This story has been updated. A description of changes is appended below.
Last spring, Undark reported that Nautilus, an award-winning magazine covering science and culture, had fallen behind on payments to many of its freelance contributors. The magazine owed some freelancers thousands of dollars for stories that had been published months earlier.
At the time, Nautilus publisher John Steele told Undark that the magazine was “running on fumes” but would begin making partial payments to writers — and that a pending merger with the American Association for the Advancement of Science would soon alleviate financial pressures on the magazine. As it turns out, however, many of those payments never materialized, and in September, according to AAAS spokesperson Tiffany Lohwater, the two organizations made “a mutual decision” not to pursue the partnership.
Now, in a letter published Wednesday morning and addressed to the “readers, funders, and board members of Nautilus Magazine,” 19 Nautilus contributors have made their grievances public. According to the letter, the magazine collectively owes them $50,000.
Ten of those freelancers have joined the National Writers Union, a U.S.-based trade union representing freelance and contract writers, and they plan to pursue a collective non-payment grievance, followed by legal action, should that prove necessary.
“Readers, investors, grantors and board members may not know that the publication owes many writers and some editors for print and web work published many months ago — in many cases over a year ago,” the letter states. “Individually, we have each repeatedly contacted the publisher, John Steele, requesting payment for work that took days, weeks, or even months.”
Jessica Seigel, a freelance journalist and an adjunct journalism professor at New York University, was one of the letter’s chief organizers and signatories. “This can’t be a huge surprise — unless he thought we were doormats,” she said of Steele. “Are writers so downtrodden that someone can stiff 19 writers of $50,000 and no one does a thing?”
In an interview with Undark Wednesday morning, Steele defended the magazine’s handling of its financial difficulties while continuing to publish top-tier journalism. “We’ve been transparent with people about the financial situation,” Steele said. (Steele followed up Thursday with an open letter responding to the complaints.)
But many contributors say the publisher has been less forthcoming about just when they might expect to be paid, and many said they have found it particularly galling to see the magazine’s editors commissioning new writers and new stories, even as previous contributors were left uncompensated. When Seth Mnookin, a science journalist and Undark contributor, criticized the magazine on Twitter last week for assigning new work — a decision Mnookin called “an absolute disgrace” — the magazine’s Twitter account fired back: “In fact, we are slowly chipping away at our debts, [which] we could not do without continuing to publish.”
Speaking to Undark, Steele insisted that, aside from minor assignments like small-fee blog posts, excerpts, or donated material, the magazine has not been commissioning substantial new work. “The only way to fulfill our commitments is to keep going,” he said. “So that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Ivan Oransky, the co-founder of the website Retraction Watch and a signatory on the letter, said he was unimpressed with this argument when he first saw it surface on Twitter. “I think there’s a term for that,” he told Undark. “It’s a pyramid scheme.”
When John Steele launched Nautilus in 2013, the magazine had $5 million in grant money from the John Templeton Foundation and an ambitious plan to produce high-quality print and digital journalism. His goal, Steele explained at the time, was to build “a New Yorker version of Scientific American.”
Cleverly oriented each month around high-concept themes — “Chaos,” “Monsters,” and “Power” are some of the most recent — the magazine quickly made a name for its writing, illustrations, and high-end design. In 2015, its first year of eligibility, Nautilus won two National Magazine Awards. The American novelist Cormac McCarthy, reportedly a fan, placed his first piece of published nonfiction in Nautilus earlier this year.
But, late last year, as grant money tapered off, the magazine began to fall behind on payments. Steele told writers that the impending merger with AAAS would allow the magazine to bring in new grant money and settle its debts. For those freelancers who persisted in trying to get payment, interactions with the magazine have followed a pattern: repeated emails to magazine staff, including Steele and editor-in-chief Michael Segal, were met with apologies and relayed promises from Steele of imminent payment. Steele would then often fall silent.
“I’ve gone back and forth with them over the course of about 50 — five-zero — emails,” said Oliver Roeder, who wrote a feature for Nautilus about elections in November of last year and is not one of the signatories of the NWU letter. “I got a wide variety of explanations back, most of which seemed to revolve around grant money that was always forthcoming, and that never seemed to actually come,” Roeder told me. “I got the sense that those promises weren’t often made in very good faith, especially given how often those promises were broken.”
Even after receiving partial payments, Roeder says that Nautilus still owes him $1,000.
Steele responded to the charges of false promises by saying that he had been confident at the time of those conversations that the AAAS deal would fall into place. “I did it because I thought there would be money coming in that would cover it,” he said.
“That was a mistake on my part, and I shouldn’t have told people that,” he added. “I wasn’t trying to lie to them or anything.”
Zach St. George is one of the 19 Nautilus contributors who joined the letter. He interned at Nautilus in 2015, and started freelancing for the magazine after he left. “To be getting the runaround from people I viewed as colleagues is very frustrating,” he said. “It’s hard to know what’s going on inside.”
St. George added that interactions with both Steele and Segal had become increasingly strained over time. “As it became more obvious that they weren’t going to honor their debts,” he said, “they became more and more unpleasant.” Segal told Undark that he felt his interactions with St. George had always been professional. Steele, meanwhile, conceded that things had become tense between him and St. George, but argued that this was because St. George had notified the magazine’s board and potential funders about his delinquent payments. “I’m going to pay Zach,” Steele said. “I’m going to pay everybody on that list.”
As the months passed and invoices remained unpaid, however, some freelancers began to connect with each other — and to explore other options. The group looked into hiring a lawyer, but decided it was not feasible. And they decided against independently pursuing redress in New York small claims court, which would require some freelancers to travel thousands of miles.
In October, the group approached the National Writers Union, which agreed to take on their case. They also created a private Facebook group, called Unpaid Nautilus Writers, and produced the letter, as well as a public list of stories that Nautilus has published under their names, but not yet fully paid for.
“As we do these grievances and these organizing campaigns, it increases our capacity to do even more,” said Larry Goldbetter, the president of the NWU. “And so it helps build the union in addition to getting these writers paid — and in addition to sending a message to the publishers that they can’t get away with this.”
Goldbetter said he expects that the new public action will likely result in more Nautilus contributors coming forward to say that they, too, are owed payments. The union will first approach Nautilus to “discuss how to resolve this,” Goldbetter added. Asked what happens if a resolution isn’t forthcoming, Goldbetter pointed out that the NWU recently took Ebony Media to court.
“We’re a local of the United Auto Workers,” he said. “We have the backing of the UAW legal department.”
For all the animus, even unpaid Nautilus contributors will speak about how much they appreciate the magazine, and express sadness at its financial difficulties. But they also express frustration at its attempt to cover up the problem.
“I would much rather they had been public about the financial issues, and say, ‘Hey, look, if you really want original writing, if you really want interesting stories about these thoughtful things Nautilus does — philosophy, science, math, really cool pieces — help us,’” said the freelance journalist Shannon Stirone, who signed the letter. “But they didn’t do that. They just kept commissioning new work. That’s the problem.”
Pressed again on this sort of charge, Steele repeated his insistence that the magazine has not commissioned any substantial paid work since last spring. “We are not commissioning new content, but what we are doing is trying to come up with a way to keep Nautilus publishing, so that we can generate revenue to pay off our writers and artists,” Steele said.
“I don’t sleep at night because of this,” he added. “I desperately believe in Nautilus. I desperately believe in what we’re doing.”
Oransky was on a plane last week when he opened up an email newsletter from Nautilus announcing their latest issue. He said he was surprised to see his own byline on one of the issue’s features, along with the name of his frequent collaborator, Adam Marcus.
It turned out to be an excerpt from a forthcoming book, published by MIT Press, to which Marcus and Oransky had contributed. MIT Press had announced an ambitious deal to serve as a co-publisher of the Nautilus print edition in January of last year, and Nautilus continues to describe its print edition as being “published in partnership with MIT Press” — though Nick Lindsay, the journals director for MIT Press, suggested that this was a mischaracterization, and that the co-publishing relationship “never materialized.”
The Press does purchase a limited number of copies of the Nautilus print magazine for sale or distribution to bookstores and libraries — activities from which it derives some revenue, Lindsay said in an email message, though he characterized it as “break-even or a little under.”
MIT Press provided Nautilus with the Marcus/Oransky book excerpt.
“They had the rights. They’re not stealing this piece,” Oransky said. But he pointed out the irony of Nautilus choosing “to run a piece by two guys they’ve been stiffing for a year,” in that particular issue.
The new issue’s theme: “Trust.”
Michael Schulson is an American freelance writer covering science, religion, technology, and ethics. His work has been published by Pacific Standard magazine, Aeon, New York magazine, and The Washington Post, among other outlets, and he writes the Matters of Fact and Tracker columns for Undark.
UPDATES: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the relationship between MIT Press and Nautilus, and to add a link to an open letter from John Steele. The original version of this article also failed to include input from Nautilus editor in chief, Michael Segal, who was named by several writers in discussions with Undark about their late payments and ongoing correspondence with magazine leadership. The story has been edited to incorporate Segal’s comments and perspective.