By Jack Limpert
One of the adventures for an editor is putting out a magazine using only freelance writers. It’s how The Washingtonian did it in its early days, and for the most part it was lots of fun. Freelancers those first three years included Carl Bernstein, Maury Povich, Scottie Smith, Tom Shales, Judith Viorst, Charlie McDowell, Cornelia Noland, Rob Kanigel, Barbara Raskin, David Richards, Jack Mann, Margaret Bresnahan, Tom Kelly, Bud Carmin, Marilyn Berger, Jim Perry, Kandy Stroud, Al Eisele, Pat Furgurson, Judith Crist, Bryce Nelson, and Kitty Kelley.
Why use freelance writers? Often it’s because they’re cheaper than staff writers. In cities like Washington, lots of well-reported, well-written freelance articles can be bought for $5,000 or less. The salary for a staff writer is likely to be, say, $70,000 a year and most magazine writers aren’t going to write more than six solid stories a year. Some staff writers make more than $70,000 and do only three or four stories a year. So a good piece from a staff writer may cost $15,000 or more.
Freelancers can bring along some big pluses. The ideal freelancer has a background and expertise in a specific subject: everything from health, education, and politics to food and fashion. Such freelancers also can find leads to good stories because they’re out talking to people in the field, finding out what’s new, what people are talking about. At the Washingtonian, I always sensed warning bells going off anytime we seemed to be coming up with most of our story ideas by sitting in the office and talking to one another. When Clay Felker was editing New York magazine in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one of his editors told me that Felker got his best story ideas by getting out of the office, listening to what people were talking about at coffee shops, restaurants, and parties.
Why hire staff writers? Quality. Dependability. Predictability. If it’s a February cover story, the writer better deliver it in mid-December and it better be good. Once you’ve worked a few times with a staff writer, you know pretty well what you’re going to get and you can plan accordingly. Some staff writers have a specialty: John Pekkanen, who won two National Magazine Awards for us, covered health and medicine and he was always talking with doctors and researchers, looking for ideas. He sometimes reminds me that in early 1981 he told me about a conversation he’d had with a researcher at the National Institutes of Health about a virus that seemed to be striking gay men. I told him I didn’t see a Washingtonian story in that. About four months later the first story about AIDS appeared.
So what was an editor’s life like back in the all-freelance days? In 1977 the Washington Journalism Review asked me to send them some notes about my experiences with freelance writers. Here’s what they published:
A Death in the Family. A writer who’s done things for us in the past hustles us for three advances on an upcoming piece. Each time it’s because mother had to have an operation or there was a death in the family. How can you turn down a $150 advance request when the guy is burying his step-father tomorrow? There can’t be many relatives left, but maybe he’ll get married and have kids.
Genius Speaks for Itself. The writer can’t spell, can’t construct sentences, but isn’t that what copy editors are for?
Flawed Talent. A writer with credits in New York and elsewhere comes to town. Has good references from local people, which I check out. Agrees to do an article on the Nobel Prize network in Washington, and on pepper, a subject on which he claims to be an expert. I reluctantly give him a $300 advance. This is back in 1976. Some time later, I get a call from a local restaurateur who says the writer has come in, interviewed him on the subject of hot food, eaten dinner, and bounced a check. We sent the restaurateur his $23. Then in June I get a letter from the writer saying he has lost a political battle at another magazine and “consequently” was backpacking around New Mexico. He would, however, get the Nobel piece in by July 1. The pepper piece, alas, had “not hit critical mass.” So I answer him, care of a New Mexico bar, and say go ahead on the Nobel article. Haven’t heard from him since.
They Come at You from All Directions. I call up my favorite restaurant to order a take-out pizza. The guy who answers the phone, a waiter, asks me to look at a piece—the memoirs of a waiter. I say okay, pick up pizza and article. Give it to our food section editor, who can’t make up her mind about running it. Every time I go to favorite restaurant the waiter is there. Don’t go there as often.
The Strike It Rich Syndrome. A woman, great writer, always needed advances. One of the rare cases where I personally advanced her money—$300. She also borrowed my tape recorder, took it to Boston, lost it. Finally she went to New York to interview a film director. Moved in with him. I didn’t hear from her for a year. One morning got a $300 check in the mail from one of the film director’s companies. No note. Never got tape recorder.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The piece arrives and starts, “As I said in my last book…” The personal pronoun flows throughout.
A Refreshing Change from the I’ve Been Sick Excuse. A writer who has been highly critical of the magazine has lunch on me at Duke Zeibert’s. Commission him to do a piece. He calls on deadline day. It’s been too hot to write, he says.
The I Sold It to Playboy Excuse. Had lunch at Sans Souci with well-known writer. Worked out idea. Waited two months, then call him. He says, “Oh yeah, I sold it to Playboy.”
The Keep Your Mouth Shut Lesson. A long-overdue piece arrives. Too long and wanders all over the place. Writers says he knows it’s not any good but he figures I can help him rewrite it. All the frustrations of the past year come out and I really lay into the guy, tell him I’m tired of people expecting me to do what any self-respecting professional writer ought to do, He is shaken, but takes it. I feel better. Next day I get a letter from him saying the reason it took him so long to finish the piece is that he’s got cancer and the radiation therapy has been very hard on him.
Other freelance moments:
“Listen, I know this has a different angle from what we talked about two months ago, but I think you’ll like it.”
“I need a quick response because I’m going to Brazil tomorrow for six months.”
“This story is so hot I can’t talk about it over the phone.”
In summary, at least a third of the articles you talk over with a writer will never come in at all. A third will come in quite different, or much longer, or much later, or much worse than expected. A quarter will come in about as expected and okay. Fewer than ten percent are pleasant surprises.
Editors react differently to this. One editor we had could lie to a writer better than the writer could lie to her. Another sees every phone call as a loaded gun. I’m in the hope-springs-eternal category.
Which raises the question of why would anyone want to be an editor? Nobody comes up to you at a party and says, “That was a great piece you edited,” least of all the writer. You spend much of your time being a psychiatrist at much less than $50 an hour. You’re a welfare worker without the civil service protection. But then, who in his right mind would want to be a freelance writer?
Notes: Who, you may wonder, is Scottie Smith? Her full name was Frances Scott Fitzgerald Smith and her father wrote The Great Gatsby. Margaret Bresnahan? She married and divorced Gene Carlson, an old journalist friend of mine. Back then we called her Margie and in 1971 she wrote a cover story for us on car repair. This is how we described her: “Margaret Bresnahan, 24, sold her shiny, red Volkswagen after a series of unhappy experiences trying to get it fixed, Now a bus rider, she attends George Washington University Law School and works for the Center for Auto Safety, a public interest group associated with Ralph Nader.” Who was the writer who promised a piece and then sold it to Playboy? Art Buchwald, who was lots of fun to have lunch with.