First, let me say that I am telling this story because for a decade I've been teaching magazine journalism at the New School, and I think this story emulates a very real side of the freelance journalism life. Why would I drive nearly six hours each way to stand in a freezing courtroom just so I can get paid $1,500 by a crappy teen girl's magazine? Am I crazy? Two years ago, when (the far superior) CosmoGirl shuttered its doors forever, I made a hard decision. I would make a go of freelance writing, a sort of horrifying prospect for a couple with a kid to feed. My husband is an independent general contractor, and my job always gave us the stability of health insurance. As an aside, my decision was helped in huge part by the fact that the New School provides decent insurance coverage since I'm in their adjunct union.
So it was in good faith that I agreed to take on two extremely research-heavy pieces for the teen magazine Girl's Life shortly after CosmoGirl folded. The first was a piece on dating violence, which followed the Rihanna/ Chris Brown incident; the second was a piece about the dangers of distracted driving, a story which involved speaking to friends and family of teens who had been killed in tragic accidents. Draining work, and time consuming. I was paid for the dating violence story.
So not getting paid for my driving story, which took two weeks' time to research and write, using data from a study put out by State Farm, and locating sheriffs from car crash scenes, and family and friends of the dead, seemed unacceptable, particularly since there was a signed contract in play that said Pay Upon Publication (last August). The work itself was praised by my editor and later in an email, by State Farm. In fact, my first draft was published practically untouched, more untouched than the newsy features I saw come through CG for 9 years. Maybe a couple of "yous" were changed to "ya" --which I think smart teenagers find insulting and contrived, but I digress-- and a paragraph or two switched around, if that. Months later, after not getting paid, promises came in emails from the Editor in Chief, Karen Bokram ("the check will be cut in the February run"; "I'll keep you posted"; "Of course you'll get paid, and I appreciate your professionalism").... the check never came.
Girl's Life is registered in Maryland, roughly 20 miles from Washington D.C., and for that reason I found myself having to travel from New York to Rockville, MD for my court date-- either that, or take a "settlement" offered by her lawyers. I was confused-- what exactly was there to be settled? I wrote something, there was a contract, and she published it. Also, how can she afford lawyers if she can't afford to pay her writers? Maybe that's what lit the fire for me. Putting a check in the mail with a 44 cent stamp would settle the issue. Was she waiting to see if I'd travel round trip to Maryland to get paid? Her lawyer called me to ask if I was planning on making the trip, and I told him I was. I did show up, they didn't, and I won. Mysteriously, on the official record of the case which can be found online by anyone, you can see that they filed an intent to defend. Something about "must provide proof that $ is owed"... okay, so a contract and a published article seems like adequate proof; both, of which I'd submitted to the court as official evidence with my claim. I'm sure this is why they didn't show up. Whether this court judgment against Girl's Life will amount to a check in the mail remains unseen, but I feel proud that I stood up for myself. Making the trip wasn't a monetarily wise act on my part (twice, because I first sued the wrong entity, the owner of the mag rather than the corporation, because I'd misunderstood a clause in the "how to sue in small claims" brochure from MD that said it's best to sue the owner rather than the name of the company; I should have looked more deeply into that. I don't regret the quality time I spent that first time around with my lovely mother in law who first drove me from Philly to Rockville, giving me an initial lay of the land). Jim had to leave work early twice this week to pick up Jamie; gas, tolls, hotel came to roughly $250, and expenses can't be paid on small claims.
What was worth it though, was knowing that if I'm going to be my own business entity now, I have to learn how to navigate this last-resort terrain. Finally, I can now use this case as a teaching tool in my classes now that this judgment is on the public record.