Media Review: Outside Magazine, Freelancing and the Case for Digging Ditches

We all know that shifts of the shaft happen with work and business: budget cuts hit, people drop the ball, tough decisions sometimes short-change good folks. And in the big world of politics, banker bailouts, Wall Street’s house of cards, sickening insurance industry practices that place profiteering over people, war-for-profit, and the list goes on, we often want to tune out and run away. To again quote the great Walter Sobchak: “Fuck it, dude, let’s go bowling.”

Such escapism into something that feels organic and real is part of the allure of climbing and getting outside. And so it’s doubly ironic, and perhaps doubly insidious, when a company that purports to be all about the outdoors treats people like dogs.

Outside magazine should change their title. That’s nothing new; they’ve long since drifted from their good content days and into 10-steps-to-flatter-abs articles, fashion shoots, bogus celebrity covers, and sub-Maxim gutter humor. But do they really have to be so abusive to their contributors? Abusive is the term a friend, who formerly authored Outside’s all-time best monthly column, uses. Another climber and writer acquaintance, the rare writer who has ascended well past needing to write for magazines, refuses to ever again write for Outside. Media Bistro recently reported on their despicable treatment of their freelancers.

So why do people do it? They grovel with the other jackals, picking over meatless bones in hopes of furthering their careers. Writing is hard work, and the pay sucks. So you hope your work gets seen by a bigger audience, which, ostensibly anyway, leads to better work, perhaps a book deal, and the promise of earning a good living. Understandable enough. Except when they treat you like dirt and your work doesn’t see print in any case. Many very talented writers and photographers give up and find another career. Smartly enough.

I learned my lesson with Outside awhile back, after they kept milking me for climbing-world information, then stringing me along on my article proposals, some of which later became articles written not by me but by their pet writers (if you didn’t get that, it’s something they’re well-known for doing: stealing your ideas, only they wouldn’t put it that way, and you can’t really prove it, and who has the money to pursue the case?). When I stopped trying with them, I wrote to one of their editors: “Hard though it may seem to believe, I do have some self respect.”

When they recently abused a good friend, I got pissed again. Synopsis: my friend, a great writer and editor (it’s how he makes a very modest living) and climber, and a genuinely good person, wrote a gripping personal article, submitted it to Outside on spec, had it contracted and photographed, and assumed – as one would – that the magazine wanted it and it would see print. The topic was deeply personal, exposing his crippling, years’-long withdrawal from psychiatric medicines, as well as the false diagnoses and forced poisonings that nearly ended his life and climbing career. My friend is dark but not crazy, and he went through a hell beyond most of our imaginations. Outside told him not to send the piece to anyone else, and my friend even agreed with them, when another magazine expressed interest in the psych-med topic, to keep any first-person narrative out of this piece so as not to jeopardize the original story. This was three years ago. Then they started stringing him along. Constantly. Last summer, he was promised (again) it would run April 2010. Then radio silence. When my friend checked in two weeks ago, he was again brushed off, until finally another email and phone call roused a response…of sorts: perhaps the ninth or tenth such volley of ex post facto apologies and empty promises from an editor seemingly too busy covering his ass (and daydreaming about which baby oil to drizzle on Lance Armstrong’s pecs for the next cover shoot) to engage in, well, editing or communication.

At a certain point, perhaps it’s my friend’s fault for being good enough to keep believing their bilge. But really, there is no excuse for Outside’s despicable behavior. It’s not like this was an isolated case, either.

“You know what the problem is?” my friend told me earlier today. “You shouldn’t shit where you eat, and that’s what trying to make a living is with magazine writing, at least with these guys. And then they try to make it look like they were doing me a favor with my piece, pulling it out of the garbage-heap, their ‘slushpile.’ It’s like someone holds you down in a corner and rapes you and then says, ‘Look what I did for you – I showed you this wonderful corner.’”

There’s something to be said for just walking away, and I suppose this helps explain why so many great artists are starving artists. And let’s make no mistake – Outside has nothing to do with art, and they haven’t for a long time. The editor made it sound like he couldn’t do anything, maybe true but after three years, and a history of abusive practices, it’s hard to comprehend any defense for them. It’s certainly somebody’s fault. At any rate, the paradoxically titled Outside provides a stunning example of how to dehumanize contributors, who are often those closest to the lifeblood of our passions.

As so much of the world becomes dumbed-down soulless corporate rot, and as the talented get fed-up and walk away, I wonder what happens to creativity, writing, art, music – then again, it usually finds its way to the surface in smaller outlets, the artist digging ditches by day and creating at night, remaining poor but with his soul intact. That, at least, is a good thing.

I hope his article finds a good home.

23 thoughts on “Media Review: Outside Magazine, Freelancing and the Case for Digging Ditches

  1. wow, very interesting. I’ll admit I’ve got a bit of personal experience here (wife is a writer and been in a similar sitch). Having said that, I dropped my subscription some time ago and have no plans of going back. It’s not just them I realize but they are certainly part of the problem.

  2. Exactly why I have a subscription to Alpinist. Seems like it’s still an excellent source of creativity and honesty, and has exposed me to several writers who I continue to read.

  3. Good on you Kelly for having the balls to say it like it is. That piece of shit rag is like a phony bone in my side. I’ve never seen such absolute schlock under the guise of a legitimate magazine. At least Maxim doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t (not that I read Maxim, let’s make that absolutely clear). Anyhow I have a tendency towards incessant ranting, so I’ll just leave it at thanks.

  4. A lot of blame for newspapers’ demise follows the same pattern: they turn their attention to glam, sensationalism, and celebrity cover shoots, sometimes renting out their credibility for a corporate or ideological puff piece written by the corporation or ideologue themselves and run as a “contributor” column. It’s cliche to see Laird Hamilton and Gabby Reese taking turns on the cover, which is great for them, but when readers bite on the flashy lure of cover blurbs, they get an old dead worm in the mouth. Just like the lady in that classic hamburger ad, newspaper and magazine readers are saying “Where’s the beef?”

  5. Something I oft wonder, is why climbers are surprised? Indeed, Outside sells advertising, not adventure. Your strong friends’ approach to raw and honest makes compelling reading, but Outside fears it won’t get people buying stuff.

    And so the biggest frustration is herein. Kong-strong lads push hard, write well, live on little, and need cash. They feel deserving of a little coin because they push as hard as anyone, they write as well as anyone.

    So take the salient advice you’ve offered so to avoid that frustration – Don’t shit where you eat. Don’t waste energy trying to sell stories, direct the energy to the climbs. And find other honest ways by which you can contribute, inspire and receive – I’ve been paid modestly well as a Registered Nurse working in remote areas for 12 years. I enjoy 5 months of solid ‘pine annually. Best wishes Kelly, you are one mighty cool guy.

  6. I’ve written for a bunch of mags, authored a book, written a chapter for another book, and my wife is a mag editor and freelance writer. We read this story and our jaws dropped. This story is outrageous. Some mags have a policy of paying on publication, but once the copy is accepted, publication has to happen within a reasonable amount of time: for a monthly within 6 months at the outside. I had one mag who would hold my articles for 2-3 months and then pay net 60 days. I found that unacceptable. Their economic situation was such that they couldn’t modify that situation so we parted ways.
    The only way to get paid is to run your writing like a business. That’s what it is. Don’t wait for three years. Deliver finished, edited and polished copy up front and then pull the piece after 6 months if not accepted, published and paid. If we all did that, mags would know they couldn’t get away with this sort of crap.

  7. Hi Kelly,
    Having been a freelancer to various outdoor and adventure mags (in the UK and Australia), and having been on the other side of the fence as an editor of a trekking mag and now an adventure magazine in Oz, I totally get what you’re saying and, now sitting in the editor’s chair of Outer Edge magazine, feel ashamed on behalf of my industry. It’s true that magazines mostly run on the smell of an oily rag and not many people, if anyone, can truly make a living solely off adventure journalism (or photojournalism for that matter). But respect is free – correct? And I agree that contributors should be respected – especially as they are the content providers, the wordsmiths and image makers, the people who create the things we as readers want to digest. My mag is a national but produced by a small budget player with big dreams – we don’t have the resources nor the budgets of an Outside magazine. Even so, we pride ourselves on doing our utmost to support and treat with respect – and timely communication – our contributors. Yes we’re time poor (who isn’t!?), but that’s no excuse for shabby treatment or non responses to journo queries and submissions. The timelines you mention are beyond the pale. Granted sh@t happens behind the scenes in publishing and sometimes stuff gets pushed back etc – we always do our best to be transparent with our timelines and if it’s going to get pushed, communicate with the writer/photographer. Hell..not trying to defend Outside or even sell my corner here…just wanted to apologise on behalf of us magazine mob. And seriously, your writing, if your posts are anything to go by, deserves a wider audience…and payment. Let me know if you (or your mate) need an outlet for good literary adventure pieces (yes we like art in writing at our editorial desk!) – only Aussie dollars I’m afraid and only a bimonthly, but hey, the offer’s there. We also publish Rock magazine, a climbing mag you may be interested in – although I’m not the editor of that one.

    Hoping our industry does something to redeem itself soon. I wonder how people found dealing with the now defunct Nat Geo Adventure?

    Chris Ord
    Editor, Outer Edge magazine
    chriso (at)

  8. As usual Kelly, you hit the heart of the issue with perfect clarity. I figured Outside went downhill when they went to monthly issues. And they certainly are on the bottom now. Go visit TroutUnderground for another good place to find corporate rants. Take care of yourself – thanks for the great writing and editing!

  9. I believe this finally ran. I read it at my in-laws house–twice. It was one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read. Glad it finally got printed. Its in the issue with Jack Johnson on the cover. If anyone is still following this thread they should go to their local book store or library and read this amazing bit of writing. Once your done put it back on the shelf and walk out.

  10. You might as well mention the guy’s name. I read the article and know who he is. He was an editor at another magazine, right?

    I hate to say this, but that’s the freelancer game. And, yes, if you want to earn the book deal or a screenwriting deal, you have to play it. Even if you work on staff, which I did but not at this magazine, you have to put up and deal with a lot of shit. Why? Because you’re not the boss.

    Finally, I’m not sure what ideas you’re talking about when you say steal, but I will say that people think their ideas are original. They usually aren’t. Someone else has thought of them before. Usually. It’s true. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen though. But being on the other side, you do see and hear the same thing over and over again, and the ideas are rarely fleshed out.

    In closing, Outside is for rich people. I’m from a working class background. My Dad ended his subscription for two reasons: 1) All the products and trips cost a fortune and 2) Most of the articles were tedious.

  11. Sorry, but Outside still publishes some really great writing [not necessarily in every issue but very few do], but, and sorry again, your buddy’s article did not qualify. My wife and I are both extremely well read, and we thought it was in dire need of a real edit. Melodramatic as hell and way too long. It was painful, not powerful, reading.

    • Nothing to be sorry for, aside from stating your opinion as fact :). I’m sure you and your wife are both very impressive, and, OK, you didn’t think the article good. Many disagree (myself included, though I’m obviously biased), so it goes. Regardless of whether or not you and I (and your wife) like the article, Outside’s treatment of him, as well as many, many other writers and photographers, is despicable and inexcusable. Again, let’s remember that your opinion on the article absolutely does not excuse their repeatedly stringing him along. You being extremely well read, surely you got that that’s what my post was about. Then again, maybe I didn’t make it clear.

      Anyway, yes, I liked the article. On things as subjective as writing, art, photography, etc., opinions will naturally vary, and often vary dramatically. People get fired-up about it and super opinionated (obviously; look at us!) — hell, I had a feature article in a climbing mag in which responses varied from people saying it was their favorite article ever, to someone saying he wishes I’d have “died a horrible death” on the climb (because my article was so bad, I guess…).

      Back to the point: Outside’s horrific treatment of writers and photographers is inexcusable. I don’t know if you know many of their previous contributors (I do, as well as having personal experience getting dicked around by them; I mentioned some of this in my post), but if you do, I’m sure we can at least agree on this last point.

  12. Wow! How your article rings so true. Anyone in the adventure writing circles knows how Outside operates. I had the same problem with my photography. They had me jumping through hoops for them. There was no payments to me. Just the “honor & privilege”(sarcasm) of having my photos in the elitist magazine. I finally told the guy, “I’m don’t have an ego to stroke here, I’m doing you a favor letting you publish my photos, not the other way around. In the end, I told them to kiss my ass.
    Pet writers and stealing ideas. Oh yeah! Met a really nice husband and wife writers while traveling in Yemen who worked for Todd Burleson’s Alpine Ascents. We knew so many of the same people. They told me the same crap about Outside. Outside milked the particulars of the story, stalled and strung them along…… and a pet writer who’s last name begins with a “C”, publish a strangely similar story 9 months later.

  13. Gatekeepers such as Outside Magazine are not relevant any more.

    OutdoorGearAndTravel offers writers respect, and token payment when possible. We want to publish stories and photos that the corporate “outdoors” press can’t or won’t or doesn’t have space for. We don’t believe in perfection or “professional” standards in *personal* stories. We’re building the biggest tent possible.

    OutdoorGearAndTravel is barely weeks old. You might have little respect for what’s been done.

    Don’t judge it by that. Judge us by what we will become: the biggest tent in the world of Google Pagerank for outdoor writers, photographers, readers, and viewers.

    –We’ll publish virtually any grammatically coherent article (and photos, if any, and embed your YouTube videos, if any) you send. We don’t presume to judge what is “best” or even “good.” Neither should critics of this policy. See the disagreements on quality of the rock climbing / psychiatric recover article referenced above. Forget naysayers. Screw the critics. What ARE critics of others’ articles? Anyone presuming to pontificate on “quality” of writing in this age of free exchange is out of touch. If they don’t like someone’s writing, they should go read something else.

    –We’ll link to your blog, to your Amazon Kindle book, to your iTunes book, to your podcast, to your Flickr stream, to your website, to your twitter feed, to what-have-you. We’re here to establish Google Pagerank and to use it to help writers and photographers (Yes, it will work, despite the pagerank-hoarding naysayers.)

    The old “exclusive clubs” of magazines such as Outside are irrelevant now. One cause is the internet. The more important cause is their hypocrisy. They pretend to care about publishing the “best.” But they have to publish the most profitable. Their masters want to make a ton of money, not just enough to make it fair or good.

    What matters to writers and readers is connection. Get that right, and make use of the Kindle store, or of a PayPal download page, and writers will make 10 times money than ever Outside Magazine paid them. They already are. The math is simple: virtually all of the money goes to the writer. None goes to owners, stockholders, etc.

  14. If your interested to know, nothing has changed… They ran one of my photos, 4 months later and I still haven’t seen a dime..

  15. Oddly, I see “Kelly Cordes” bylines in Outside that are fairly recent. Perhaps this highly amusing (and no doubt accurate) post should be deleted. The magazine gained its (former) reputation when the world didn’t include the internet. But it was always at its core, an “aspirational” consumer magazine, where hype and illusion was (and decidedly remains) the most valuable coin of the realm.

    • Indeed, some 8 years after this post, I met an editor there whom I like and respect, and have subsequently written three pieces for Outside. Is it worth holding a grudge forever? I figured not. And yet, I then wondered, will they ask me to delete this post, and would I? No (to their credit), and no — to me, deleting it would feel cheap and dishonest. When I drill down and think hard, the post was true at the time, and, importantly, fair. If a bit harsh. So it goes. They’ll survive and so will I. Perhaps one day I’ll be more prudent or desperate and all of this will magically disappear with a keystroke.

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