The Magazine Industry's Dirty Little Secret

The business of selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door is surprisingly shady. It consists largely of crews of young people-some under 18-recruited by (often) criminal characters who haul them around the country in vans, releasing them only to make their way through neighborhoods, using any lies necessary to tug the heartstrings of people enough to get them to buy something. Then all the kids are rounded up again, given their meager cut of the profits, and they all go do drugs. Sometimes they rape people, or drive off cliffs. The Houston Press just put out a monster investigation of the industry, and it shows a long but clear path from the offices of Conde Nast out to the wild kids hustling in the hinterlands. And there are some true horror stories:

  • "It's been a tough hop for this caravan of sales crews, though. Winding their way down from California, they lost a few agents. Two were arrested in Albuquerque after they allegedly forced their way into the home of an elderly couple and beat them to death, raping the wife first. A few weeks later, another agent allegedly raped a woman in Claremont, California, so he got picked up, too."
  • "In the eight months the Press investigated door-to-door magazine sales across the country, the industry has seen at least three murders, one rape, two attempted rapes, one stabbing, one attempted murder, one vehicle fatality and one attempted abduction of a 13-year-old girl."
  • Crystal Mathahy (pictured), a 17-year-old in Texas, got recruited to join a magazine crew. An older cousin signed a "permission slip" for her to participate, since her mom was illiterate. She didn't make enough money to eat, and tried to leave the crew, but couldn't afford a Greyhound ticket. Shortly after, the crew's van plunged 80 feet off the side of a mountain, crushing Mathahy to death.
  • "[In] Houston in 2005, a sales agent raped a 17-year-old mentally retarded girl who answered the door of the apartment she shared with her mother. To gain her confidence, that agent acted as if he had a disability as well."

Apart from the individual tragedies, the real scandal the story lays out is the blind eye that big players in the magazine industry-including the MPAA, Conde Nast, and many other top-tier publishers-turn to the well-known excesses of the subscription business. That's to say nothing of the financial risks to consumers, like being subscribed to magazines against your will. The whole thing is worth a read.

[Houston Press]