Unpaid Writers To Sue Heart And Soul Magazine?

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These aren’t the most financially stable times for magazines. According to the Pew Research Center‘s Project For Excellence In Journalism, two-thirds of the industry’s Top 25 magazines experienced circulation declines in the second half of 2011. Across the country, publications such as Sports Illustrated and Essence have greatly downsized their staff in recent years. But perhaps no magazine is
struggling greater than Heart and Soul, the 19-year-old wellness publication that caters to African-American women (and more recently, “all women of color”).

A major shift in the magazine’s ownership from independent owner Edwin V. Avent to the Brown Curry Detry Taylor and Associates (BCDT) media content company last July caused a backup of freelance and editor payments due to, what the magazine claimed, re-adjustments from the transition. Once things were settled, BCDT CEO Clarence Brown announced that payments to freelancers would begin within 30 to 45 days of the group’s official takeover.

However, months after the switch, many freelance writers and editors still had yet to be paid. In November 2011, three of the dozen or so unpaid writers took action, contacting the National Writer’s Union (NWU) and launching a united campaign against Heart and Soul.

While the efforts of Katti Gray, Pamela Johnson, and Sheree Crute eventually resulted in their compensation, along with a few others this May, the magazine not only paid many up to a year late, but it still owes around $150,000 to at least a dozen more freelancers as of press time, with $100,000 of the monies being owed to editors alone, according to the NWU.

Gray, who is a part of the NWU and knows Crute and Johnson through mutual memberships in the Association of Health Care Journalists and American Society of Journalists and Authors, led the charge to force Heart and Soul to make good on its debts.

After writing an article for Heart and Soul last year, Gray sent numerous e-mails to the magazine asking about payment, each of which went ignored. In summer of 2011, she sent another e-mail threatening to sue the publication for the $1,700 they owed her. “I’m not entirely sure why I got paid when others didn’t,” she commented on the matter.

Despite Heart and Soul’s professed loyalty to its Black female readership, Gray believes their slow track record in paying writers says otherwise.

“It’s a travesty that these magazine owners and editors — long known for promoting workplace parity for Black people and a fairer, balanced, more comprehensive coverage of Black concerns — would not pay contributors who mainly are Black and female,” the veteran reporter said. “It’s hypocrisy and…a kind of theft of intellectual property.”

Johnson, who’s been in the industry since 1984, waited at least 6 months through early 2011 to receive $600 for the first of two stories.

When the second check for $1,500 didn’t come in, she began tweeting information about the magazine’s payment blunders with Crute and Gray. However, Johnson believes Heart and Soul paid her only to prevent a PR disaster. “We suspected that the previous owner, Edwin Avent, was trying to start a new TV venture, ‘Soul of the South,’ and didn’t want the bad press to tank his new project.”

When she was told that George Curry, one of the incoming owners, was changing policy to pay writers faster, Johnson decided to test the claim.“I figured I’d see if that was true and took on a new assignment,” the former editorial development director for ABILITY Magazine said. “It paid $2,000. I turned it in in August [2011]. By November, when I had not been paid, we banded together to hire a lawyer. Then we heard the National Writers Union was interested in representing us.”

“As the person who has been the longest-standing contributor to the magazine — I was with the original magazine — I waited over a year for my last payment,” said Crute, who’s worked at Heart And Soul since its debut issue and received her money shortly before the May 2012 installments. “They finally paid me individually in an effort to get me to stop working with the other writers and to sort of be quiet and to shut down.”

Instead, Crute would do just the opposite: “I decided not to do so, because many of them were colleagues I had known over a long time. Some of us had also come to the magazine in part because I had supported it for such a long time. So I continued to work with the union (after November 2011) to try to help the others get paid also.”

Even though Heart and Soul has lacked consistency in its more recent payouts, Crute said that things were much better in its earlier days. “There were no problems then,” she noted. “It was very well-managed when it was owned by Bob Johnson because he owned it for years. Its most-recent owner is the only one who’s ever done anything of this nature.”

“I agreed to write a story, which I wrote in February,” said Harriet A. Washington, who previously wrote a medical column for Heart And Soul and received contradictory information from them while inquiring about her money. “I was contracted to write it for $5,350. I had submitted a completed invoice. At first they claimed they hadn’t received it, even though I had sent a return receipt. Then they claimed that I needed to sign something else on that same document, which I thought was a little absurd, but I certainly did when they brought it to my attention. They promised to pay me within a week, but they didn’t pay me anything.”

So with multiple freelancers airing grievances for contracts, many of which remain unresolved, what happens next? Larry Goldbetter, president of the NWU, says legal action is imminent, “We had a couple of agreements with Heart and Soul,” said Goldbetter from the NWU’s headquarters. “We’ve offered other ways to resolve this thing, but they haven’t come across with any money in quite some time. So if
we don’t reach a significant agreement soon, then we’re going to court. You can’t have a situation where writers produce, people make money off it, it gets published, and they don’t get paid. That’s just completely unacceptable — besides being illegal.”

Whatever happens, many staff members have apparently decided to go on to more greener pastures. “I don’t think the remaining people can wait for any more broken promises. A good deal of staff have already left,” Crute says. “Long-term freelancers have already severed their relationship [with Heart And Soul]. People have pretty much had it. They wanna get paid.”

Heart And Soul Magazine did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.

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