Dan Baum, a newspaper reporter turned New Yorker staff writer, is tweeting his 2007 firing from the magazine. In 140-character dispatches, Baum reveals that like all New Yorker writers, he was paid according to a simple dollars per word equation -- in Baum’s case, $90,000 annually for 30,000 words. The hitch? There were no employee benefits, and “the contract was year-to-year. … It’s just the way the New Yorker chooses to behave. It shows no loyalty to its writers, yet expects full fealty in return.”
Baum, author of a highly-regarded book about life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, goes on in his tweets to spill the beans on the internal workings of what many people consider the finest periodical published in the English language. The magazine, Baum claims, never sends rejection letters. Baum spent 17 years as a freelance writer before his first New Yorker article proposal was accepted. Reading his tweets, I felt compassion for a fellow magazine journalist, who is obviously heartbroken after being dumped by the magazine he loves. But I also noticed something else: In discussing his work, Baum alternates between use of singular and plural pronouns. “I mailed in the proposal,” he writes about one article pitch. And then, a few minutes later, referring readers to his website: “I’ve posted a lot our successful magazine proposals there.”
A visit to Baum’s personal website illuminates this curiosity. According to the site, “everything that goes out under the byline ‘Dan Baum’ is at least half Margaret’s work.” Margaret is Baum’s wife, Margaret Knox, whom he met in 1986 while both journalists were working at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Describing this peculiar personal-professional relationship – which is not reflected by the byline on any of Baum’s pieces or books – Baum (or Baum and Knox?) write(s):
Ever since their daughter, Rosa, was born in 1993, Margaret and Dan's work has usually appeared under Dan's byline. Non-fiction frequently calls for a strong individual voice, and occasionally the use of the first person, so double bylines often aren't practical. Dan most often does the legwork of reporting the story -- the travel and the phone calls -- with Margaret acting as bureau chief: “Ask this.” “Don’t forget that.” “Go back to him tomorrow.” Dan then writes the first draft.
Elsewhere on the website -- which is called danbaum.com, not baumandknox.com -- Margaret advertises her services as a freelance editor. “I have been editing the copy of my husband and writing partner, Dan Baum, for fifteen years,” she writes. “On [his book] Nine Lives, for example, I reduced the manuscript from 190,000 words to 117,000 without losing a single scene or character -- just by tightening sentences and trimming fat.”
Now that’s quite impressive, and reflects what editors the world-over do for grateful writers. But there is something troubling to me about the way Dan and Margaret go to pains to portray their working relationship as a partnership of equals…even though Margaret’s name appears nowhere on their work. In the workplace, editors also don’t get byline credit for the work they do, but they do appear on a publication’s masthead, and most importantly, they are paid for their efforts. Margaret Knox’s situation is totally different. Outside of the “Dan Baum” website, her work alongside her husband goes completely unacknowledged by readers. Indeed, the editors of the magazines for which Dan writes undoubtedly consider themselves the most important collaborators on his work, regardless of the labor Margaret puts into Dan’s drafts before he submits them. As an editor myself, I wouldn’t know what to make of a writer who came into the editing process regarding their spouse or significant other as an equal partner in negotiations over a piece. It seems deeply problematic from a professional standpoint.
Maybe this rubs me the wrong way, in part, because I’m a journalist with a history of dating other journalists. Such relationships are often collaborative, and yet I can’t imagine subsuming my individual, professional identity to anyone else’s. There's also a hard truth reflected in the Baum-Knox relationship, as pointed out by my own wonderful editor, Ann Friedman: Many wives in dual-journalist couples assume the "editor" role because editing jobs often have better hours, are more stable and flexible, and allow women to take on the lion's share of child rearing responsibilities.
I don’t presume to know if Dan Baum or Margaret Knox are happy with the arrangement they’ve worked out. Maybe they think they are being really feminist and progressive by involving Margaret so deeply in Dan’s work. And yet, their system seems to reinforce the oldest sexist divide, the one that pushes women into the “private sphere” while men go out and conquer the public world, taking most of the credit.