Media Review: Outside Magazine, Freelancing and the Case for Digging Ditches
We all know that shifts of the shaft happen with work and business: budget cuts hit, people drop the ball, tough decisions sometimes short-change good folks. And in the big world of politics, banker bailouts, Wall Street’s house of cards, sickening insurance industry practices that place profiteering over people, war-for-profit, and the list goes on, we often want to tune out and run away. To again quote the great Walter Sobchak: “Fuck it, dude, let’s go bowling.”
Such escapism into something that feels organic and real is part of the allure of climbing and getting outside. And so it’s doubly ironic, and perhaps doubly insidious, when a company that purports to be all about the outdoors treats people like dogs.
Outside magazine should change their title. That’s nothing new; they’ve long since drifted from their good content days and into 10-steps-to-flatter-abs articles, fashion shoots, bogus celebrity covers, and sub-Maxim gutter humor. But do they really have to be so abusive to their contributors? Abusive is the term a friend, who formerly authored Outside’s all-time best monthly column, uses. Another climber and writer acquaintance, the rare writer who has ascended well past needing to write for magazines, refuses to ever again write for Outside. Media Bistro recently reported on their despicable treatment of their freelancers.
So why do people do it? They grovel with the other jackals, picking over meatless bones in hopes of furthering their careers. Writing is hard work, and the pay sucks. So you hope your work gets seen by a bigger audience, which, ostensibly anyway, leads to better work, perhaps a book deal, and the promise of earning a good living. Understandable enough. Except when they treat you like dirt and your work doesn’t see print in any case. Many very talented writers and photographers give up and find another career. Smartly enough.
I learned my lesson with Outside awhile back, after they kept milking me for climbing-world information, then stringing me along on my article proposals, some of which later became articles written not by me but by their pet writers (if you didn’t get that, it’s something they’re well-known for doing: stealing your ideas, only they wouldn’t put it that way, and you can’t really prove it, and who has the money to pursue the case?). When I stopped trying with them, I wrote to one of their editors: “Hard though it may seem to believe, I do have some self respect.”
When they recently abused a good friend, I got pissed again. Synopsis: my friend, a great writer and editor (it’s how he makes a very modest living) and climber, and a genuinely good person, wrote a gripping personal article, submitted it to Outside on spec, had it contracted and photographed, and assumed – as one would – that the magazine wanted it and it would see print. The topic was deeply personal, exposing his crippling, years’-long withdrawal from psychiatric medicines, as well as the false diagnoses and forced poisonings that nearly ended his life and climbing career. My friend is dark but not crazy, and he went through a hell beyond most of our imaginations. Outside told him not to send the piece to anyone else, and my friend even agreed with them, when another magazine expressed interest in the psych-med topic, to keep any first-person narrative out of this piece so as not to jeopardize the original story. This was three years ago. Then they started stringing him along. Constantly. Last summer, he was promised (again) it would run April 2010. Then radio silence. When my friend checked in two weeks ago, he was again brushed off, until finally another email and phone call roused a response…of sorts: perhaps the ninth or tenth such volley of ex post facto apologies and empty promises from an editor seemingly too busy covering his ass (and daydreaming about which baby oil to drizzle on Lance Armstrong’s pecs for the next cover shoot) to engage in, well, editing or communication.
At a certain point, perhaps it’s my friend’s fault for being good enough to keep believing their bilge. But really, there is no excuse for Outside’s despicable behavior. It’s not like this was an isolated case, either.
“You know what the problem is?” my friend told me earlier today. “You shouldn’t shit where you eat, and that’s what trying to make a living is with magazine writing, at least with these guys. And then they try to make it look like they were doing me a favor with my piece, pulling it out of the garbage-heap, their ‘slushpile.’ It’s like someone holds you down in a corner and rapes you and then says, ‘Look what I did for you – I showed you this wonderful corner.’”
There’s something to be said for just walking away, and I suppose this helps explain why so many great artists are starving artists. And let’s make no mistake – Outside has nothing to do with art, and they haven’t for a long time. The editor made it sound like he couldn’t do anything, maybe true but after three years, and a history of abusive practices, it’s hard to comprehend any defense for them. It’s certainly somebody’s fault. At any rate, the paradoxically titled Outside provides a stunning example of how to dehumanize contributors, who are often those closest to the lifeblood of our passions.
As so much of the world becomes dumbed-down soulless corporate rot, and as the talented get fed-up and walk away, I wonder what happens to creativity, writing, art, music – then again, it usually finds its way to the surface in smaller outlets, the artist digging ditches by day and creating at night, remaining poor but with his soul intact. That, at least, is a good thing.
I hope his article finds a good home.