Start talking about magazine salaries and you hear a lot of quivery
voices and confabulation. But sooner or later, the conversation takes
inevitable turn: Tom Junod can't really make $300,000 a year at
The New York Daily News reported in June that feature writer Junod had turned down a $300,000
offer from GQ and the New Yorker to follow editor David Granger to
Esquire. Junod told the Daily News that Esquire offered him more
flexibility but not more money. In the magazine world, the news hit like
tidal wave. It was yet another ripple emanating from the El Niqo of the
glossies, Tina Brown.
Eager to make a mark when she took over the floundering Vanity Fair
1984, Brown lured writers by offering then-unheard-of six-figure
Brown upped the ante, turning her writers and editors into stars who, if
not well-paid by Wall Street standards, were at least able to duplicate
earnings of successful CPAs for the first time. By 1992, when she
hired best-selling author
James Stewart ("Den of Thieves") at the New Yorker, Brown was paying
to $50,000 a piece, according to gossip columnist Liz Smith (although the item included a disclaimer, an
off-the-record "preposterous" from "a New Yorker insider").
Dominick Dunne used to be considered the nation's highest-paid
writer, with a deal that's rumored to have rewarded him close to $500,000
year, when his O.J. Simpson stories ran in Vanity Fair practically every month.
But the New York Observer recently reported that the not-yet-launched
Magazine matched that lofty sum recently when it tried to lure away Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly -- sweetening the offer with
a two-movie deal at Disney. Reilly stayed put for $450,000 -- and a
three-movie deal at Warner Bros. And industry scuttlebutt has Norman
making $140,000 for two stories at George, a magazine that routinely
writers it pays only $1 to $2 a word.
The National Writers' Union, which is currently surveying
salaries, reports that the standard magazine rate is still $1 a word,
$3 a word at the high end -- the same rates that prevailed in the industry
20 years ago. Back then, publishers only bought first North
serial rights; now, locked into agreements with online providers,
demanding all-rights contracts. "For most freelancers, rates in real
are going down," reports Jonathan Tasini, the National Writers' Union
president. Tasini lost an assignment at the Atlantic Monthly when he
questioned the all-rights contract his editor sent him. He faxed back
union's standard contract, and the editor canceled the assignment. "I
surprised when they weren't even willing to negotiate," says Tasini, who
wound up writing his article for a think tank.
The real story, according to industry insiders, is how little most
magazines pay. "As a result of this Tom Junod thing," says GQ editor-in-chief Art
"whatever a writer does really get is wildly inflated (by the rumor mill)."
A cover story for an
upscale glossy still pays most writers only $5,000, though someone with a
sharky agent -- and a hot-ticket book -- might be able to command
$10,000 for a celebrity interview at a woman's magazine. "It's rare for
who's not in the Condi Nast world to get $15,000 or more for a story,"
one magazine writer with more than 20 years in the business. Many freelancers are willing to
$1 a word for the visibility they get at a publication like the New York
Times Magazine, which now pays star writers $80,000 for four pieces, according to an editor.
Even at Condi Nast, big-money contracts aren't the norm. I was under
contract to Vanity Fair for three years, and I can attest to the fact
not every writer there makes six figures (although after my column was
killed, I might have been the nation's highest-paid writer on a per-word
basis). Once, Kevin Sessums, the magazine's celebrity profiler, was said
be displeased at the contract editor-in-chief Graydon Carter offered, so he fought back
a way Vanity Fair could understand: He got entertainment mogul David Geffen to call up and
complain on his behalf. (His tactic worked, according to office
Kurt Andersen, tapped to write a media column at the New Yorker after
stint running New York magazine, is said to be paid $200,000 a year for his
according to his friends, he's also contractually bound to attend
and provide story ideas. (Andersen
refused to comment.)
Condi Nast editors Tina Brown and Anna Wintour of Vogue have compensation packages worth
about $1 million a year, according to a well-placed source. Of course,
includes such hard-to-measure items as interest-free mortgages and
allowances. "They don't have stock, either, so maybe that's fair,"
out another source. Even Vogue contributor Charles Gandee got a Condi Nast-backed mortgage in 1992, when he was just an editor-at-large for
Michael Caruso, Details' new 35-year-old editor, is reportedly earning
$600,000 a year -- a figure Caruso calls "insanely inflated."
A more realistic look at Condi Nast salaries came last week, when the
New Yorker's former publisher, Diane Silberstein, sued the company for
wrongful termination. Her court papers included her 1996 compensation: a
salary of $340,000, plus commissions of $10,600 and perks over and
the usual life-and-health insurance ($1,400 a month for a car lease,
month for a garage, $10,000 a year for club dues or summer house rental,
and $1,500 a year for a health club membership or a personal trainer).
"You have to be lucky enough to have gotten not just the name
recognition, but to be in a field where there's a bidding war going on,"
says an insider who tracks salaries closely. Junod benefited from the
Esquire-GQ rivalry; Reilly's bosses at Sports Illustrated "were
correct to be panicked about ESPN," according to one of his rivals.
Charla Krupp was said to be lured back to Glamour with a salary approaching
$200,000 -- which is virtually unheard of for a No. 2 editor, let alone
someone seven notches down the masthead. But Krupp's salary is expected to
off because her beat -- beauty -- is the magazine's most important
source, and she's also a staple on TV for the magazine.
These days, the disparity between what the editors in chief make and
what their top deputies take home is growing, even at Time and Newsweek.
Traditionally, the two newsweeklies have paid their Nos. 2 and 3 editors
highest in the industry, with salary-and-bonus packages over $250,000. (Industry sources
that many deputy editors at the non-news magazines -- Krupp
notwithstanding -- are making $200,000.) Another anomaly is People
which is a cash cow with very punishing hours. There, senior editors are
recruited with salaries in the $120,000-140,000-a-year range, which of
pushes up salaries for the Nos. 2, 3 and 4. Still, "people go
through there like a revolving door," says one source.
Time magazine is the only place where rates for star writers seem to
have actually declined in recent years. Once upon a time, according to
industry source who does not work at Time, star writers like Charles
Krauthammer or Roger Rosenblatt earned $25,000 for cover stories and up to $8,000 for 800-word essays.
"That's been reined in under Walter Isaacson's watch," the source
says, although rates for the mid-level writers have increased.
Jesse Kornbluth, now AOL Networks' editorial director, calls himself
recovering magazine writer." His line: "At [San Francisco Chronicle columnist] Herb Caen's funeral, Robin
Williams said, 'To be a famous journalist is rather like being the
best-dressed woman in radio.' Unless you can turn your magazine
into movies or books, you're building no equity. As a business
it's hard to think of a more stupid way to manage a career," Kornbluth
concludes. "As a business proposition -- that's my point."