Freelance Follies at Manhattan Media

One of Black Friday’s casualties was the Harvard magazine, 02138 — a magazine owned and operated by Manhattan Media. Upon hearing the news, I immediately emailed editor-in-chief David Blum — to see if he and the staff were okay and to determine how Manhattan Media intended to honor its contracts. I was informed by Blum that Manhattan Media would indeed be paying its freelancers, and given the name of Chief Operations Officer Joanne Harras as the contact. I then followed up with her.

The 02138 freelancing contract specified payment “upon acceptance of the article.” And not only had my article been accepted, but it had been prematurely published. Ms. Harras informed me that the check would be mailed by the end of last week. But it did not arrive. I contacted other 02138 freelancers and those who answered my emails had likewise not been paid.

I informed Ms. Harras by email that I would be stopping by the Manhattan Media office this morning to pick up the check. Instead of responding with diplomacy, Ms. Harras emailed me, “If you come by the office, there will be no check here.” She then unleashed her attorney, Michael J. Simon, on me, claiming that I was threatening her, when I was simply upholding a contract and a promise.

I left this morning, entered the building, handed my ID over to the security guard, and told him I was going up to the Manhattan Media office. My name had been placed on the building’s “Watch List #1.” I told this friendly guard, who laughed over the cautionary subwindow on his screen, that I had not been placed on any watch list before, but that he could watch me as long as he liked, particularly if he remained suspicious of my intentions. Perhaps in watching, he might see something that I hadn’t observed in the mirror. Or perhaps, I also argued, I could watch him and put him on my own private “Watch List #2.” Perhaps we could generate thousands of Watch Lists and share the results of all this watching with interested parties. I stood around for a while, and he then let me go up.

I informed the receptionist that I was there to collect a check, and that Ms. Harras was responsible for its issuance. The receptionist told me that Ms. Harras was in a meeting. “How about Tom?” I asked. (Tom Allon is the President and CEO of Manhattan Media.) He was also in a meeting. “How about someone from accounting?” I asked. “We need to resolve this matter today.”

The receptionist told me that “someone” would speak to me. Who? Someone from accounting.

A friendly woman by the name of Shawn Scott — the Accounts Manager — came out. She told me that that “everybody’s getting paid.” I begged to differ. I had discovered that a number of 02138 contributors hadn’t, including me. She then told me to write my name and the amount on a slip of paper, which I promptly did, and she proceeded to investigate.

Ms. Scott gave me the specific details that Ms. Harras was incapable of conveying to me: the check number, the date it was issued, the date it was sent. Ms. Scott was kind and professional, and determined to resolve the dispute in a civil and equitable manner. Manhattan Media is lucky to have Ms. Scott in its employ. I asked if the other freelancers had been paid out in the same manner. Ms. Scott told me that she needed specific names, but she alluded to all the 02138 checks being sent out around the same time. If you are an 02138 freelancer who is not paid this week, please contact me and I will be happy to provide you with contact details for all parties identified in this post. You deserve to be paid according to the contract terms.

I told her that I would need a replacement check, because the check had not arrived. She told me that she would need to issue a stop payment on the old one. But since today was a holiday, she couldn’t issue a stop payment. This seemed a fair and reasonable concession to make. I agreed to hold off for another day. The terms were as follows: If the check does not arrive in tomorrow’s mail, then I will collect a replacement check in person at Manhattan Media’s office.

At this point, Mr. Allon arrived out to meet me. I informed him that we had arrived at a solution. He told me, “We empathize with your situation.” He also told me that he hoped the matter could be resolved civilly. This was what I had asked for all along.

When I returned home, I received an email from attorney Simon:

Please direct all further communications with regard to this matter to my attention as no one at Manhattan Media is authorized to speak with you further regarding this matter.

Alas, it was too late. I had already stopped by the office and communicated with several people at Manhattan Media. But I memorialized this morning’s meeting for Mr. Allon, Ms. Harras, and Mr. Simon, noting that we had resolved the dispute.

Let us ponder the way that Manhattan Media handled this. The people in charge after Blum — again, a good man — did not contact me and inform me of the specifics in the wake of 02138‘s closing. I had to contact them. Ms. Harras not only did not give me the specific information that Ms. Scott did, but she then tried to threaten me with her attorney, as well as place me on a silly Watch List. She had her attorney declare that I could not speak with anybody at Manhattan Media about the issue. In other words, this is a company that, under Ms. Harras’s invisible hand, could not be bothered to own up to its own inadequacies.

I am posting this episode publicly, in the event that any former 02138 contributor or any Manhattan Media freelancer experiences similar problems. Freelancers are often ridiculed, implored to “get a real job” by those who have never had to struggle to collect checks like this. But freelancing is a real job, and it frequently involves working 80-90 hours a week to get by. For those who work nine-to-five, I assure you that I get to work earlier and stop work later than you. Contracts exist for a reason. And they must be upheld. Any company who commissions freelancers must have the maturity and the professionalism to understand that freelancers are as vital as the full-time staff. We also have rent and bills to pay.

I remain fairly confident that Mr. Allon and Manhattan Media will honor its promise, and that this dispute will be resolved. And I publicly thank Mr. Allon for taking the time out of his busy schedule to meet with me. I just wish that the professionalism exhibited by Manhattan Media this morning extended across the whole of its company.

[11/12 UPDATE: I received the check in yesterday’s mail. Rather interestingly, the envelope from Manhattan Media was postmarked on November 11th — affixed with a stamp, rather than a postage machine. I don’t know if this was sent at the eleventh hour, so to speak. But a check is a check, and Manhattan Media has lived up to its promise. I have received a few emails from 02138 contributors and have directed them to the appropriate people. The word is that Manhattan Media is now honoring payment. If you are an 02138 contributor who has not received a check, please email me and I will provide you with the contact details.]

02138 — What Might Have Been

The aborted inaugural issue of 02138‘s relaunch is now available online. If you’re curious about what might have been, there are contributions from Armond White, Stacy Sullivan, and Kimberly Thorpe. You can likewise read the lengthy books column I wrote, which includes reviews of Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, Benjamin Parzybok’s Couch, Michael Davis’s Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, and Robert G. Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money.

02138 Shut Down

This afternoon, the New York Observer reported that 02138 was suspended by Manhattan Media. Editor David Blum assigned me to write a Books column, which I turned in a week ago.

This was a shame for many reasons, and they extend beyond my own involvement with the magazine. There seems to have been a lot of snark from the Gawker crowd that this version of 02138 was going to be a trivial magazine, a vanity project, a bauble. I can assure you that this wasn’t the case at all. Blum and his staff were going out of their way to reinvent this magazine and make it something that mattered. When I asked them specific questions about their audience, and when I queried them on very specific ideas, they had specific answers. They were hiring contributors who could spice things up with intelligent commentary, and one of their sticking points — and this cannot be overstated as we see long-form cultural journalism vanish from magazines — was lengthy and meaningful cultural coverage. Had my column continued, it most certainly would have continued along this trajectory.

I modeled my column partly on John Leonard’s monthly offering in Harper’s, but took it upon myself to emphasize small presses and overlooked books. I also attempted to look at books from an entirely different vantage point. (Of the four books I reviewed, one was devoted to a major item of pop culture. But I examined the larger educational and societal impact that arose from this seemingly frivolous subject — indeed, pointing to a very specific Harvard connection that happened to crop up.) I devoted 1,300 words to a mammoth and ambitious novel that I knew would require that kind of space, and that would probably not be granted it by The New York Times Book Review and other outlets. (I will be very surprised if The New York Review of Books covers this novel, for it certainly warrants 2,000 words.) I had very little time to assemble the first essay, but I’m always a workhorse under pressure and we managed to get a piece that was taut, meaningful, and variegated under the circumstances. I had great ambitions for future books coming up the pipeline. (Had it continued, I most certainly would have made a case for Vollmann’s Imperial and its relationship to other historical books making the same inquiries.) And I should also note that, although I ended up turning in a 2,700 word piece (I was contracted to write 2,000 words), Blum ensured me that I would get the space I needed.

I want to thank Mr. Blum for trusting me with the assignment, which I was greatly honored to have, and for giving me a chance to improve my critical writing. I certainly hope that the good people at 02138 land on their feet in some capacity. I’m very sorry that Blum’s great plans didn’t quite materialize, and that this relaunch never saw the light of day. But hopefully, we’ll get some sense of it, should it emerge online. I will most certainly link to the column if it becomes available.