The Contract that Kills Journalism

tumblr_static_dpepnjlntq80cgo08w4wsgwkw Cropped

I’m not sure when it started, but there’s a dangerous trend in the publishing industry to leech value from a writer’s work and make it almost impossible to earn a real living off of journalism.  Yes, yes, we all know that media revenues are declining and even 100 year-old publications like The New Republic are teetering on the verge of extinction. For freelance journalists this has meant a general decline in word rates from a high in 1999 of $5/word at the top publications to as a low as $0.50/word at once-mighty institutions. Some publications now only pay their writers base on per-click, which as the venerable Erin Biba once said “is bullshit“.

But, I’m not writing to lament the decline of freelance revenues. I’m writing about something far more sinister: the way that publications today often demand that writers not only accept far less pay than they have received in the past, but also forfeit any rights over the work that they produce. While most new writers don’t think about much more than the pay they get for their words, a good story can go on to have a long life in several different mediums. The most lucrative of which are book, movie and TV deals. In those cases a writer could stand to make upwards of six figures for the research and narrative work that they put in up front.  Indeed, many of the best movies of the last ten years started out as magazine stories (Argo, Hurt Locker, Erin Brockovich, Adaptation, Coyote Ugly, Boogie Nights, Big Love to name just a few).

Late last month I got ahold of Newsweek’s standard contract that one of my correspondents sent me. Hidden on the second page was this clause:

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National Novel Writing Month

Writing Image

I don’t write novels, but this morning I got a message from the website Webucator asking me for my thoughts on National Novel Writing Month.In particular they wanted to know what it means to write for a living.  Regular readers will remember that I recently published a short ebook on the freelance writing career path called The Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance Writing about how to attain that elusive dream of quitting your day job and working for yourself. So, perhaps, they wondered, I could share a few thoughts on how to write for a living.

  • What were your goals when you started writing?

Sometimes I feel like I didn’t choose to be a writer, but that writing chose me.I’d failed or been fired from every other job I’d tried over the years and writing was the only thing that I was ever good at. Part of the problem, of course, is that I have an almost adolescent rejection of authority and working on other people’s projects always seemed less fulfilling than working on my own things. I also have a predilection for exploration and adventure. Writing has given me an excuse to spend months at a time pursuing strange and unusual subjects and call it a career.  As I mention in the book, my first real assignment came after I’d dropped out of graduate school and enrolled in a clinical trial for the erectile dysfunction drug Levitra. I thought that it was hilarious that I was going to be stuck in a room with 30 other dudes on penis-poppers and decided to write to Nerve.com to see if they wanted a feature on the subject. They did, and a writing career was born. Continue reading…

The Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance Writing

The Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance WritingFor the last few years I’ve been chewing on the idea of writing a book about the business of freelance writing. Every few weeks someone e-mails me out of the internet ether asking how they can jumpstart their writing career. It turns out that most journalism programs offer a lot of advice about how to write a compelling story, but fail almost completely at teaching their students how to make a living if they don’t have a staff job.

In an age of declining advertising revenues, thinner magazines and ubiquitous free media it would seem that it’s harder than ever to make a name for yourself in the pages of mainstream publications. I wrote The Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance Writing to buck the assumption that writers have to give their work away for free if they want to break into the industry.

Writing, it turns out, is just like any other business. Yes, it’s difficult to get up and running, but with a little perseverance and a few great story ideas, there is nothing preventing someone from making a name for themselves. In the book, I dissect the several different reliable revenue streams for freelancers, break down the ways that most magazines are structured and diagram out the typical lifecycle of a story from its inception through its eventual publication. The book explores the proper way to deal with publishing contracts (ProTip: don’t sign away copyright or movie rights) and includes almost a dozen examples of successful pitches that I’ve sold over the last ten years of my career.

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Unintended Consequences

A pile of human bones that were confiscated from an anatomical reseller in West Bengal after they were connected to a string of grave robberies.

A pile of human bones that were confiscated from an anatomical reseller in West Bengal after they were connected to a string of grave robberies.

Many investigative journalists who start down this career path share a notion that the work that we do will make the world a better place. Maybe a story sparking a Senate hearing, a criminal indictment or a major product recall. When an investigation shines a light on a major injustice then a just society should step in to set things right. Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world. After almost ten years as an investigative reporter I no longer expect the world to change, at least not quickly. The mafia don that I caught on tape admitting to murder, remains free. An orphanage in Wisconsin has never been remanded for human trafficking even after I showed they imported children to America who were clearly kidnapped. Organ thefts are still common. And the only new regulation on the human skeleton business is that it’s no longer legal for people to carry human remains on the Delhi metro or their carry-on baggage. I realize now that change happens at a glacial pace and my words only incremental pressure to the process. I’ve accepted this.vI even embrace it.

However, barring change, there are also unintended consequences of releasing information about illicit activities. Occasionally a story will provide a road map for people to get involved in illicit or amoral businesses. I’ve seen it most frequently with an article that I wrote about how grave robbers in India steal bodies and sell them the corpses as anatomical models to medical programs around the world. Here’s an example: Last week a visual artist in Toronto wrote me this message:

Three  years ago i spent a few days chasing references cited in your Wired article, took a big breath and spent a bunch of money. today, i find myself in possession of a child skeleton from “Asia” i have not yet read the Red Market, but am about to. I will soon to travel to West Bengal to research a narrative for the bones in my possession. i intend to use the child’s body to tell a story about complicity. The narrative that led to this work includes, at the outset, our coincidence interests –and your concise ‘how to’. so, i guess i’m just emailing to say thank you.

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The Risks of Freelance Reporting

James Foley shortly before he was kidnapped by a group that sold him to ISIS.

This morning jihadists belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) beheaded Steven Sotloff.  Two weeks ago the same British-accented militant murdered James Foley. Both events were recorded on tape and sent out to the mass media as part of an ongoing propaganda war against the West’s military intervention in the Middle East. Both Sotloff and Foley were freelance journalists who traveled to Syria to cover the crumbling Asad regime. Their deaths, while tragic beyond belief, also highlight a major problem with the way that mainstream publications choose to cover the war at the expense of their people in the field. Neither Foley nor Sotloff were household names. They submitted their work to lesser-known news outlets like the Global Post and Foreign Policy. They traveled abroad on shoestring budgets–like I have many times before–and embedded themselves in the heart of the conflict. They made very little money when they sold their stories and photographs to the media, and it seems that the only reason they were there was to raise awareness of the horrible on-going violent conflagrations in the Middle East that have taken far too many lives already.

Reporter’s lives are often at risk in the field, but in the last decade freelancers have borne the brunt of the consequences. Even though news budgets have contracted, news organizations are still thirsty for front line coverage. Since they decline to send their own people they depend primarily on journalists like Sotloff and Foley to get to the front lines no matter what risks they might take along the way.  Publications see this as an easy way to cut costs. There are certainly many writers brave or stupid enough to put themselves at the heart of a conflict, but media companies who hire freelancers balk whenever one of their temporary correspondents asks for insurance, or logistical support should they get into trouble.

Every reporter sent by NPR or the New York Times life-saving Kidnap and Ransom insurance polices on their heads. They often have safe houses to report to, logistical staff to help them get out of trouble. Keeping a staff correspondent safe is expensive business, but it also means that when they get into trouble that professional hostage negotiators will help secure their release and, often pay the million dollar ransoms that generally get allocated in these sorts of situations.  Though there are certainly problems with paying ransoms as it simply encourages future kidnappings–for abductees a secure payment will mean the difference between getting a ticket back home or becoming a bloody piece of propaganda.  Continue reading…

Islamic Anti-christ is Trending. Again.

Dajjal

A depiction of the Islamic anti-christ Dajjal

In 2006, a child with only one eye in the center of her fore head was born in Chennai, India. The severe chromosomal disorder was aptly known as Cyclopia. When I went to research her case, the hospital told me that the mother was taking an unusual fertility treatment. There was a chance that she was the subject of an illegal clinical trial for an American anti-cancer drug. I wrote about her case in The Red Market and photos of the child went viral on the Internet after I posted them on my blog at at Wired.

The photos have since gone on to have a life of their own on the internet–particularly in the Muslim world. According to Islamic tradition*, right before the apocalypse a one-eyed prophet named Masih ad-Dajjal will emerge and teach a wildly popular and totally false gospel. People will follow the unholy teaching and get drawn into the Devil’s influence.

In 2009, the image that I took in Chennai went viral among apocalyptic muslims who were sure that the end was nigh. They wrote that the child was born in Israel and, as one viral e-mail stated, that “Dajjal will appear somewhere between Iraq and Syria , after the Battle of Istanbul takes place.”  At the time, the photo resonated with Iraqis who were contending with American occupation and violent inter-sectarian conflict. The battle of Istanbul had not yet happened, but the world seemed to be falling apart. When the viral emails spread thousands of hits would flood my website.

Every now and then there would be a voice of reason when moderate Muslim websites would debunk the new claims and link to my work as the original source of the image. For a time, the popularity of the image would die down. Today, however, a new brand of violent fundamentalist Islam is spreading across the Middle East. As this lunatic fringe of Islam sweeps across Iraq and Syria leaving a bloody wake of murder and destruction in its path, it’s no surprise that many Muslims feel that the end of days is at hand once again.

In the last week I have been getting an inordinate number of hits on my website searching for pictures of the cyclopian child. After the break I’ll post the photo, but beware, some readers will find it disturbing.

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Launching A New Platform

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

Websites have a funny way of suddenly becoming obsolete. As the internet makes its relentless surge to ever shinier templates, old code starts to look like a quaint antique in a forgotten aisle of a thrift store. In honor of my new book coming out and my ever growing and diversifying workload, I decided that I needed a different platform. So I’m excited to introduce the the completely re-designed scottcarney.com.

Spend some time clicking around on those links up top. Marvel at the toolbar’s sleek slidy-ness. On the homepage I wanted long time readers to have an easy way to access my most recent thoughts and ideas while at the same time directing new readers to the books and feature articles that I’m most known for. The updated book section will have links to my ever expanding library of long-form titles and the article section is much easier to understand. That’s more or less standard stuff for a writer’s website. However, I’m much more excited about the new blog. I haven’t blogged regularly since the days when I was in India and I kept daily updates on the long-defunct site Trailing Technology. It’s time to test those waters again – to have a general space to dish about politics, speaking engagements, writing advice and rants about poor customer service (I’m looking at you Comcast).

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KPCC’s Alex Cohen Interviews Carney about Diamond Mountain

Lama Christie and Michael Roach

Last year, 38-year-old Ian Thorson died of apparent dehydration in a cave in southeastern Arizona. Earlier that year, he and his wife Christie McNally travelled to Arizona’s Diamond Mountain to pursue Buddhist perfection. Much of how he died has been shrouded in mystery.

 

We’ll talk to writer Scott Carney, who wrote an article about it for Playboy.

Link to Audio

 

Talking About Red Markets

Talking Red Markets at the American Enterprise Institute on October 28th

Two-part lecture at Brandeis University

Over the last few weeks I have been giving a string of lectures around the country about the Red Market. My audiences have been in academica, among public policy think tanks and large and small media outlets. All told they represent a very wide ideological spectrum–from the left to right wings of the American political sphere to a broad sampling of the medical, religious and activist communities. Since my book came out in June there has been a renewed interest in the ethical and economic conundrums that allow for criminal markets for human tissue to flourish. There is a bill circulating in policy circles to commercialize and regulate human tissue, and a group if activists who are planning pilot programs to reassess the National Organ Transplantation Act. The FBI has taken up the case of children kidnapped for adoption and conducted DNA tests on a child that I wrote about in the book. Meanwhile new organ brokering scandals seem to pop up ever week.  It is important that people weigh in on this debate now and get involved before a small group of people decide the future of the tissue transplant system. We are going to need a diverse group of people and viewpoints represented to ensure that upcoming revisions don’t create new holes for illegal markets to flourish.

Click on the pictures for links to two lectures: One at The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. The second at Northwestern University in Chicago.

50 minute lecture on The Red Market at Northwestern in Chicago in September

 

Businessweek Book Review

The Red Market by Scott Carney

by Daniel Grushkin

Bloomberg-Businessweek, August 4 2011

In 2008 police officers smashed open the doors of a dairy farm in northern India and found 17 people hooked to IV tubes, being drained of blood, too weak to run away. The farmer and his staff had kept them alive simply to milk their veins and sell off the contents to local blood banks. This is just one of the horrifying everyday tales of the body trade documented in Scott Carney’s The Red Market—his coinage for the mostly legal and sometimes creepy multibillion-dollar business of buying and selling the stuff of human life, including organs, bones, embryos, and blood.

As Carney explains, the body industry adheres to the same basic trade rules as “shoes and electronics.” New types of transplant surgeries, coupled with globalization, however, have conspired to create a loosely regulated, seedy enterprise that ruins lives even as it saves them. While patients wait on interminable donor lists in some countries, medical tourists are traveling to developing regions to take advantage of a nearly endless supply of “donors.” According to a McKinsey study, up to 85,000 U.S. patients dabbled in the red market in 2008.

It isn’t always pretty. When the Indian government moved victims of the 2004 tsunami into the Tsunami Nagar tent camp in Chennai, illegal organ brokers descended en masse. Carney reports that women at the camp, eventually known as Kidneyville, were offered up to $3,000 for their organs, though they often got far less. “Almost every woman in Tsunami Nagar has a story about how organ brokers took advantage of her during her most desperate hour,” he writes. Within a year, Carney notes, doctors from 52 Indian hospitals performed 2,000 illegal kidney operations—with recipients paying up to $14,000 per surgery. “Inevitably, red markets have the nasty social side effect of moving flesh upward—never downward—through social classes,” Carney writes. “Even without a criminal element, unrestricted free markets act like vampires, sapping the health and strength from ghettos of poor donors and funneling their parts to the wealthy.”

Yet the red market isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Kidney transplants extend lives. Surrogates who carry an embryo to term give couples who can’t conceive the opportunity to have children. Yet the real question has become how to regulate the market. Theories fall into two extremes. Some countries, such as Iran and the Philippines, recognize the trade with the belief that clear laws bring an already thriving business out of the shadows. Still, a regulated body market doesn’t necessarily lead to a successful business. When selling blood was legal in the U.S., from the 1940s through the 1960s, for-profit blood banks consistently failed both donors and recipients. Brokers turned up in slums to tap the poorest of the population for the lowest prices. As a result, the quality of blood stores suffered, donors and blood banks disregarded basic cleanliness, and disease spread into the supply. Eventually, hospital administrators and doctors became frustrated and turned to volunteers.

For many Western countries, a ban on the sale of body parts isn’t ideal, either. In the U.S., the exorbitant cost to transplant a liver ($523,000) or intestines ($1.2 million) often drives patients to countries with murkier regulations. Carney estimates that about 10 percent of the red market operates illegally. And the widespread exploitation—ranging from the rental of Indian wombs to the adoption of slum babies—hinges on the industry’s insistence of anonymity: The medical system seals the identities of donors and recipients, to protect both parties. Yet anonymity gives rise to a chain of middlemen who work unseen and get away with cheating, or worse. Carney argues for exposing the whole system by simply creating openly accessible pedigrees. Imagine IV bags with blood donors’ names on them, he argues, or adoption centers that list the birth parents. Parts of the red market might not survive, he suggests. Though it also might just shift to countries where the supply chain is even less regulated.

Growing industries rarely reform themselves when they’re making a fortune, and the red market is unlikely to be any different. “Who we are as a society depends on how we address the remaining 10 percent,” Carney writes. “Do we let blood brokers and child kidnappers ply their trade and write off the human fallout as just another cost of doing business?” The rhetorical answer is no, of course, but the realistic answer is that the supply side will vanish only when demand does. It’s up to potential customers—perhaps as much as law enforcement—to halt the growth of the red market’s illicit side. Promising advances in cell science might soon make organ transplants obsolete, but until a breakthrough comes—and is cost-competitive—the red market will continue to thrive. That’s just plain economics.

See the article on Businessweek.com