It’s an unfortunate truth in the outdoor media business right now: If you’re a freelancer doing contract work for a magazine, trade journal, or website, you might have to wait a long time—sometimes months after finishing the job—to get your money.
Robin Thurston, CEO of Outside (the parent company of Outside Business Journal, Outside magazine, Backpacker, and dozens of other media brands) made waves late last month when he posted a public letter on the popular Basecamp Facebook group addressing this problem.
To our contributors,
Your stories, photos, illustrations, videos, and podcasts are the lifeblood of our business. They are the words and images and dreams that inspire skiers to play hooky on a powder day, help parents teach their kids to ride a bike, and empower climbers to reach new heights of personal and physical achievement.
As a business, we need to pay a long list of vendors to host our websites, print our magazines, and keep an incredibly complex infrastructure running. But we don’t exist without you. That’s why the new Outside will be paying you first going forward.
Earlier this week, following our acquisition of Outside magazine, we mailed checks to every freelancer with an overdue invoice. And I am proud to announce today that we will be moving towards net-30 terms for all creative contributors. We know you have bills to pay, and we will not make you wait.
In closing, let me say a giant thank you for creating the content that helps us turn passion into participation, and participation into passion. We believe that a hike, a ride, a ski run, or a yoga practice can change your life and change the world, and we appreciate your partnership in this deeply satisfying journey.
Speaking to Outside Business Journal last week, Thurston said the decision to address payment concerns arose from a desire to fix a system—endemic to media in general, not just outdoor—that is “very, very broken.”
“Our contributors, whether they are full-time or freelancers, are the lifeblood of these [media] organizations and we have to take care of them,” Thurston said. “They are the people that make this stuff go. Great storytelling is, frankly, what it’s all about.”
Thurston is making himself available to all content contributors in a Zoom webinar this Friday, March 19, at 10 a.m. MST (register HERE). He will present the company’s new freelancer terms, address the reasoning behind them, and open up the discussion for questions.
A broken system
Much of the historic disfunction outlined in Thurston’s letter arises from a “gatekeeper” attitude that legacy media companies tend to leverage against content creators trying to make ends meet, the Outside CEO told OBJ. Media brands take advantage of freelancers by making them believe it’s an “honorary right” to have their work published, when in fact “it’s the amazing content that helps those brands thrive in the first place.”
That arrangement, according to Thurston, is short-sighted and unsustainable. Everyone has to put food on the table, including the creative class, and as we’ve reported before here at OBJ, exposure absolutely does not pay the bills.
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To fix the problem at Outside, Thurston said he wants to make his organization “the best possible beginning game and end game for anybody that wants to thrive in the category and spend their time creating content.”
“If you’re a great content creator, I don’t care if you’re 15 or 75,” he said. “If you’re a great storyteller, you should get paid. And you should get paid a market rate that is fair and allows you to feed your family.”
With respect to the public nature of the announcement, Thurston said he believes it’s necessary to broadcast this kind of news widely, because many of the industry’s best creators have become rightly skeptical of working with legacy media brands. Outside needs to earn back their trust, and that starts with making public promises—and keeping them.
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“We could have done this quietly, but the problem is that if we want to attract the best people back to our platforms, we have to be somewhat public about this,” said Thurston. “There are people that have stopped writing for these publications because they didn’t get paid—or didn’t get paid enough. We had to do something public to convince people to come back. Now we’ve got to follow through.”
To make good on these promises, Thurston said Outside is exploring new tools that will allow it to “pay freelancers more easily and quickly, out of one pool of money.” This is just the first step toward eliminating “long legacies of not treating people well,” Thurston added. Permanently righting the ship, he said, will take time.