In the latest case of freelance rage, Stacey Chase has sued a People magazine editor, claiming People stole a story she pitched and published it under a different byline. People denies stealing ideas, but a series of e-mails entered into the court record by Chase offers a rare glimpse into the exploitative editorial process at the most profitable magazine at Time Inc.
The story began last spring, when People hired Chase as a stringer at the rate of $22 an hour. At the time, Chase had quit a job at the Burlington Free Press and begun freelancing for The Boston Globe. But when Christopher Cox, a Boston Herald reporter and freelance magazine writer, heard Chase was stringing for People, he told her to be careful—because two years ago, he pitched a story to People, only to have them reject it and publish the same story five months later. (People says they were already developing the idea, about an Elvis Presley costar who hightailed it to a monastery.)
“I warned her to keep full and accurate records,” says Cox, “because I thought they had screwed me over and I wouldn’t put it past them to do it again.” Chase declined to comment on the case.
Cut to Time Inc.’s aerie on Sixth Avenue, where reporters and writers toil under a rigid caste system. That is, reporters do the grunt work, assembling interview notes and clips into files that get passed on to the writers, who whip the story into deathless prose. People also solicits ideas from its huge stable of stringers. But as Chase would learn, once you pitch People an idea, the editors develop it however they see fit, offering minimal compensation to the freelancer, whose rank is slightly lower than slave.
In September, People senior editor Beth Fenner sent out an e-mail, “desperately seeking” entrepreneur stories, especially personal ones like the “woman who found out that her . . . son was allergic to household cleaners, so she started a nontoxic cleaner company.” Chase shot back a pitch about a couple who started making nut-free chocolate, because of their son’s allergy to nuts.
Sensing a tasty story, People bit. On September 19, correspondent Eve Heyn e-mailed Chase, asking her to punch up the story and reminding her to “mention the name of the company, the woman’s name, the age of her son and how much $$$ a year she does in biz.” Chase complied, and on October 2, Heyn came back for more: “What did this couple do before they started this business? How much money did the business gross last year? . . . Finally, can you tell me if any celebs are fans of their candies?” On October 5, Chase e-mailed more answers (no celebs, sorry), adding that she had misreported the couple’s last name.
But that did not satisfy People. A few days later, Fenner e-mailed Chase, saying she wanted to “move forward,” but not until the stringer had dug up some independent sources to verify “they are the only chocolate company founded on the principal [sic] of being nut free.”
That said, Fenner added, “Please give me the usual PEOPLE Money story stuff: how Mark and Gail thought up the idea, details on the severity of the kid’s allergy, when and how they scraped up the money to start the biz, how much money it took, how they learned candy-making, their revenues and expected revenues, expansion plans, where readers can buy this stuff, their top selling products and how much they cost, whether they are full owners of the biz. . ., how many employees they have, any funny/poignant stories they have about big mistakes . . . and big successes. . . . Also, please, the standard bio info on the couple.
“Also, please, terts [sic] from a biggie in the medical field who can attest how dangerous it is when people with nut allergies mistakenly ingest nut products; from a customer of the couple who can say what a relief it is to buy the products and feel safe; from their son; from an independent chocolate or food expert who has tasted their chocolate and can tell us how good the product is. Are we talking the equivalent of Hershey’s, in terms of quality and taste, or the equivalent of some high-end brand like Vahlrona? (Let’s hope it’s not worse than Hershey’s!) Come to think of it, they should send us a packet of their products here in NYC so we can taste for ourselves!”
In exchange, Chase was led to believe she would get a reporting byline and $1200 reporting fee, according to court papers. Over the next few weeks, she sent People info and contact numbers for seven experts, scheduled a photo shoot, and arranged for People to receive a free sample. Around October 17, Fenner gave Chase a deadline to complete the reporting.
On October 20, it looked like a wrap. The chocolates arrived in New York, and People arranged a photo shoot for the end of the month. That same day, according to court papers, New York Bureau Chief Maria Eftimiades called Chase, saying, “It was a good idea, but neither I nor Eve has the time to work with you right now.” She offered Chase a kill fee of $250, or about one-third of her $22 rate for 35 hours of reporting.
The story ran on November 27, under the bylines Samantha Miller and Eric Francis. Given all the press that followed, chocolatier Mark Elvidge sings the praises of People. But in an interview, he confirmed that Chase “got all the background information” before two People reps met with him “for a couple of hours one afternoon.”
According to court papers, Chase first complained to Eftimiades—who offered another $88 to make her “go away”—and then to executive editor Joe Treen, who told her “we’ve decided to take your idea and assign it to somebody else,” because she took too long to report it. On November 3, Chase sued Eftimiades for $3337.20, including various fees and the cost of preparing the complaint.
In response, People refused to pay her more than $632, on the grounds that she got the couple’s name wrong, and took “35 hours for background reporting which should take 1-2 hours maximum.” Uh-huh. A spokesperson for People declined to comment, except to say, “We treated her fairly and agreed to settle—without admitting liability—because we considered it a nuisance case.”
Freelancing is “a hard enough gig as it is,” says Cox, considering how little you get paid for the time you put into it. He has had good experiences with editors at National Geographic Adventure and Travel & Leisure. But at People, he says, “Their attitude is we’re just yokels out in the provinces and they can cherry-pick our ideas.”
David Wallis, CEO of the syndication service Featurewell.com, finds People‘s behavior questionable. He calls trying to pay a kill fee for reporting “the equivalent of a reader getting an issue of People in the mail, leafing through it, and deciding that it’s not really worth $2.95 and offering to pay them just a buck.”
But Wallis, who has written for many mags including People, says Chase neglected the most important rule of freelancing, which is to “get it in writing.” In this industry, it seems, anyone who works on a story without a contract is asking to be used.