This month, Vanguarde Media honchos Roy Johnson and Keith Clinkscales fulfill a dream by launching Savoy, a glossy mag that bills itself as “the smart, provocative voice of today’s new black power.” But even as the first issue is hitting the stands, Savoy has made one power dynamic perfectly clear: its contractual relationship with freelancers, who one critic says are being treated like “indentured servants.”
Savoy freelancers are in for a rough time, judging by the terms of their current contract, which was faxed to me anonymously last week. In clause two, for example, the contract says that if you miss the deadline, your fee will be reduced by 25 percent for every five business days that you’re late. Clause eight says you can’t sell an article on the same subject anywhere else until six months after it runs in Savoy; and clause 11 gives the publisher the right to seek an injunction if you sell that piece or breach any other clause of the contract.
“At the end of the day, do they shoot you?” asks Jonathan Tasini, president of the National Writers Union and a prominent defender of freelance rights. While Tasini advises Savoy freelancers to renegotiate the terms of this “shameful” contract, another writers’ advocate takes it a step further.
“I’m calling for all freelancers to boycott Savoy until they revise this contract,” says David Wallis, CEO of Featurewell.com. “It’s the most punitive contract I’ve ever seen in my life, and we need to use some of the tactics of the civil rights movement to fight it. All I can say to the publisher of Savoy is, ‘Set my people free.’ ”
Wallis points out that there are legitimate reasons to miss a deadline, and both critics pose hypothetical variations on the contract. In response to clause two, Tasini asks, “Does that mean for every week the magazine delays publication, the fee doubles and triples and quadruples?” Wallis wonders whether, a month after a missed deadline, the writer ends up owing Savoy money, instead of the other way around. In response to clause 11, Tasini asks if Savoy would give authors the right to seek an injunction if the publisher breaks the terms of the contract.
Of course, Savoy is not alone here; freelance contracts are becoming more abusive industrywide. Wallis blames the trend partly on media conglomeration, which is so profit-oriented that some publishers “view writing as just another product.” But the writing process is “different than widget-making,” he says, and good working relationships require that writers are treated fairly. “If I got this contract,” he said, “by the end there would be so much black ink that they would get back something that looked like a redacted CIA file.”
The contract is “obviously pro-Vanguarde,” says Vanguarde general counsel David Tripodi. He calls the diminishing-fee clause “common sense” and points out that for a company that generates magazines, newsletters, and Web content, it’s “important to have some rational system in place” to protect its product. But he says the contract is open to negotiation.
View actual contract
Some readers will remember that last summer I accused Steve Brill of a “copyright scam,” because Contentville.com was selling Voice stories for $2.95 a pop, although Village Voice Media had never given him the right to do so. Well, now the Voice contraband is gone, and it looks like other companies have wised up and asked Brill to remove their content from his site.
Back in July, Brill claimed he had secured the rights to much of his online content from EBSCO Publishing, a company that licenses content directly from publishers and sells electronic databases to libraries by subscription. But some EBSCO contracts preceded the Internet boom, and EBSCO general manager Tim Collins told me he “could have done better” at informing publishers that Contentville was buying their archives.
But if Brill was confident his EBSCO deal gave him carte blanche, others were not, including John Lerner, vice president of VNU eMedia, which publishes MediaWeek, AdWeek, and Editor & Publisher. “I was not aware that EBSCO was licensing our content to Contentville,” Lerner told me at the time. Voice CEO David Schneiderman blew his stack, asking me, “Why should we let Contentville sell this stuff to readers who can get it on our Web site for free?”
Today, Contentville users can still purchase articles from consenting publishers, including Time Inc. and The Christian Science Monitor. But you won’t find a word from a Voice or VNU publication. And several pubs whose content was apparently being fenced are now offering Contentville readers the real thing—a subscription. These include The New Republic ($34.99), Harper’s ($10.99), MediaWeek ($149), and four editions of AdWeek ($149 each). Ironically, two of the companies with whom Brill says he worked out licensing deals directly are no longer represented on the site: The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report.
Back in July, Brill posted an e-mail on Jim Romenesko’s Web site, saying, “I don’t think we should be cast as the bad guy here for trying to create a market for this stuff.” Last week, he declined to comment on the propriety of his licensing deals.
Picking on Scabs
Gersh Kuntzman’s February 12 column in the New York Post reported on the debate over term limits on New York’s City Council, but it was his swipe at unions that got the most buzz in city newsrooms, bringing together old foes of the columnist who calls himself “Metro Gnome.”
At the end of the column, Kuntzman quotes a political insider who predicts that if they can get rid of the incumbents in the City Council, a lot of “high-quality people” will run. Then the insider names three likely candidates, to which the columnist responds that only one of the names is legit, the others being a “political hack” and “a union guy.” Then comes one of Kuntzman’s patented wisecracks: “Yeah, I always search union halls when I’m looking for the most qualified, most broad-minded candidates.”
If Kuntzman deplores the unions, the feeling is mutual. During the Daily News strike in 1990, at a time when everyone else was on the picket line, he took a job as a “replacement” worker at the News. That’s the kind of wound that never heals, and a few union men would like to remind Kuntzman of Jack London’s definition of a scab:
“After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful stuff left with which he made a scab. A scab is a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water-logged brain and a combination backbone made of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles. Judas Iscariot was a gentleman compared to a scab. For betraying his master he had the character to hang himself: The scab hasn’t. There is nothing lower than a scab.”
Kuntzman was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 20, 2001