Award-Winning Nautilus Enters Rough Waters

Funding shortfalls at the luxe science magazine have left some contributors waiting months to be paid. They may need to wait a little longer.


In many respects, these are heady days for Nautilus, the highbrow science and culture magazine launched precisely four years ago this weekend. Traffic to its original website is setting records, its print edition has been well-received, and in its short existence, the magazine has earned numerous awards for its design and its journalism, including two National Magazine Awards — arguably, the industry’s highest honor.


More recently, it drew laurels for an essay by Cormac McCarthy — the first piece of nonfiction that the legendary novelist has ever published — and the magazine’s publisher has suggested that a major new partnership with a science organization is in the works.

For all the good news and accolades, however, murmurings within the science writing community suggest that not all is well at Nautilus. Rumors of delayed or entirely absent payments to the magazine’s fleet of freelance contributors have reached a crescendo, as have complaints that editorial staff continue to solicit work knowing that the publication may not be able to make good on promised fees.

One Nautilus freelancer, who asked to remain anonymous because thousands of dollars in fees are still pending, received a note a few months ago directly from the magazine’s publisher and editorial director, John Steele, offering assurances that the funds — which were for a feature that the magazine published last year — would be on their way by the end of January. That deadline came and went without payment, the freelancer said, and follow-up emails to Nautilus have not changed things.

“It’s sad,” the writer said, “because we need science publications that pay decently — if they actually pay.”

Linda Marsa, a Los Angeles-based journalist, had more success. Marsa wrote a piece last fall, submitted an invoice, and didn’t get paid on time. On Facebook, she learned that other writers were experiencing problems too. Frustrated, Marsa sent what she describes as a “stern” email to her editor, as well as the finance manager, the publisher, and a member of the Nautilus board.

That worked, and her payment arrived roughly a month overdue. When I called Marsa, she was surprised and upset to learn that the problems were continuing. Describing her editor at the magazine as “a gem,” Marsa said she’s nonetheless disillusioned and does not plan to write for the magazine again. “I’m really sad I’m not going to get to work with him again,” she said of her editor, “but this isn’t right.”

The publication’s exquisitely designed web site and print edition don’t come cheaply, and staff have taken pay cuts.

In a phone call with Undark, Steele, the Nautilus publisher, acknowledged that the magazine “has been running on fumes for the past six months,” and that it was behind on payment for many of its writers and illustrators. “We feel horrible about the way the situation has dragged on so far,” he said. “It tears me apart that I can’t fulfill these commitments that I’ve made to these guys, when they’ve given us such fantastic work. But I say, ‘Look, you’re going to get it. It’s going to happen. Just bear with me a little while longer.’”

Steele, a former television journalist, started Nautilus in 2012 with a two-year, $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based philanthropy that describes itself as targeting the world’s “big questions” in science, religion, and philosophy. That money, supplemented with an additional $2.1 million from Templeton, was the main funding source for Nautilus in the run-up to publication, and during its first two years in print. But the Templeton Foundation typically reduces support for startup ventures after the first three years, and, accordingly, it has dialed back funding for Nautilus, although it gave the magazine an additional $1.25 million in 2015, and a little more than $1.2 million last year.

“It’s simply a matter of our desire to step back and not be a sustaining funder for the indefinite future, but rather allow [Nautilus] to grow and flourish,” said Christopher Levenick, the director of public engagement for the Templeton Foundation. He said he was unaware that Nautilus has been experiencing cash flow problems and failing to pay contributors.

Steele’s continued confidence that the magazine’s money problems will be short-lived is rooted in what he describes as the publication’s pending absorption by the American Association for the Advancement of Science — the world’s largest general scientific organization. The talks with AAAS began in December, Steele told me, after months of hunting for a new institutional home. The publication has also lined up funders who would step in and add additional resources once the deal with AAAS is complete. In principle, Nautilus would become a part of AAAS, and the funders will help put Nautilus in the black until it becomes profitable on its own, Steele added — though he declined to name the additional funders because the details have not been finalized.

Steele said he thought the arrangement with AAAS would proceed quickly, which is why he felt comfortable commissioning new work and telling freelancers that their money was on the way. But that didn’t happen. The process of coordinating among the funders and AAAS has moved slowly, and Steele told me that the magazine stopped commissioning new articles in late February or early March, once it became clear that they would not finalize the AAAS deal and have new funding as soon as he had anticipated.

Tiffany Lohwater, a spokeswoman at AAAS, did not respond to Undark’s request to discuss Nautilus over the phone, saying only in an email message that “Nautilus approached AAAS to inquire about the possibility of an affiliation, and AAAS is in the process of exploring that.” When pressed, she added: “AAAS is very much in the exploratory stage of any potential affiliation. There is no arrangement.”

That disconnect suggests, at the very least, that the lean times will continue — both for Nautilus, and for its unpaid contributors. Over the last several months, the magazine has gradually shrunk the size of its budget, and all staff have taken pay reductions. Today it earns revenue through individual donations and grants from other foundations; from subscriptions to its digital and print products (the latter is currently published in partnership with MIT Press); and, more recently, from branded, foundation-sponsored verticals, called channels, that are each devoted to a specific theme.

Steele says he intends to begin offering more writers partial payments beginning next month, drawing on revenue from Nautilus subscribers and sponsors. Asked whether Nautilus pays writers interest on their overdue fees, Steele said that he does so “on an individual basis” and when people specifically ask for additional compensation.

That might be welcome news for some writers, for whom even a single delayed payment can sometimes be financially disastrous. One contributor, who did not want to be named in order to preserve a working relationship with the magazine, told me that delayed payments from Nautilus had made it hard to pay the bills.

“I started pitching other places,” the freelancer said. “And I started dog walking.”

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16 comments / Join the Discussion

    I’m reposting my original comment from HackerNews where there’s another really interesting discussion on Nautilus.

    I do sympathise with Nautilus and want them to succeed. But I am a freelancer who has not been paid by them for eight months now. A longform piece takes weeks to write. Interviewees gave their time so generously to me. And I was ridiculously excited to write for a publication I respected so much.

    I had no idea that nautilus were still commissioning features when they knew they had no guaranteed income stream to pay their writers.

    When nautilus ran into serious financial trouble they did not publish many of the articles they had commissioned, mine included – this meant that they would only have to offer a much smaller kill fee for these unpublished pieces. I am waiting for this fee (and am aware of several others writers in this situation). But we didn’t know the pieces would never be published. We were never told. Instead the promised nautilus issue emerged that day, we told our friends, we scanned the pages with genuine excitement, and our features were absolutely nowhere to be seen.

    Emails to the editor (naive, perfectly friendly emails) went unanswered for weeks.

    I actually honestly wouldn’t have minded as much if they were up front last year and said look, we just don’t have the money, we messed up, we’re sorry. They’re a publication I truly want to survive regardless of my input.

    But I’m a freelancer and that promised money was going to see me through Christmas. They should not have been actively commissioning when they did not have the means to pay. It was also really humiliating to email them for weeks to ask where our articles had gone. Why not reply honestly to us at the outset?

    Christmas came and went. I couldn’t afford presents for my family. I lost the chance to submit elsewhere because it was a time-sensitive piece. I had to apologise to my interviewees who I bet won’t be so generous with their time the next time a writer approaches them. They’ve been burnt, too.

    And even now (in the last week) nautilus have told me they’re about to merge with AAAS and so we’ll all get paid. But it’s clear from the Undark piece that this is not true.

    Sometimes magazines run into problems. I get that. I feel bad about it. But then don’t commission pieces when you know there’s no money to pay freelancers whose livelihoods depend on each and every word they write. We actually get paid by the word! Don’t humiliate writers by making them beg for checks for weeks of work. And don’t promise a merger is imminent with a big science institution when that big science institution will deny it. Good on Undark for this piece. And congratulations to the many fantastic science magazines who do the industry proud.

    Nautilus has burned through, according to your figures, some $10 million in foundation grants in five years.

    But that’s just the foundation funding. Nautilus is also, in effect, being subsidized by writers and illustrators who work for it without pay. We can only guess, but it seems likely that the pay that never went to contributors amounts to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies for Nautilus.

    It’s time we recognized that many online publications–Undark not among them–are being subsidized by writers. And we should stop subsidizing them.

    A number of illustration contributors to this image-rich publication have had their images reproduced without payment. As we wait, the use of our images violates US Copyright law. My invoice says that reproduction rights are transferred only upon full payment, so my work can be seen in a recent issue, on the Nautilus website and in social media promoting the publication.

    Currently in communication with other illustrators, and with John Steele about this legal issue. In the meantime, Nautilus needs to stop misleading its contributors.

    I did a piece for them and had the same experience. They’re nice people so it’s hard to be mad about it, but I was counting on that check for a long time before I realized it was never coming. I figured I couldn’t have been the only one.

    There’s no excuse for this. NONE. Great way to show not just a lack of due respect but total contempt for science writers, NAUTILUS.

    Pay your damned bills. Let the senior staff do without paychecks until every writer is paid what they are owed in full.

    Well, I have read a lot of nautilus online for free. Now I’ve paid for a digital subscription. At least I’m not part of the problem anymore.

    By the way they are going to lose my subscription at the next chance. Unfortunately I renewed it just before I realized they go into pseudophysics stuff more and more often lately and that Templeton pays them.

    I’m not exactly in the field but I do love science journalism and I find it hard to believe that paying the writers, without whom there would be no content, wouldn’t be a priority. How do you think these problems could come about with almost $10 million in grant money and advertising revenue?

    Total bullshit that established journalists don’t rely on their freelance paychecks. How do you think we make our money??

    It sounds like Nautilus has a 5#!t business plan, and is sticking with it. If it’s an exclusive place to publish, then the fees aren’t that important to established writers, who don’t rely on small freelancing fees to survive. That said, there should be a clause in their contract about what remedies are available when Nautilus or the freelancer breaks that contract. If they’re doing something illegal, the courts can and eventually will settle it, because it all boils down to what’s in their contract. If not, then there’s nothing to even discuss, unless it’s the unpaid writers being poor negotiators and if they learned any lessons.

    “The fees are to important to established writers.”??? This statement is offensive to this established writer. It’s also an insult to the many high-quality writers, both established and now making their names, who can afford to write for places like Nautilus only if paid to do so. I truly don’t know where you get this idea.

    And if it were true – and to the extent it is – that would be something to object to, since it accepts as a healthy that only a privileged moneyed few would write about science.

    Correction here: I meant to quote “the fee’s ARENT’ that important….”

    Make that “fees AREN’T….” Jesus Christ autocorrect. Also, don’t type on small screens when you’ve not found your glasses and coffee…

    My experience has been that many top publications manage to pay on time and consistently so.

    The Economist consistently pays fast, and lets you choose a currency, even. (I was pleasantly shocked).

    Scientific American now does direct deposit and relatively quickly.

    The Purch sites ( et al) don’t pay high rates but they pay consistently — I have a pretty good idea when the payment will come, within a day plus or minus.

    New Scientist also pays consistently.

    That’s just a few. I’ve only had to fight over payment once and that was an honest mistake, and the only one, that the publication made with me. I’d still work for them.

    It is true that rates can be low in science journalism as compared to fashion or other areas. And scraping by as a freelancer is hard. But it seems to me that paying contributors is do-able, if a publication is committed to that. That’s a first rule of business in any case — pay your contractors and suppliers. Would anyone have a cavalier, “well the fees aren’t that important” attitude about the supplier of parts to Ford or Toyota?

    I agree, David, the attitude that such things are not important to writers is insulting.

    Science journalism is basically dead as a thing. Many of the top publications pay late or not at all. The rates for freelancers is consistently low and the expectations are high and getting higher. Other than a very small number of high performers, this is not a job and the best that most can expect is to be scraping by as a freelancer. Understandably, many simply stop doing it.

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