In the days following the Lianne Spiderbaby plagiarism scandal there were a lot of questions about editorial practices and who was getting paid for what. In the interest of giving the publications an opportunity to speak to these issues a series of questions were sent out, seeking to clarify their positions on some of the topics surrounding the scandal.
Dave Alexander is the editor in chief at Rue Morgue Magazine and he responded to our questions the day they went out. Although Rue Morgue never published any of Spiderbaby’s work and were therefore not “part” of the scandal, as a member of the genre press community we thought their voice ought to be heard. What follows is our conversation:
LPP: Does Rue Morgue compensate writers for both print and web?
ALEXANDER: We compensate writers for print, as we simply don’t have the budget to pay for online. If we can get to a position where we do have enough, the plan has always been to treat it the same as the magazine in that regard. Our website simply doesn’t generate enough revenue,though.
The frustrating thing is that you’re expected to have a constant flow of free online content — far more articles in a month than would go into an issue of the magazine — yet no way to pay for that content. At the same time, print advertising is down, so page count is down and there are cuts across the board. The digital version of the magazine is growing, but not nearly enough to compensate, at least yet.
LPP: Do you as an editor see a distinction between print and web?
ALEXANDER: Yes, there’s definitely a distinction in the way that online content is consumed. We looked into what people are reading (what pages/articles people are clicking
on) and they want fast, bite-sized stuff with big/bold images for the most part.
In terms of value for what is written, we try do our best to make it a fair relationship. We offer a chance for new writers to get some experience and a lot of eyeballs on their work by doing a piece for us online. The idea with online content that cannot be compensated for monetarily is that there should be a value in it for the writer in other respects. This means we make a point of linking back to the writers’ sites to help promote them, have a blurb about who they are (give them a presence on the site), provide opportunities to be in the magazine or use their writing as leverage — for example, if someone wants to attend a convention or an event, if they are willing to do a review or preview, they can go as press under Rue Morgue.
We also make sure to send our contributors thank you gifts, preview screening tickets, etc. – do things to let them know that they are appreciated. For some of our more veteran writers, an online column is a way to explore that niche in the genre that we don’t necessarily have room to cover in the magazine on a regular basis.
We also respect their time; for example, I created the Sinister Seven, which is a seven-question Q&A, and generally not terribly time consuming, or too long for the average reader looking for morenbite-sized pieces. Lastly, online piece allow for the use of multimedia, so there’s a distinct difference there. A writer can use a YouTube trailer, for example, to illustrate a point. There are definite distinctions in a couple of ways.
Now, all that said, the rules of good journalism should be equally adhered to for both formats – for example, don’t run advertorial in print or online. Keep those boundaries clear.
LPP: Is writing for free a necessary step in this business?
ALEXANDER: I’m only here because I decided to volunteer for the school paper back in
university, and I wrote many pieces for free as on-the-job training. I still write for free; editors at the magazine don’t get paid extra for their pieces, it’s a labour of love. In addition, I’ve written large articles and, recently, a book chapter for free because I believed in the project, like the people I was working for, and because there’s no budget for the writers but I want to be aligned with a cool project. I think in every career that has that creative element to it, you
have to do some time as a volunteer.
LPP: Do you think it’s morally acceptable to accept an agreement with someone that is exploitive even if that person is willing to be exploited?
ALEXANDER: Nobody should be exploited. Ever.
LPP: Fangoria published their rates on a web forum recently, do you think they are in line with what the market ought to be?
ALEXANDER: I don’t know Fangoria’s rates or business model, so I can’t really say. It’s not unusual for different writers to make different deals, as some articles require more legwork or expenditures.
If you’re talking about not getting compensated at all, that’s unfortunate, as it devalues freelancers. I spent years making my living as a freelancer before coming to Rue Morgue. Those were very different times but I still feel strongly that if there’s no incentive for aspiring journalists to learn the craft of writing if there’s no value in it and then you get sub-par journalism and no one benefits. Of course, the reality is that if the advertising support isn’t there, then there’s no money, so do you continue running a publication with what you have and try to rebuild, or do you fold up shop?
Competition is good and we certainly don’t want to see Fangoria go. Given the massive interest in the horror genre, there’s more than enough of a potential market to support multiple publications and many horror journalists. Then you ask yourself why are companies eliminating their print advertising budgets?
One reason is that they are losing revenue to piracy, which is — in a way, there are also benefits –consumers destroying their own community, and the other reason is that they can (or believe they can) reach more people online for cheap and make more money for themselves/shareholders, which is the industry destroying the community.
Things seems to be leveling out, however, as publications find ways to navigate the digital world a bit better and companies realize that their advertisements are often more meaningful in print. Have you ever purposely clicked on a website ad that wasn’t a trailer? I haven’t. I notice skinned sites and contests (though I never enter them), but, like most people, I’ve surfed the web long enough that I naturally ignore a lot of those squares and banners or purposely avoid the intrusive ones. I will, however, linger on a print ad. That’s just me, but we do get people commenting on our print ads on a regular basis, so I can’t be the only
one that pays more attention.
LPP: Does this unpaid underclass exist in your mind and what can be done for
ALEXANDER: I think that writers/potential need to understand the reality of the limited financial resources in the publishing world, online and in print, and adjust accordingly. So, ask yourself if you’d be happier pursuing freelance gigs in a very competitive market, or working a much higher-paying 9 to 5 job and enjoying writing as a part-time gig or something you do for yourself out of pleasure. It depends on what you want to get out of it.
I also think that publications need to stop undercutting each other, and that popular horror websites need to co-operate more than compete with each other to be the first to post something. There should be certain standards adhered to across the board to avoid being taken advantage of by companies that increasingly think it’s acceptable to try to do things such as trade swag or exclusives for editorial coverage. Perhaps they could agree to a base fee for running a contest or posting a press release. Easier said than done, as it goes against human nature. We’re fiercely competitive.
LPP: Do you think the existence of an unpaid underclass devalues the written word to the point where plagiarists can rationalize their behavior? Are they just learning from outlets that this work isn’t valuable and therefore ripe picking?
ALEXANDER: I think that plagiarists rationalize their behaviour because we live in a culture that increasingly wants quantity over quality and information to move at an incredible rate, combined with a media landscape that constantly tells us (especially the younger generation) that being famous is important above all else and — thanks to reality stars — you don’t need to necessarily put in the work or do your time if you can look good and smile pretty. It’s dismal and I’m glad to see people getting angry about it. Every time someone feeds the tabloid journalism machine, the world gets dumber. There’s a multitude of court jesters acting like kings and queens just to get some crumbs of attention. Toss ’em in the moat.
Editors note: Fangoria, Famous Monsters of Filmland and Horror Hound were sent similar questions. Famous Monsters and Horror Hound did not respond to our emails. Fangoria editor Chris Alexander responded and declined to answer our questions.