Freelancers Notch a Rare Win as Hearst Moves to Net Zero Payments

After a Twitter kerfuffle sparked by author Roxane Gay, the magazine publisher will no longer ask writers to pay a fee for the privilege of prompt payments

Why don’t publishers pay their freelancers faster? Is that tiny percentage of interest they’ll accumulate while holding onto the money worth alienating the people producing the content they publish? Is habitually delaying $1,200 payments for six months a bit of bookkeeping magic that’s somehow keeping the entire industry solvent? Or is it just a way of throwing weight around to remind writers where they stand in the pecking order? In any case, it’s a fact of freelance life that writers regularly wait an inordinate amount of time to get paid, whether through negligence, incompetence, or spite, and nobody seems to quite know why.

Improved working conditions are rarely achieved by way of a tweet, but following an uproar around a post on October 26 by Roxane Gay, author of the best seller Bad Feminist, Hearst adjusted its freelancer payment policy to universal net zero payouts, financial nomenclature meaning they will now pay immediately when billed rather than waiting 30 days or more. “Hearst pays Net 75,” Gay wrote. “Every week between when you invoice them and the pay date they email you an early pay offer where they will pay you immediately for a fee. It’s exploitative and unfair to writers who take these crap terms because they need the money they earned faster.” In fact, Hearst’s policy was to pay writers who had incorporated net 75 and individuals net 30 or less, but that was still too long by the lights of most commentators. The following Thursday, November 4, Gay tweeted: “I have an exciting update! Effective immediately, Hearst will pay all writers Net 0, regardless of tax status.” A spokesperson for Hearst declined to comment.

Freelancers told Off the Record that Hearst has historically run in the middle of the pack on payment speeds. “With Hearst, I’ve generally not had any trouble,” said Jesse Hicks, who writes for Men’s Health, though, he added, “I just had an interaction with them where on their end somebody dropped the ball, and I didn’t get paid.”

Hearst is not the only publisher Hicks chased this month. He said Vice also failed to pay him within the 30 days stipulated by New York City’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act. “The editor was like, ‘Well, did you fill out X, Y, and Z?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, I did, I’ve done this before.’ I didn’t hear from her for like two weeks after trying to follow up on that. And then she was like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, there was something new in our system that I didn’t do. So now, hopefully, you’ll get paid, and hopefully, you’ll pitch us again.’ It was super frustrating,” he recalled. “I mean, as anybody who has freelanced knows, that’s often par for the course.”

A significant portion of a freelancer’s time can be taken up with unpaid invoices. “I probably spend a quarter of my work week tracking invoices, following up, going through paper trails,” said Maggie Slepian, who writes regularly for Hearst publications including Popular Mechanics, Runner’s World, and Men’s Health. “I go through my files pretty much every day and see, ‘Was anything due today that hasn’t come in?’ And it’s just a lot of work to follow up 30 or 45 days later.”

Sometimes the consequences can be worse than losing a chunk of a workweek. When Hearst didn’t send Hicks his check, he had to scramble to pay his mortgage. “That was a decently sized check,” he said, “so when it didn’t show up, I did have to move money around in order to pay bills.”

Some publications have been so consistent in paying late that they’ve developed what may be an ineradicable reputation for tardiness. The problems at Outside Magazine were so contentious that inter-office disputes spilled onto Twitter in September. “While working here I suggested full time staffers take short, rolling pay furloughs and/or rolling months of $0 freelance budgets by vertical in order to dig out of freelance debt,” wrote Abbey Gingras, a former audience editor at the magazine. “I was told by editorial leadership it was ‘not our responsibility’ to fix the debt.”

Outside’s editor in chief Christopher Keyes responded with unexpected candor. “I stand by that decision,” he wrote. “We had a founder/owner with the financial means to fix the payment issues but refused to do so and would not listen to us until there was a crisis. Ask our edit team to take furloughs and pay cuts so he can sit on his money? Not on my watch.” (Disclosure: This reporter is under contract for an Outside story.)

The Freelance Solidarity Project has been organizing around payment terms since its inception in 2018. First, they lobbied the city to standardize net 30 through the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, but they’ve since been lobbying publications directly. “A lot of what we’ve run up against is just elderly accountants in magazines who are just like, ‘I don’t want to change the processes and software.’ It’s not like, ‘we can’t afford to do this,’” said Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein, an organizer with the Project. “It’s just like, ‘oh, we have to change the spreadsheet that we use to keep track of invoices.’ And it’s just like, ‘Okay, fuck you! Just change the spreadsheet!’”

Kaiser-Schatzlein said that Hearst changing its policy without much of a fuss following a viral tweet was “huge” and showed just how easy and pain-free this could be. “If the impetus was Roxane Gay,” he said, “they could definitely just do it.” The Freelance Solidarity Project is starting to move on to more ambitious goals. “Net zero is good, but we would like to see publications paying either 30 or 50 percent and all the expenses when the work is done,” he said. “We suggest that publications should pay freelancers upfront for their articles, either right away or when the first draft is filed, and then some form of progressive payments so that they’re paid fully when the work is published, and not waiting till after that.”

Last December, Defector announced new freelancer policies developed in partnership with the Project, which promised to pay freelancers 50 percent of their fee after a first draft is accepted, and the other half when it’s published.

Kaiser-Schatzlein notes that Type Investigations and other organizations have been ahead of the curve on graduated payment schedules and served as a model for their proposals. Study Hall is one that’s tried to establish the new standard. “When building Study Hall, we always had in mind treating our own freelancers the way we would want to be treated by larger publications,” said Kyle Chayka, co-founder of the newsletter publication and freelancer community. “For larger projects, we often paid part of a fee in advance, and whenever possible, we paid the full fee on acceptance of an edit or the publication date. We were able to do that easily in part because we were a small company and could use direct payment tools instead of large, corporate platforms, and because we could rely on consistent revenue from subscriptions, but I think it’s something every publication can and should do.”

But, for now, freelancers are celebrating the advent of net zero payments at Hearst. “I’m excited about this development and many blessings to Roxane Gay for bringing it up and calling attention to it,” said Slepian. “Net zero from a client is obviously a huge bonus for me and gives a lot of time back to my week.” But the expansion of that standard across the industry is still a demand and an expectation. “The time has come for net zero. We should not still be trying to get invoices paid 30, 60, 90 days out,” said Hicks, who has yet to receive a payment as quickly as the policy would suggest. “I hope that Hearst really is leading on this, and I hope that it spurs other people to move forward with it.”