‘I’m so sad to see all this playing out in this way.’
O n April 19, freelance journalist Cat Distasio tweeted, “Still waiting for $2000 from @EbonyMag months after my work. Per my contract w @thekylesfiles it’s 150+ days PAST DUE.” Distasio went on to tweet, “I am not the only one who is owed thousands by @ebonymag. I have spoken to at least a half a dozen writers who have not been paid for 2016 work.”
She was right — she’s not the only one.
As a direct result of her tweet, I approached several freelance writers who have written for Ebony since 2016. Close to a dozen of the writers for the publication have anonymously come forward to say they have not been paid for work dating back as far as 2013, despite the fact that they were promised payment within 45 days of publication or them sending their invoice.
The fact that one of the most prominent magazines for black writers is exploiting their work — and that these writers are by and large afraid to speak out — says a lot about the current state of freelance writing for young writers of color.
Ebony has existed as an institution within black culture since its founding in 1945, and is one of the last black-owned magazine companies in existence. For the last few years, it’s been recuperating from financial woes; in 2011, its publishing company was acquired by JP Morgan, and last year, it was purchased by a little-known private equity firm known as the Clear View Group.
Upon further inquiry, Distasio revealed that she was approached by Ebony to participate in its December 2016 print issue and more recently for the March 2017 issue, which according to her came out “absolutely beautifully.” However, she wasn’t paid until after her tweet got attention on social media.
“I’m so sad to see all this playing out in this way. I do hope more people feel empowered to step forward. I don’t think there is anything shameful about standing up for yourself. I had a contract and they didn’t honor their commitment. It happens all the time in the profession, and it completely undermines the spirit of our work. For anyone who feels afraid of fighting for what is rightfully due to them, all I can say is that I strongly believe my integrity will win me far more work than I might stand to lose from speaking out,” said Distatsio.
‘I don’t think there is anything shameful about standing up for yourself.’
The most ominous part about all of this is that, while Distasio is white, all of the other writers I have spoken with who are still awaiting payment are black. Distasio was among the many who had tried numerous attempts to approach the company privately; however none of her efforts were working, which led her to take a more public approach on Twitter. Distasio later updated her status of payment, tweeting, “This just in: @EBONYMag has promised my long overdue payment TOMORROW. Watch this space for updates! #freelanceisntfree.” (That payment did, in fact, come through.)
It is hard not to speculate that race plays a role in the speed and urgency of payments. Often times, young black artists are pressured and intimidated into working for very little, if not for completely free. And frequently, the opportunity to be featured in a prestigious publication can outweigh the ability to advocate for a higher rate. To take an example from my own life, an editor at Teen Vogue recently offered me $50 for 1,200 words. At a time when their publication is a media darling because of the incredible work they’ve done to bring attention to marginalized groups, it makes it almost impossible to discuss low wages and risk not being published by a big name at all.
It is hard not to speculate that race plays a role in the speed and urgency of payments.
Companies like this seem to prey on younger creatives, and especially creatives of color, since we are sometimes the most eager to be published. They can often get away with delinquent and non-payments for their freelancers because writers want to build their portfolio with bigger brands. Yet our stories often drive very lucrative traffic to these sites, which is never factored in during negotiations.
Another problem with this kind of manipulation is that the rates between freelancers can vary drastically. Not only was I offered very little for the work I felt honored to do at the time for Teen Vogue, but I found out my white peers with the same credentials and experience, as well as the same caliber of work, were being offered several hundred dollars for the same publication. But even so, some of them have yet to be compensated either.
Sadly, after a couple of revisions and the revelation of being lowballed, I decided to kill the piece. Although I was offered a kill fee, I am also still waiting for that payment.
Still, I hesitate to speak up, because, like so many writers of color, the question looms: Who is going to go up against an industry giant and risk torpedoing their career despite being well within their right to do so?
Who is going to go up against an industry giant and risk torpedoing their career?
Several of the black writers I spoke with are still awaiting compensation from Ebony. Many of them have threatened legal action. Others have sent countless emails to several departments and still not seen a dime (I reached out to Ebony editors last Friday, and have yet to receive a response). Many I spoke with referenced receiving a generic response from the accounts payable department stating their hands were tied to provide payment. Cat also alluded to not knowing who was in charge of payment because the same person who said they could not pay her issued the same-day payment she received only after going public on Twitter.
Being a black writer, I have often felt like I struggle more than my peers to get my work published. Sometimes I’ve wondered if perhaps I have overestimated my ability as a writer, when countless pitch emails are ignored by editors. But the reality is that a lot of publications don’t offer space for Black people to write consistently about mundane things. A lot of my earlier work as an emerging writer came from a place of pain where exploiting my personal experiences via essay was not only cathartic and healing, but a way for my work to be seen. Black pain and suffering sells.
But Ebony does allow that creative freedom. So when a dream publication like Ebony comes along and not only accepts your work about a variety of topics but is publishing it, how do you bite the hand that feeds? Even if months go by where you remain financially starved.
Requiring writers to beg for compensation puts the blame on the artists who can’t pay their bills or make a career from exposure. As a non-black artist, Distasio can mention Ebony by name, and even if she never works with the magazine again, she could likely find other work with other magazines. For black writers, however, Ebony is a far rarer opportunity to get work, meaning speaking out poses a greater risk. It was pure luck that Distasio blew the whistle on Ebony to help inadvertently unearth the thousands of dollars that are owed to other freelancers.
Distasio also noticed that there had been very little said publicly about delinquent payments; I attribute this to writers not wanting to be blackballed with very few options to have our work seen.
Requiring writers to beg for compensation puts the blame on the artists who can’t pay their bills or make a career from exposure.
She said, “I don’t want to comment too much because I don’t feel like I have all the relevant facts. It’s difficult for me to determine whether there is a racial component, given that I hadn’t seen any other writers come forward (in public) to shame the magazine into paying what is owed. If there were others screaming at them and being ignored, but I was answered, then I’d be a lot more suspicious.”
One anonymous person stated, “I’m owed more than $1500 from a publication I grew up reading and felt like it was an honor to write for. To get the runaround on pay after signing a contract for services is not only disappointing. It’s exploitation.”
Another person said, “I don’t think it’s a deliberate attempt not to pay people. I just think it’s being handled poorly.” Some people have been paid but have waited over six months past the terms that the contract expressed payment would be due.
The amounts owed to freelance writers I spoke with is cumulatively around $8,000. This includes the amount that was just paid to Distasio. The amounts range from as little as $75 to upwards of two grand.
When Predators Exploit Freelance Writers
The scamming of freelance writers is disturbingly common. But the situation is not hopeless.
Recently, the hashtag #EbonyOwes was started on Twitter to try and get Ebony to take notice and pay these people. Many of them feel they have a great professional relationship except for the fact that they haven’t been paid for their work.
Almost every black journalist has dreamed of seeing themselves in print on the pages of Ebony Magazine, which makes it that much harder to call out the publication. I am disheartened by the fact that a black-owned publication is exploiting young black talent. As a person of color, I cling to uplifting other businesses and successes from black people; it’s difficult when an obligation we feel to protect our culture comes into conflict with our own protection.
My hope is that these writers get paid. There may be writers of other ethnicities, like Distasio, who have been impacted by this failure to compensate artists, and I encourage them to also come forward in solidarity like she has.
I also hope that these writers will not be punished for seeking fair compensation for their published work.
After all, freelance isn’t free.