For Youths, a Grim Tour on Magazine Crews
Two days after graduating from high school last June, Jonathan Pope left his home in Miamisburg, Ohio, to join a traveling magazine sales crew, thinking he would get to “talk to people, party at night and see the country.”
Over the next six months, he and about 20 other crew members crossed 10 states, peddling subscriptions door to door, 10 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. Sleeping three to a room in cheap motels, lowest seller on the floor, they survived some days on less than $10 in food money while their earnings were kept “on the books” for later payment.
By then, Mr. Pope said, he had seen several friends severely beaten by managers, he and several other crew members were regularly smoking methamphetamine with prostitutes living down the motel hallway, and there were warrants out for his arrest in five states for selling subscriptions without a permit.
“I knew I was either going to be dead, disappeared or I don’t know what,” Mr. Pope said.
After persuading his manager to let him leave, Mr. Pope was dropped off, without a ticket, $17 in his pocket, at a bus terminal near San Antonio, more than 1,000 miles from home.
More than two decades after a Senate investigation revealed widespread problems with these itinerant sellers, and despite several highly publicized fatal accidents and violent crimes involving the sales crews in recent years, the industry remains almost entirely unregulated. And while the industry says it has changed, advocates and law enforcement officials say the abuses persist.
In interviews over seven months, more than 50 current and former members from almost as many crews painted a similar picture of life on the road.
With striking uniformity, they told of violence, drug use, indebtedness and cheating of customers during their cross-country travels, often in unsafe vehicles and with drivers who lacked proper licenses.
“The stories about life on crew you hear from these kids are almost unbelievable,” said Officer George Dahl of the Louisville, Ky., Metro Police Department, who estimated that his department had cited or arrested more than 70 sellers for assault, unlawful solicitation or drug possession in the last two years. “But you get them alone and start hearing the same sort of thing over and over from different crews and you start believing them.”
In Collinsville, Ill., Daniel Burrus scrolled through digital photographs of bloodied faces as he described how, on a crew he helped manage for several years, men who missed their sales quota were forced to fight each other.
In Flagstaff, Ariz., Isaac James sat with his wife and newborn daughter as he told how he and others on his mag crew — as they are typically called — stole checkbooks, jewelry, medicine-cabinet drugs and even shoes from customers’ homes.
Last October, Jonathan Gagney joined a mag crew to escape the “crack scene” back home in Marlborough, N.H. But one night last month, he called this reporter from a bus station in St. Petersburg, Fla., to say he had just sneaked away from his motel to run away from his crew.
“All I know is this guy got beaten and there was blood all over the motel wall,” Mr. Gagney said, his voice shaking.
Earlene Williams, director of Parent Watch, an industry watchdog group, said her organization got about 10 e-mail messages or calls a day, double the number since 2003, seeking help from sellers, their families or lawyers.
“Publisher’s Sweepstakes is a lot smaller than it used to be, and so the magazine industry is less able to get subscriptions that way now,” Ms. Williams said, explaining why she was seeing an increase in problems with crews. “And the telemarketing no-call list has also pushed the publishers away from telemarketing and toward door-to-door crews.”
Last year in response to a similar increase in calls, the National Runaway Switchboard began training its operators to handle the cases.
A Complex Industry
Dan Smith, a lawyer for the National Field Selling Association, which represents about 60 percent of the magazine sales industry, estimated that 2 percent to 3 percent of all magazine subscriptions, or at least $147 million worth in 2005, were sold by door-to-door salespeople, up from about 1 percent, or at least $69 million in 2000. But the Magazine Publishers Association disagreed with Ms. Williams and Mr. Smith. It does not believe that door-to-door magazine sales have grown, and estimated that they account for 1 percent of sales.
The industry consists of layers. While the bulk of subscriptions are sold directly by publishers and through direct mail, insert cards and the Internet, many magazine publishers also hire clearinghouses. These companies then subcontract with crew managers who hire door-to-door sellers. These layers of middlemen, and the small percentage of total subscription revenue involved, may help explain why publishers, who are always eager to increase readership, have been unwilling or unable to prevent mag crews from operating.
Just who uses mag crews is in dispute. Crew members and the National Field Selling Association say many of the largest publishers use magazine crews or clearinghouses that rely on them. But of the five largest publishing companies — Time Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith and Reader’s Digest Association, which collectively make up nearly half the industry as measured by advertising revenue — four said they did not use mag crews or did so only sparingly.
A representative for Reader’s Digest said, “A portion of our subscriptions come in through third-party agents, who may in turn subcontract to local vendors.”
Dozens of magazines are listed on order forms offered by crews, including Reader’s Digest, Rolling Stone and Redbook.
Rolling Stone declined to comment. A representative for the Hearst Corporation said that in recent years it had stopped hiring clearinghouses that use crews. But when subsequently asked why Redbook, a Hearst publication, appears among magazines sold by one crew, a Hearst representative e-mailed, “We constantly fight unauthorized agents,” adding, “It’s an ongoing battle.”
Generally, the clearinghouses get about 40 percent of the subscription money and the publishers about 10 percent. The crew leaders get the other 50 percent, out of which they pay all expenses on the road, including the sellers’ commissions.
“Nobody is forced or pushed to do anything,” said Tim Peek, manager and recruiter for New Generation, a crew based in Vero Beach, Fla.
Drugs and violence are forbidden, and some sellers make $1,000 per week, which is kept in a savings account for them, Mr. Peek said, adding, “If they don’t want to work, they don’t make money.”
John Wigman, the manager of Mr. Pope’s crew, Periodical and Publications Connections, said, “I don’t see why you don’t tell about all the kids on drugs that we help out.” Asked to elaborate, provide names or respond to Mr. Pope’s accusations, Mr. Wigman refused and hung up.
Mr. Smith said he viewed most stories of drug use and physical abuse as exaggerations. “I don’t put a lot of stock in them because, to be brutally frank with you, abuse is like beauty. It’s in the eyes of the beholder,” he said. “A loud voice, anything, can be called abuse.”
While there may be a few shady operators, he said, the industry has cleaned itself up over the years, and his organization has helped through broad distribution of pamphlets on professional courtesy and ethics, yearly training seminars for members and one-on-one discussions with managers who have problems on their crews.
By pressuring members to perform background checks on new hires, the association has cut the number of crimes and cheating perpetrated by sellers, Mr. Smith said. No one is forced to stay on crew, he added, since the association pays for a bus ticket home for any crew member who wants to leave.
But labor and law enforcement officials said that since many sellers were runaways or high school dropouts or were from dysfunctional families or poor neighborhoods, they had fewer options and were reluctant to report mistreatment or leave.
Many former sellers also said they kept quiet about problems out of fear of violence against them or those they left behind.
Sellers reported having adopted fake names upon joining a crew, being beaten if they attracted police attention and receiving mail sent from home only after it was opened by the company’s central office. “What happens on crew, stays on crew” was a common refrain.
An escape from small-town boredom or overbearing parents, working on a mag crew is a lifestyle more than a job, and it brings good times with the bad. Like gangs, crews become family, sellers said, and the camaraderie of shared experiences is a bond not easily broken.
“You’re involved in bad stuff, you’re seeing bad stuff and they tell you, ‘No negativity,’ ” said Jennifer Steele, 23.
In September 2004, Ms. Steele said, she was drugged and raped by two men who were partying with crew members at a motel in Memphis, where her crew, Precision Sales, was staying. When her manager told her to go back to work the next day, she said she “threw a fit.” But she did as she was told, and worked part of the day before filing a police report and having a rape kit performed. She stayed with the crew for another seven months before quitting.
“I know it sounds crazy,” Ms. Steele said. “But I believed my manager when he said he would never let that happen again, and I believed him when he said my mom had told him she didn’t care about me.”
In January 2006, Ms. Steele left her crew and was placed in the witness protection program during an investigation of her former managers, who were accused in the beating and kidnapping at gunpoint of her boyfriend from a city bus, an incident that was caught on videotape and led to the conviction of one person for kidnapping for ransom and assault with a deadly weapon.
“They’re frustrating cases,” said Sgt. Jeanine Lum of the Norwalk Sheriff’s Station in Norwalk, Calif., near Los Angeles, who was involved in the investigation.
“The ones we arrest at the doors often just need to be sent home,” Sergeant Lum added, “while the real culprits are back at the hotel or in some office somewhere.”
Few Legal Protections
Regulating the industry has been difficult because the companies, many of them operating only out of post office boxes, are small and frequently change names.
“The local police can’t keep up because the crews leave the state before they get alerted and the feds don’t bother with them because they say it is a state’s issue,” said Connie Knutti, who investigated several crews before she retired in 2005 as manager of field enforcement for the Illinois Department of Labor.
The sellers have few labor protections because they are classified as independent contractors, which also insulates the companies from regulation, taxes and liability. Categorized as outdoor sellers, the door-to-door peddlers are also exempt from most federal and state minimum wage and overtime requirements.
A majority of former crew members said that while they occasionally made several hundred dollars a week, most of the time they received little more than the daily allowance of $15, while the rest of their earnings stayed on the books to cover expenses. Many also said that subscriptions for magazines were never actually fulfilled.
On any given day, said Mr. Smith, the association lawyer, there are probably about 2,500 people, typically ages 18 to 24, selling magazines door to door.
But when state and federal labor department officials held a conference in 1999 to discuss concerns about the industry, a panel concluded that the number of sellers was probably closer to 30,000, said Darlene Adkins, vice president of public policy for the National Consumers League’s Child Labor Coalition. That organization ranks traveling magazine sales among the five worst jobs for teenagers.
Catherine Barbour said it was the constant traveling and working in dangerous areas that most worried her when her daughter, Tracy Jones, said she was joining a crew. “I told her no, absolutely not,” Ms. Barbour said. “But she was 18, so what could I do?”
On Nov. 15, Ms. Jones disappeared while selling subscriptions at a Pilot Truck Stop in North Little Rock, Ark. Ms. Jones was found 11 days later, stabbed to death, in a ditch near Route 61 in southwestern Memphis.
Up at 7 a.m., typical crews start the day with a sales meeting where they rehearse their pitches. “We’re selling magazines to earn points in a contest to win a trip abroad” is the standard and sometimes fictitious spiel. Around 9 a.m., the crews pile into vans to be dropped off at the day’s territory. They switch neighborhoods every several hours and often work as late as 10 p.m.
“You work hard during the day, but you also party pretty hard at night,” said Stephanie Blake, 23, who wrote an e-mail message in November to Earlene Williams at Parent Watch because she said she wanted to tell the positive side of the work.
While she and others used methamphetamine, Ms. Blake said it was mostly marijuana, alcohol and sex that filled the nights.
“But there is a lot more to crew than that,” she said, recounting having made some of her best friends, including her fiancé, working on the crew. Coming from Evansville, Ind., Ms. Blake said she relished the chance to see the country. The expense-paid trips to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and a resort in Mexico were more fun than she had ever imagined having, she said. “I still miss it sometimes,” she added.
About a half hour into the conversation, however, Ms. Blake’s tone began to shift. “I have to admit, some things did get to me about crew life,” she said.
The 100 sit-ups and pushups for every number a seller was below her daily quota felt “cultish,” she said. The beatings were also unsettling. But the most galling part, Ms. Blake said, was the unfulfilled promise of big money.
When she and her fiancé finally decided to leave their crew in December 2003, Ms. Blake said, they sneaked away late one night from the motel near Houston where they staying. Asked why she left without demanding to be paid what was still “on the books,” she said, “These aren’t the types who you just go up to and ask to settle up.”
Michael Simpson is one reason.
For two years starting in February 2004, Mr. Simpson, a stocky former high school lacrosse player from Newburgh, N.Y., worked on several crews as an “enforcer.” His job, he said, was to beat crew members upon a manager’s request.
If sellers missed quota regularly or complained about the job, Mr. Simpson, 23, said he hit them while in their room or when they were alone in the van. On more than 30 occasions, he estimated, he and several other enforcers drew blood. In three instances, ambulances were called, he said. Dealing with the police was not a problem.
“You have one kid saying he was jumped and 20 others plus two managers saying he stole something or broke into a room and assaulted a girl,” Mr. Simpson said. “Who do you think the cops are going to believe?”
Daivet McClinton, 23, an enforcer who worked with Mr. Simpson, said talking in front of others about wanting to quit invited the worst beatings.
Asked if they ever went overboard, both men recalled an incident in November 2005 involving an 18-year-old recruit from Dayton, Ohio, named Rudy. “All we were told was that Rudy had shoved and disrespected the manager,” Mr. Simpson said.
For 10 uninterrupted minutes in a motel stairwell in San Francisco, Mr. Simpson, Mr. McClinton and four other enforcers beat Rudy unconscious, Mr. Simpson and Mr. McClinton said. One held his mouth shut. Two others pinned down his arms and legs. Tearing off his shirt, they pressed a flaming lighter into his back. Mr. Simpson kicked him in the face and body. “I stopped because I ran out of breath,” Mr. Simpson said.
Rudy, they said, was taken away in an ambulance.
Darting a glance at his new girlfriend and his chin quivering momentarily, Mr. Simpson explained why he decided to leave last February. “I’d gone from being a kid who was afraid of hitting people in the face to someone who was using objects,” he said.
Still, some current crew members said the work had helped them turn their lives around.
“I was in and out of juvenile facilities, and now I’m actually going somewhere,” said Jordan Friedley, standing in a shopping mall in Oceanside, Calif., near San Diego, where, for two days, a reporter shadowed two crews, Magnificent Sales and Thoroughbreds, both from Alliance Service Company. “They keep things on the up and up, no drugs or none of that, and I bring in $700 a week.”
Asked about incidents in the last five years involving the two crews, including two fatal drug overdoses and the deaths of two crew members in the crash of a crew van, Mr. Friedley fell silent.
Crystal Hall, who helps manage the crews, said: “We’ve cleaned things up. Everyone is drug-tested now. They show up dirty, they’re gone. Those who stay have plenty of chance to make money.”
The Money ‘Flows Up’
Since pay is purely on commission, Mr. Smith, the association lawyer, said that only the best sellers survived and that about 20 percent of recruits left in less than a month.
Matt Ward, a former bookkeeper for several crews, said there were other reasons for the high attrition. “Money in this industry flows up,” Mr. Ward said. “It doesn’t trickle down.”
For about two years starting in 1998, Mr. Ward did bookkeeping for several crews with American Community Services, a company with several hundred sellers that is based in Indiana. It is owned by two of Mr. Ward’s brothers, LeVan and Albert Ellis, who declined to answer questions both over the telephone and sent by certified mail.
Mr. Ward said that while the company should be commended for sticking to its strict antiviolence policies, he left in 2000 after becoming uncomfortable with what he saw while he was keeping the books.
“The sales agents remain almost always in the red while the managers, car handlers and everyone else is in the black almost from the start,” Mr. Ward said between shifts at a restaurant in downtown Washington, where he now waits tables.
Of the more than 400 sales agents whose accounts Mr. Ward said he handled, he estimated that fewer than 40 left the company having made money. The rest spent their earnings on the road or, more often, to cover their daily deductions for room expenses, gas and meals.
This is not a new criticism. In 1987, during the Congressional investigation of the industry, the Senate committee reviewed the records of one company and found that of its 418 sellers, 413 had finished the year in debt to the company, even though the company itself had reported large annual profits.
Ms. Williams, from Parent Watch, said her organization advised customers not to buy from the sellers or to let them in the house, but to offer them a phone to call home or her organization’s phone number to help anyone who might want to arrange a bus ticket home. She said her organization had lobbied for legislation to prevent sellers from being categorized as independent contractors and to provide them with minimum wage and safety and health protections.
“Leave these kids off radar as they are now,” Ms. Williams said, “and the abuses will continue.”