Editors at Work: How Much Do I Get Paid for This Story?

By Jack Limpert

My years at The Washingtonian started with writers getting less than 10 cents a word and finished at $1 or more a word and there was a lot of negotiation between those numbers. Sometimes you promised a flat fee to motivate the writer to do good reporting and not overwrite. One of the few money conversations I remember from those early years was telling Kitty Kelley, a very eager and shrewd reporter, “Kitty, you’re never getting more than $250 for a story.” I think that’s what we paid for her story, “Death and the All-American Boy,” about Senator Joseph Biden. That story showed Kitty’s talent for getting people to talk too much, and she went on to make millions from her tell-all books.

How much you paid a writer had all kinds of complications. Let’s say, using today’s pay rates, that you told a writer you’d pay $5,000 for a piece of about 5,000 words. At that point, there is a lot of enthusiasm on both sides about how great the story could be. What if the story is written but not published? Sometimes it happened because the writer just didn’t deliver, or some other publication did the story first, or something changed at the magazine to dim enthusiasm for the story.

Usually we paid a kill fee of one-third the promised payment. But kill fees could be a dance between editor and writer. Experienced writers often asked about a kill fee–no problem. But if a relative beginner was too quick to ask about a kill fee, it set off warning bells. Then there was the question of how long the magazine could hold a piece before paying a kill fee and freeing the writer to sell it elsewhere. A year? After six months I usually gave the writer the choice of waiting to see if we could get the story into an upcoming issue (“December looks very promising”) or taking it elsewhere. The record wait was 10 years. It was a 3,000 word story by Henry Taylor, a distinguished Virginia writer and poet, about drilling a well. We bought it because it was so beautifully written; but it wasn’t timely, it wasn’t all that Washington, it was just a nice look at life out in the country. Finally a month came when four editorial pages opened up, we published the story, and Taylor was amazingly nice about it.

One memorable negotiation involved Don Regan, once the CEO of Merrill Lynch, then Secretary of the Treasury  and White House chief of staff under President Reagan. In 1987, Regan was pushed out of his White House job with Nancy Reagan cast as ringleader of the group that forced him out. In 1989, Nancy Reagan published her autobiography, titled My Turn. Howard Means, one of our senior editors, suggested that we ask Don Regan to review Nancy Reagan’s book.

So I wrote to Regan: “As you are probably aware, Nancy Reagan’s memoir, My Turn, is scheduled for publication by Random House in late October. We would very much like for you to review the book for us. Please note that by “review” I don’t mean a literary analysis; rather, we’d like to give you the space to react to Mrs. Reagan’s memoirs in whatever fashion you think would offer our readers the most insight.”

Regan’s office called to say that he’d be in Washington the following week and he could have lunch with us at the Army-Navy Club near the White House. Howard and I met him there, enjoyed a pleasant lunch, and talked about the kind of  review he might write. He seemed willing, and I told him that for a review of about 2,000 words we’d normally pay $1,000 but because of his reputation and name we’d be willing to pay him $2,000.

He took a sip of coffee and said, “Can you add ten percent to that?”

Howard and I looked at one another and I said, “Okay.”

On the way back to the magazine, Howard and I tried to absorb the fact that one of the richest men in America, maybe the richest ever to write for the magazine, got an extra $200 for a magazine story by asking, “Can you add ten percent to that?” Had Regan  gone through life trying to get an extra ten percent on any money coming his way? Did he ask the plumber who came to his house if his bill could be reduced by ten percent? Had we stumbled upon a hidden secret to becoming rich?

Regan’s story, titled “His Turn,” appeared in the December 1989 Washingtonian and it got lots of attention. It started this way: “The best-kept secret of the Reagan administration, zealously guarded by all the president’s men with the tacit collaboration of most of the media, was not the existence and pervasive influence of the first lady’s astrologer but the haunting suspicion that not too many people loved and admired Nancy Davis Reagan..and vice versa. Now Mrs. Reagan has published a book that tells the whole world why.”

Don Regan died in 2003. Mrs. Reagan had the last word in a 2009 Vanity Fair story:

“Reagan explains her dustup with her husband’s chief of staff Don Regan, calling him ‘really a terrible man.’ She says Vice President Bush was the one who told her, ‘You’ve really got to do something about Donald Regan,’ and she reluctantly agreed. She enlisted former Democratic National Committee chairman Bob Strauss to help persuade the president. She also says that on one occasion, Regan hung up on her in the middle of a phone conversation. ‘When Ronnie found out about that, that did it,’ she says.”


  1. Howard Means says

    And now the rest of the Don Regan story: The lunch Jack describes was memorable, but what I recall best was the struggle to get Regan a review copy of Nancy Reagan’s book. No advanced copies were sent out, and Peter Osnos, Nancy’s editor, flat out refused to make an exception for us, even though we would be publishing a few weeks after the launch date. Nancy, in Osnos’s words (later denied), would “go ballistic” if she learned he had cooperated with an effort to get a review copy to Regan. So, the reviewer was sitting by his pool in Florida, our deadline was nearing, no review copy was on hand, and then I had the (surprisingly) brilliant idea to see if we could get an audio version (read by Nancy, i’m pretty certain) for review. Oh, sure, the the p-r person said, and Fedexed a copy for next morning’s delivery, which I Fedexed to Don Regan, and … deal done.

  2. Bill O'Sullivan says

    Henry Taylor told me years later he had no problem waiting ten years for the magazine to publish his story because he was so grateful that you accepted it in the first place: “Who else was going to publish a story about drilling a well?”

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