Expose of CEO Shane Smith of Vice Magazine cheating, scamming & not paying reporters

Columbia Journalism Review did an investigative piece linked below showing that Vice Magazine has a de facto policy of stiffing reporters they reach out to for assistance and in general seems to pay little to nothing for much of it’s content.

Vice shows how not to treat freelancers

The article details the ways in which cheating reporters who do work for Vice is effectively an institutional practice. To that point I’m curious how that works in what is (seemingly) a pretty big media organization. Specifically I’m talking about the corporate institutional effort and coordination effort involved in cheating mid tier and small time beginners out of tens and hundreds of dollars and maybe at the top end a few thousand dollars.

Is there a top down conversation that happens at some point with the CEO talking to the head of accounting to stiff people and delay when possible then a subsequent conversation with the accounting staff that says “cheat these people” “slow pay or no pay when possible”. There appear to be hundreds of reporters working for Vice at any given point in time and (based on the article) cheating them is practically the norm. How do you implement such wide scale micro cheating without getting hauled into court at some point? What are the sausage making level mechanics of how CEO Shane Smith implements cheating workers as a policy?

The last sentence of the third paragraph makes me uneasy about the entire piece:

I mentally translated that as “I have a beef with someone so I wrote this ‘expose’ about them”; YMMV.

ETA: Found later in the piece:


So yeah, seems to me to be a case of someone having an axe to grind and the grindstone to do it.

And yet, if her description of the treatment is accurate, then it’s fucking shitty treatment.

What you call “an axe to grind” might simply be a desire to expose shitty and unprofessional business practices that the author happens to have also experienced personally. You seem happy, also, to ignore the large number of examples given in the story, talking about multiple instances and a variety of different journalists, many of whom spoke to, and provided email correspondence to, the author.

The Columbia Journalism Review is not perfect, but it’s a pretty damn professional magazine, and not exactly renowned for sponsoring and printing hatchet jobs.

Curiously absent from the entire piece was any mention of written contracts and specific breach of contract terms. All the cases seem to be where payment was implied but not agreed upon beforehand and then one side was disappointed in how the other side later interpreted that agreement.

I don’t know how it is in journalism but if this were freelance design, all of this would scream rookie mistakes by inexperienced freelancers. You don’t do work until you have agreed upon terms and a contract in writing. Any promises, assurances or stories told to you that isn’t in the contract like “If we’re happy with your first piece, we’ll for sure hire you for 10 more pieces at double the rate” is nice to hear but ultimately nothing you should ever expect to depend on.

I don’t mean to sound heartless but there’s a certain population of indie/punk rock/fuck the establishment type people who refuse to acknowledge that modern capitalism has developed a fairly robust set of protections over centuries of experience that solve 99% of the ways that various people can exploit each other. When you choose to reject that system and deliberately step out of the accepted way of doing business, don’t be surprised that you get screwed in exactly the way that caused us to put those protections in place in the first place.

If I were the fixer in the first story, my first question if someone contacts me for a gig would be what their budget is and whether they’re a client I could work with. I’m not working without a signed contract in place and if they dodge the question of payment 2 or 3 times, then I stop talking to them and go about my life.

I agree with you, but one problem, as some of the quotes in the story make clear, is that there is something of a power imbalance here, with the freelancers often needing the work more than Vice needs any particular one of them. Still, i was also quite dismayed that so many seemed not to know that they should get a proper written contract in advance.

One thing that did suggest to me, however, that it might not be so simple is the fact that quite a few of the journalists in the story, including the author, have quite extensive experience working for a wide variety of news organizations. If these experienced journos were shafted by Vice, it could be because Vice seems to work in the same way as other media outlets, but does not live up to its promises in the same way.

I also thought it was telling that, just after the story was released, Vice send out a message outlining steps to improve relations with freelancers, in which it acknowledged “weak spots that do need fixing” in its system.

The guy talks about getting $75 for a story, which was 15% of the agreed price. So, he should have gotten $500. What’s the most he could make on a breach of contract suit for that much money? Meanwhile, Vice tells him, “Sure, go ahead and sue. It’s pocket change to us. But we’re never going to buy another story from you again. You got enough stories in other outlets to cover your rent this month? And next month? Or you can just take the $75 and roll over, and hope next time we don’t screw you quite as hard.”

I’d actually be interested to know how much effort she made (the author is a woman, not a man) to follow up after the $75 thing.

I would have come back at them immediately, saying “This is bullshit. You commissioned the story, we agreed on $500, i wrote the story. Now you should pay me the agreed-upon rate.” She never really tells us what sort of efforts she made to get Vice to fulfill the original terms of the agreement.

Also, regarding the points made by Shalmanese about contracts and such, the author says that “An editor at Vice commissioned the story.” I don’t know exactly what was involved here, and as this all happened by email, i gather that it was not a signed contract. But i also get the impression that, whatever the exact process was, it fell well within the parameters expected by professional journalists for committing to a story.

If this is how business is done on a regular basis in the journalistic community, and reporters and media outlets all over the world rely on a well-understood system for commissioning a story, it’s a bit unfair to say, “Well, she should have got a signed contract.” When you’re in a conflict zone making arrangement to cover up-to-the-minute news stories, things probably have to work a bit differently than they do in the world of freelance design.

…the stories of VICE not paying their bills in the industry are legion. Grindstone or not: the story is accurate. And VICE admits they have a problem. Its a shame its taken them this long to address it when people have been complaining for years.

The story was that Vice decided not to run the story and that’s why she got $75 instead of $500. Maybe Vice’s standard policy is to pay 15% if the story doesn’t run or maybe it’s not. If it were spelled out unambiguously in a contract, then it wouldn’t be a matter for dispute.

A lot of people think the primary purpose of a contract is to protect you against malicious adversaries. What it ends up being far more often is avoiding mutual misconceptions where both parties think they’re in the right. People are awful at communicating and often think they’ve saying something which is very different from what the other person is hearing. Having a good written contract forces you to precisely define the terms of the working arrangement and help uncover where fundamental misconceptions exist and harmonize them.

Honestly, it’s crazy to me that anyone would do work and then expect to negotiate a rate for that work after it’s done. Now you’re forcing me to pull a number out of thin air and if it’s lower than the number you had in your head but didn’t tell me, now I’m the asshole. If someone is doing work for me and we’ve previously never even talked about price, I’m assuming the work they’re doing is free volunteer work. And on the flip side, I’ve done plenty of work for other people without ever discussing terms, either as a favor or as a way to drum up business and it’s always been a given that it was gratis.

Honestly, I could see the story of the Paris fixer being a totally innocent mistake on Vice’s part where they assumed the fixer was offering free work in the hopes of snagging a later paid gig and the fixer had a very different idea. That’s why contracts are so important people!

It’s crazy to me that you would think this is what happened. It seems pretty clear that they agreed on the rate beforehand, and then when Vice didn’t run the piece, they paid less than the negotiated rate.

If i ran Vice, and i had a transparent and upfront policy saying that you only get 15% if we decide not to run your story, the first thing i would do if someone accused me of shoddy business practices in a well-respected journal would be to write a rebuttal explaining that my policies had been made clear up front, and that the journalist in question was being unreasonable. They didn’t do this; instead, they agreed that there were problems and are now making an effort to correct them.

A considerable number of other professional journalists—people who have done commissioned work for other well-known and reputable media agencies, and had no such trouble with those agencies—corroborate her story, and yet this fact seems to weigh not at all on your analysis of the issue. That strikes me as rather odd. When the common factor in all the stories of “misunderstanding” (as you seem to characterize it) is Vice, then maybe it is, in fact, Vice’s practices that are the problem here.

Yes, if.

I seem “happy”? Could you quote me where I seem, in your opinion, “happy”? :dubious:

If by “ignore” you meant “didn’t write about” then i guess you’re technically correct. I noticed in your post that you ignored the plight of refugees and handicapped orphans all over the world, by the way. :stuck_out_tongue:

In this case it’s a website, not a magazine and it’s not exactly renowned at all. In fact, I had never heard of it so I checked it’s Wikipedia entry and found that in 2007 it had a circulation of about 19,000 and a staff of 8 people. I’d wager it now has fewer of both.

ISTM that it’s less “small but excellent publication” and more “journalist-centered website looking for content”. Further research shows that CJR only plans on publishing 2 “special issues” per year, having cut back on print media last year due to lack of demand.

So yeah, still seems like “axe to grind” and not “real news story”.

Look, if Shane Smith is stiffing people or simply expecting people to do things for free, he’s being a jerk and should stop. But the OP’s link isn’t enough to make me stop reading articles on VICE.com until I hear Mr. Smith apologize and pledge to change his evil ways because his ways even as described aren’t that evil and some (most?) of the complaints could easily be described as “people who did something without an agreement in place and now regret it” complaints.

The story you linked to is only a few days old. I noted this:

As of yet, CJR has not published the letter, apparently.

So there have been problems, VICE acknowledges the problems and has been working to put policies and procedures in place to stop said problems from re-occuring.

What’s the story here, then?

LOL. Really? This is what you’re going to focus on? OK then.

You get funnier by the minute.

All you have demonstrated here is your ignorance.

The CJR has been around since the early 1960s, and is a product of one of the most prestigious and well-respected journalism schools in the country - the Columbia University School of Journalism. You know, the place that hosts and awards the Pulitzer Prize.

The fact that it is moving to primarily digital content is simply a reflection of the increasing importance of such content, and the declining sales of print magazines in many different sectors of the market. It’s odd that you use the move to digital to downgrade the CJR, while defending a media organization that most people know largely due to its online content.

You also seem happy—yes, happy!—to dismiss the evidence that Schwartz brings to her article, including testimony from a variety of professional journalists who have worked with a variety of other well-known media organizations. As for whether you read Vice or not, i never asked you to stop, so you can pack that strawman away.

Emphasis mine.

The CJR has an editorial note and a link to that letter at the very top of the article linked by the OP. It’s the first thing you see, before you even read the original article. Not sure how you could have missed it, because it’s been there since the OP started this thread.

The Variety story provided by Banquet Bear, who was quoted by you, also has a link to the CJR’s reproduction of the letter. I also mentioned the message in post #5 of this very thread.

You need to pay more attention.

Now you’re just embarrassing yourself.

Yardena Schwartz published her story criticizing Vice on Wednesday, August 31. On Thursday, September 1, Vice published a message acknowledging the problems and promising to put policies in place to prevent them from recurring. That message, in its very first paragraph, cites Schwartz’s CJR article as a direct and proximate reason for the new policy announcement.

And you’re asking “what’s the story?”

Funnier all the time.

I was referring to the Paris fixer in the case of the “negotiate after the work was done case”, sorry if that was confusing.

Also, remember, you’re only seeing one side of the story here. All the examples in the story could generously be attributed to incompetence rather than malice. If she had any evidence for clear, unambiguous breach of written contract, then that’s something concrete you can pin on them and hold them accountable for. Without that, you just have a bunch of he-said/she-said anecdotes for which it’s entirely possible that there was simply a genuine misunderstanding or misremembering of circumstances.

For any large media org, it’s always possible to drum up half a dozen times where they fucked up and someone holds a grudge against them. Vice knows as well as anyone that it’s not often profitable to legislate these issues in the court of public opinion and offering a boilerplate “mistakes were made” apology is the best course of action regardless of culpability.

Granted but (per the article) when you send out general call for people to talk about their experiences with Vice Magazine and a tidal wave of negative experiences with reporters and writers feeling they were misled, played and cheated by Vice Magazine crashes at your door that’s more than just an “oopsie”, that’s a decision being made at the highest institutional levels to systematically stiff people until they go away.

Vice appears to get away with this because the stakes are relatively low (a few hundred dollars in most cases) and people eventually give up vs wasting time fighting or agree to take crumbs to go away. Also Vice has the hot hand right now and young journalists are desperate to write for them. They abuse this power. Rolling Stone and Playboy were red hot one time but they paid their writers.

It’s awful behavior and it’s been going on a long time and very deliberately. This is not some accounts payable bumble it’s deliberately cheating and chiseling vulnerable people on an institutional scale.

If there were so many people fucked over by Vice, why couldn’t she come up with some more egregious examples than the ones listed in the article?

Apart from late payment, which every freelancer in history, regardless of industry has had to deal with, all of the examples in the article could have been avoided simply by following the standard best practices of business. That they didn’t follow them and got burned speaks more to the freelancers than the business they were freelancing for. I’m not saying Vice didn’t fuck up in any or all of those instances, just that their fuck ups aren’t out of line with routine fuck ups at any business of that scale. Hell, stuff like firing an employee immediately after a move, or telling an employee they might get a promotion and then changing their mind may be dick moves but they’re not even unethical.

Look, I’m extremely open to the idea that Vice is this scummy org and I’ve never been a huge fan of them in the first place. If new information comes in, I’ll reconsider my viewpoint. All I’m saying is that the author is attempting to make a case and the evidence she’s assembled doesn’t meet the bar for me to convince me that she’s definitively right. Furthermore, the deliberate omission of key details makes it seem like the author knows she has a weak case but is deliberately writing in a way to suggest a much stronger one.

…as mhendo points out: the story forced VICE to address the problem. VICE have been dragging their heels on this for years. Even the now-gone Gawker had a better reputation for looking after their freelancers than VICE had.

Can you concede the possibility, even for a moment, that things might work differently in the world of freelance journalism, where stories often emerge quickly and need to be assigned, researched, and written while events are moving quickly? And that this process sometimes needs to take place while journalists are actually in the field, in places like conflict zones, where the niceties of a signed contract might be a little difficult to arrange on short notice?

The author’s own personal account discusses a story she wrote during the Palestinian uprising of 2015. She pitched the story, the editor at Vice commissioned it, and her deadline was THE FOLLOWING DAY. According to her account, she made the deadline, undertook revisions suggested by the editor, and was then ignored for five days, after which she was offered 15% because the story was no longer relevant and would not be run.

If professional media organizations and professional journalists manage to reach agreements on stories like this on a regular basis—and they do—then this suggests that there is a sort of accepted method of doing business in the profession. Whether you like that mode of doing business or not, it seems to work well as a general rule, except when someone comes in and doesn’t play by the same rules as everyone else. It appears that this is what happened with Vice.

I doubt this will convince you. You seem hidebound on minimizing or ignoring her evidence, and in every detail you seem determined to interpret her argument in the most unforgiving possible light. That’s your prerogative, of course, but your own argument smacks of the very same sour grapes that you seem to be imputing to the author.

…well here’s the thing. You aren’t in journalism: and your experiences from freelance design really don’t translate. I do a lot of commercial and event photography work and everything is quite straightforward. Client contacts me: I send them a contract, we negotiate, I do the shoot and deliver the images, they pay the bill.

But there isn’t that scope to negotiate in the editorial market place. Editorial standards have declined since the move to digital and the web: levels of editorial oversight have literally been removed from existence. Websites and newspapers use un/low-paid interns to troll twitter and instagram for photos. And speed is of the essence: they would much rather run with a badly shot cellphone picture than wait an hour for a shot to come from a pro with a DSLR. So they won’t wait for you to review their contract. They will say “thanks, next” and move on.

I’m not a journalist: but I am a freelance photographer and I do the odd bit of editorial work. The last job I did for my agency was a portrait shoot for the Daily Mail (I’m based in NZ, the agency was based in London.)

The contract allowed them up to six months to pay. They finally paid their bill in month seven. In month eight the agency (which was part of Corbis) got gobbled up by Getty Images and my images (for a few months at least) were swallowed into the Getty pool. Hundreds of photographers were affected: our images were now being sold by a completely different agency and we had no access to them: we couldn’t see how many sales we had made and we couldn’t withdraw them from sale. I had a picture of the late Jonah Lomu moved to Getty: with my old agency it was only available for editorial usage but Getty changed that and allowed the image for sale for commercial use.

It took about 3-4 months before Getty even acknowledged we existed: and that was via a form email that basically said “we acknowledge you exist.” Photographers would get sometimes monthly payouts: but they had no idea for what images and for what usage. Then Getty said that those that hadn’t been sent the new Getty contract (which had terrible terms and pricing IMHO) would have their images removed for sale: and since I didn’t get a contract after about six months my images were finally taken off-line.

I don’t do a lot of editorial work. And the reason why I don’t is quite simple: there isn’t much money in it. Like you: I run a business, and I’m in it to make a profit.

But there are some things more important than profit. There are reporters and photographers out there that are putting their life on the line and sometimes dying in order to bring us the news. And they don’t do it for the paycheck (although they take it because they need to live) but they do it because it is part of who they are. News changes quickly. There often isn’t time to do what you would regard as “industry best practice.” Its hard to review and sign a contract when you are keeled over in a foxhole dodging bullets. So when you have a phone conversation with someone and that person tells you that the are going to pay you $500.00 for the story: you take them at their word. Because that’s the way the industry works. The word is the bond. If it ran the way you think it should run then the news wouldn’t get reported.

But over the last fifteen years things have changed. Companies like VICE and Huffington Post and the late-Gawker have changed the landscape. Getty have almost universal market share (and they got it by buying the competition) and they have changed the landscape. VICE and everyone else use generic industry contracts and those contracts are almost universally in favour of the vendor and not the journalist. You won’t find any “evidence for clear, unambiguous breach of written contract” because the contract obviously favours VICE. So the only way to bring companies like VICE back into line with the rest of the industry is to call them out. And that is simply what happened here.

But things aren’t looking up for content creators. There is a surplus of creators: and lowered editorial standards means the news papers simply aren’t willing to pay for quality news. Take this story that happened a couple of years ago:

(Extract liberally snipped to fit into fair use guidelines, click the link above to view the entire exchange)

So the Atlantic: which in 2015 set records and achieved “Unprecedented Revenue Growth” in 2013 paid only $100.00 for original stories and ran out of budget to pay their freelancers. And they had the cheek to post this editorial in rebuttal.

The reality is that many, if not most media outlets aren’t budgeting for quality content creation. Its an afterthought. Websites like the Huffington Post famously don’t pay most of their bloggers.

This is the new contract that TIME Magazine is trying to get contributors to sign:

Its a sucky deal. Its a “rights grab.” Photographers not only get paid less: but they loose the right to earn additional revenue from their photos. And while people are trying to fight the contract, as Time points out: people are signing.

People are trying to buck the trend. I pay money every month to a freelance journalist on Patreon who writes really hard-hitting stories about the NZ mental health industry. The best editorial outlet in the country IMHO at the moment is this website called the Spinoff.

The site is heavy on satire and light pieces about media, but amongst the light stuff they do some really important investigative journalism. When they started up they made it a priority to ensure content creators were paid and paid fairly. But in order for something like this to be successful they didn’t follow the traditional funding models. The Spinoff is sponsored by Lightbox (A local smaller version of Netflix online.) and the sponsorship keeps the website going. Recently a decision was made to extensively cover the Auckland local elections: but they didn’t have the budget to cover it. So they crowdfundedit: raising $24,000 on a goal of $10,000. It was heartening to see that people valued journalism to the point where they paid for it out of pocket.

So its still possible to provide hard hitting journalism and pay a fairs day wage. But the cost of that is a loss of “perceived editorial integrity.” When your content is sponsored and when you are paid a “wage” directly by your readers you will always run the risk of being accused of avoiding certain stories or writing to a certain bias. But this is probably the way of the future.

Sorry for the rant. If there are any errors in the above post please blame the editor.