Shortly after graduating from college in 2015, Laura Lannes, a Brazilian-born illustrator now living in Queens, New York, found herself getting steady work. At $150 to $200 a pop, the pay wasn’t great, but it was a start in a competitive field with an established media brand, Northside Media.
A Brooklyn arts and culture mainstay, the company planted its roots in 2003 when Scott and Daniel Stedman founded the now-defunct L Magazine. The brothers expanded over the years into events like SummerScreen at McCarren Park, the Northside Festival music and ideas gathering, Brooklyn Magazine and the food-focused Taste Talks.
“Stedman, founder and CEO of Northside Media, is to Brooklyn what Elon Musk is to solar cells,” The Playbook wrote in 2017. “Equal parts visionary, executor, and tireless advocate, Stedman moved to Brooklyn in 2003 and saw a genuine opportunity to shape his newly-adopted city for the better.” Brother Scott was featured this summer in Vanity Fair in a story marking the launch of Tourists, a resort in North Adams, Massachusetts, that he opened with a team of partners, including Wilco’s John Stirratt.
Among the pieces commissioned from Lannes were illustrations like these on the Taste Talks website for an article on cocktail culture, or this one of Kelis from 2016, before an appearance at a Taste Talks event at Hotel Normandie. Now, almost two years later, she’s yet to see a dollar of payment for those works. According to invoices I reviewed and a complaint filed with the New York City Office of Consumer Affairs in May 2017 shortly after the passage of the city’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act, Lannes is out $1,300. And the city still hasn’t responded to her complaint.
While it’s not a staggering amount of money, especially compared with what some of her colleagues are owed by the company, living in New York City isn’t cheap, Lannes explained. Emails she shared detailed her increasingly exasperated attempts to get anyone at the company to take her requests for money seriously, or at least to respond to her. It’s a pattern familiar to 20 former freelancers and employees I heard from in reporting this story.
At issue in many of the cases was a change in ownership at the company a few years back, a turn of events that seems to have thrown the entire Northside apparatus into financial turmoil. Northside Media had been purchased in 2015 by Zealot Networks, the company founded by Maker Studios co-founder Danny Zappin, which was on an acquisition spree at the time and was even predicted to eventually merit a $5 billion valuation, but it soon fell into financial troubles of its own. That led to Northside buying itself back in 2017.
The dispute between the two operating interests of Northside, according to emails sent to Lannes from both Stedman and Zealot over a series of months stretching from 2016 into 2017, was whether outstanding invoices were disclosed in the buyback. Technical legal responsibility aside, the end result was two companies headed up by wealthy individuals throwing a struggling illustrator into a Kafkaesque whirlwind of denials and scapegoating. The media aren’t any different from the rest of America: When money is tight, it’s always the little guy who gets screwed first.
“I kind of have no hope of ever getting paid,” Lannes said this week. “I’ve been angry. I have been in tough spots where I could really have used the money.” Stedman emailed her over this past weekend saying to give her a call for a comprehensive update after he became aware of posts she made on Twitter calling the company out. “I don’t want an update,” she told me. “I want my money. I want what I’m owed.”
She’s not alone in that. The 20 contractors or staffers at Northside Media who shared their stories told of getting stiffed, waiting months or years to be paid or having to jump through hoops to get some sort of partial restitution. (A story published Thursday in Gothamist detailed similar grievances.) Again and again, there is Stedman, never short of justifications, always ready with an update about some bit of hypothetical money lying just around the corner.
In 2016, Doug Anderson of Tiny Tank, the team behind the Eat Our Feelings video series, was compelled to have his lawyer send a letter of demand to Northside for failure to pay $7,000 for videos his crew produced for Taste Talks. Emails between Anderson and Stedman reviewed by HuffPost show a protracted and excruciating effort to get paid, with Stedman continually pushing off meetings and failing to follow up on agreed-upon deadlines. Over a year later, they settled on a kill fee of 50 percent. I can relate. After corresponding over email and the phone with me about the nature of this story, Stedman asked to follow up later in the evening, then the next day, saying he needed to get some things in order before responding.
“It was this constant thing of: 'We’re a family! We’d love to pay you more, but we’re a family.'”
“I’m sorry that the Stedmans don’t feel that they need to hold up their end of the deal, but this is between you and them,” said Mike Harmon, the chief financial officer of Zealot and the accounts payable representative at the time, in an email to Anderson and Tiny Tank. “The agreement is rather clear on this point, despite their assertions to the contrary.” Harmon told me in an email that the company does not comment to the press about legal matters.
“The one time I did sit down with him in January 2017, I just got the overwhelming impression that the guy wants to do the right thing, doesn’t want to be a bad guy, but nothing he’s doing is actually doing the right thing,” Anderson said of Stedman. “He would say things like: ‘What do you want me to do? Do you want me to lay someone off?’ Of course not, I said, but I was like: It’s not my responsibility how to manage your company. You have an obligation to your employees but also the people you commission work from.”
Molly McArdle, initially a contributing writer to Brooklyn Magazine who became a sort of editor-of-all-trades as the staff dwindled around her, said that the April 2017 issue was in the works when Stedman abruptly announced there would be no publication that month. Almost the entire staff was fired around that time on a Friday afternoon. A summer issue followed, but publication has remained sparse since then.
In the lead-up to the announcement, freelancers had started telling McArdle about their trouble getting paid. “It’s something I still think about a lot and feel incredible responsibility for. I was in a good place to be many freelance writers’ first paid clip. I really feel like Brooklyn Magazine took advantage of them.”
Often newer writers are inclined simply to take whatever they can get from a respected publication because they feel grateful to get a foot in the door. Catherine LeClair, who was ghosted by an editor at Brooklyn Magazine after her first piece ran, said she wanted to warn everyone else not to work there. Ultimately, she demurred.
“It was early on in my freelancing career, and I was excited to have a clip there, so I didn’t want to then turn around and trash their name, and decided to stay silent,” LeClair said. “It’s belittling to beg for $225 and to feel like hounding people is part of the process for getting paid for work you did. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in, and you rarely have leverage.”
Lily DePaula, who worked as Stedman’s assistant from June 2016 to October 2017, told me that taking advantage of young, starry-eyed writers — staffers and freelancers alike, and mostly women — was part of the regular business model across Northside. Long hours, an absurd workload, especially as the full-time staff began to shrink, and a regular habit of pressuring artists and vendors for favors in order to attach themselves to the cool Brooklyn brand: All of it was routine.
“We were so overworked it was exhausting,” DePaula said. “But it was this constant thing of: ‘We’re a family! We’d love to pay you more, but we’re a family.’ It was vindictive in a way. I was like, no, you’re not my family.
“It was a constant guilt trip, whenever we’d ask to be respected or paid for the work we were doing, it was spun how we were in the wrong for demanding something so outrageous. It was emotionally and mentally draining and pretty manipulative. I don’t want to sound too dramatic. There was this aspect of, ‘You’re lucky to work here and we’re a family and we let you into this cool little thing.’”
No one was paid on time, said Evan Romano, one of the last remaining editors toward the end of Brooklyn Magazine’s run.
“As an editor, I was frequently encouraged to find people who would take extremely low amounts or convince friends who were writing just for exposure to take things on,” he said.
“‘We’re a family’ is a quote we were regularly told during team meetings,” he said. “It was a theme established constantly. When I first started I almost kind of bought it.”
Abbey Bender is another of those young writers who got her start with the company. Most of her work was eventually paid for, but she has yet to receive any money for multiple pieces published from 2016 to 2017.
“This has definitely been worse than any other freelance situation for me, especially since it’s been so hard to get any specific information,” Bender said. “Everyone I know from the magazine has moved on. So I feel like I don’t even know who is reading my emails. I emailed them a lot of times. I tried calling, but no one picks up the phone.”
In May, she got an email from the company saying it might be filing for bankruptcy. “We recognize that you have been extremely patient,” it read in part. “We recognize that in such a situation, one option is to commence litigation. We are asking that you consider not pursuing that option as it will only result in unnecessary expense for both sides and, in light of the current financial situation, will not result in any benefit.” The stalling and special pleading is of a piece with Stedman’s communication with Lannes, Anderson and others. Something is always around the corner, or something that was going to happen unexpectedly fell through.
“Danny was always waiting for that one big check to come in, a partnership with Jameson, or Coke or whatever,” McArdle said. “I am a writer, not a business person, but this seemed like a really bad financial strategy.”
The email sent to freelancers including Bender frames Northside itself as the little guy beholden to an even larger company, and there may be a certain degree of truth to that.
“Most of the problems originated when Zealot bought the company. They pretty rapidly started having financial difficulties,” said a former editor, who didn’t want to be named for fear of professional consequences for speaking out. “I thought the sale was a big mistake. It was clearly not a company that had any idea how media worked. It seemed to portend an end to Northside Media Group. It had really been the kind of tiny media company that doesn’t really exist anymore, and probably was not a sustainable business model in many ways.”
“There was a lot of fuckups in the last days of Zealot,” explained Cody Tesnow, the director of development at Zealot and one of its first, and last, remaining stakeholders. (Not that the stock is worth anything anymore, he joked.) He can’t speculate on motivation, “but there was a lot of shady financial shit going on in the last days of Zealot. Bills not being paid all over the place.”
Tesnow, a friend of Zappin, spoke highly of the Stedmans on a personal level but added that it did not surprise him that “upon them buying back from Zealot there has been some fuckery.” They might actually believe that they did not legally buy back those liabilities, he said, but it was his understanding that they did.
When asked for documents clarifying the agreement with Zealot that could clear up the misunderstandings, Stedman asked me for more time.
“Luke, I’m getting all of my facts together regarding the Zealot transition,” he wrote Wednesday in an email. “It’s been almost two years, and I’m offline, so I’m just gathering this info remotely, etc. - I’m on it - I just need a couple of more hours to get everything in front of me, to call you with facts that are accurate. etc.”
Multiple staffers said that, though the buyback may have indeed complicated things for a while, Stedman continued to use that excuse for years after it happened. Others said payment issues and delays were a problem even before Zealot came into the picture.
“People weren’t getting paid consistently, it wasn’t just during Zealot’s time,” DePaula said. “It was this lame excuse that had been used for so long. It got to the point where people were like, ‘I get that, I don’t care. It’s $100. Why don’t you just give it to me?’”
Whatever the status of the company’s past or future finances, it’s clear that it has been punishing for those who’ve completed work for Northside across all platforms, from vendors and crew at the annual Northside Festival, to freelance artists and video producers. Among them is Josh Elkin, the popular Instagram and YouTube food personality. He said he was paid $5,000 by check this year for work done for Taste Talks. The check bounced when he tried to cash it.
Alex Jones, a freelance audio engineer who worked on TED Talk-style business innovator meetings at Brooklyn Brewery for Northside and other miscellaneous sound production gigs, said he had to go through hell to get the $878.29 he was owed. “After a full year of going back and forth with them I was told that I needed to physically mail the unpaid invoices to a PO box address in Redondo Beach, CA apparently owned by a company called Zealot, with a website that was offline,” he said in an email.
He ultimately took them to small claims court and wound up settling in arbitration for the money owed. “When I said multiple times that I didn’t believe for a second that he didn’t have $800-something dollars on hand he insisted that he did not, and at one point had the balls to tell me I was ‘taking food out of his children’s mouths’ and gave this sob story to the court mediators about how his company was not making any money and he was really just a hard working, struggling guy after all. Fuck that guy, he deserves to go completely out of business. My concern is with other workers and not grifter parasite bosses like this asshole.”
“By the time I left I knew I was on a sinking ship,” said Sarah Zorn. “There was a brain drain from the top. I was really the last actual member of editorial staff that they let go.” Zorn, the food editor for Northside for about five years, said the beginning of the end was when Executive Editor Kristin Iversen left the company about two years ago.
Zorn continued working until the fall of last year, despite struggling for months to be paid as the person responsible for food coverage across all their platforms. “I ate up all of Danny’s empty promises. The thing I will say about them, and it makes it worse, Danny is a charismatic leader. Anybody will tell you that. And he’s really good at surrounding himself with self-realized artists, writers and musicians who are just really excited to be doing what they do and have an avenue to do it and not have a lot of micromanaging. He’s good at creating an environment of ‘We’re all in this together, go along for the ride with us, we promise we got you!’ They’re really good at pulling the wool over the eyes of people who are passionate about what they do.”
“They’re really good at pulling the wool over the eyes of people who are passionate about what they do.”
Zorn, who is owed around $8,000, had been threatening in recent months to sue, which she finally did. Northside’s 30-day deadline to respond has expired, and Zorn still hasn’t heard from the company.
“I’ve gotten a lot of empty promises, a lot of tiny-violin stories about how he was cheated by billionaire investors,” she said. “It’s been harsh. I’ve been chasing this money for eight months, $8,000 is what they owe me. That’s a fucking big chunk of change for me. I had to go on Medicaid this year. He’s really done a number on me.” Emails between Zorn and Stedman, stretching back to last year and up until March of this year, promise that payment is coming soon.
“Sarah I’m bringing some new capital into the business which should get this all settled,” Stedman wrote in November 2017. “Sincere apologies about this, and you have every reason to be frustrated. Hope to have these details by Dec 1 or Dec 15. This is not another bullshit date. Trying my best here!!”
Despite numerous stories across the entire media spectrum about Zealot’s company-acquiring spree a few years back, there have been scarcely any mentions of what became of Zealot since then. Even coverage of the sale back to Northside was thin. Danny Zappin himself stopped showing up in news stories around 2015, in the roaring good old days when capital was flowing fast and loose all around him. “In the past two years, Danny Zappin has sold one company and bought 18 others,” Inc. wrote of the content studio wunderkind in 2015.
“What do you do when you get kicked out of your company and then make millions when Disney buys it? Start another one,” wrote Fast Company the year before. Zappin had recently sold Maker Studios to Disney for a reported $500 million shortly before being pushed out.
“Zealot is a company that went from myself and four dudes in Venice to $350 million in valuation in about 20 months,” Tesnow said. “Twelve months after that it was dead in the water: bad communications, bad deals, bad diligence, bad purchases. It made a couple of really bad decisions purchase-wise and valuation-wise on some of its acquisitions.”
As for Laura Lannes, she doesn’t expect to ever get paid at this point.
“I’m talking about it, at least so other people can know about this and know not to work for them, and learn not to play at Northside Festival, to boycott these people.”
She said she’d take them to small claims court over the sum, but she’s been busy this summer teaching art classes at a camp for kids to pay her bills.
After publication of Gothamist’s story on Northside’s payment delinquency this week, a number of freelancers told me they received a payment from Stedman seemingly out of nowhere. One said she got a partial payment for money owed from work done for Brooklyn Magazine in September 2017. This is a good-faith payment, Stedman wrote to her.
“We’re doing our best!” he added. “All intentions and hopes (not ready to make a promise) is that this will be paid in full in 45-60 days. Feel free to check in!”
CORRECTION: Doug Anderson’s company is called Tiny Tank, and its video series is called Eat Our Feelings. A previous version of this story misidentified the company name and the series.
Luke O’Neil is a journalist in Boston.
Know of any media companies routinely stiffing their freelancers? Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.