clicking on this link. Lets figure out what every magazine pays per word, how many features are in each book, and what they charge for advertising.

 

It’s a Google Doc, and pretty easy to update and modify. I’ve filled in what blanks that I could, but someone should probably check my numbers. Most advertising rates are easy to find on company media kits like the one Conde Nast publishes publicly.

 

The reason for this, of course is that last week’s post on how much writing in America is actually worth struck a nerve.  Many people were skeptical that magazines might really only pay out $3.6 million a year for their feature wells. The number seems absurdly small. And they might be right. Various commenters mentioned that the New Yorker alone must dish out almost $2 million annually on stories. Tom McGeveren wrote that his own publication (which turned out to be the newspaper the New York Observer) commanded a $3.5 million dollar budget on its own.  However everyone seemed to understand the overall point writers get only a tiny sliver of the overall publishing revenues of mainstream magazines.   Continue reading…