Illustration: Jim Cooke (GMG)

What happens when workers demand fair compensation for the value their labor creates? In one little corner of the media universe, this is a practical question and it’s being slowly answered, mostly behind closed doors, as SB Nation team-site workers—more than 70 across two lawsuits—sue Vox Media over what they say are unfair labor practices. The resulting court documents contain all sorts of interesting information: Glimpses of how the brass that runs a billion-dollar media operation sees their workers; indications of how they plan to approach the lawsuits; and figures that suggest just how much money might really be at stake.

Here’s an example: SB Nation’s team brands director, John Ness, and Vox Media’s senior manager of accounting operations, James Naylor, estimate that the alleged unpaid minimum wages owed to SB Nation team-site workers in the state of California over four years (2014-2018) amount to $1,303,900, according to court documents filed by Vox Media lawyers in a class action Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) lawsuit that was filed against Vox Media in September 2018.

The documents were filed as part of Vox Media’s successful argument to have the class action lawsuit removed from California state court to federal court. A controversial corporation-friendly Bush-era law called the Class Action Fairness Act says that if a class is more than 100 people and if the “alleged amount of money in controversy” is more than $5 million, then the case must be heard in federal court. Corporations generally favor having class action lawsuits go to federal court for various reasons, including that standards for class certification vary by state and, in some states, the standard for certification may be lower for plaintiffs than in federal court. (A class needs to be certified by a judge for a class action lawsuit to proceed.) So, the lawyerly thinking goes, Vox Media may have a better chance at winning the case in federal court than in state court. Given this, Vox Media lawyers entered documents that estimate that the potential class of plaintiffs in California is 258 and that the alleged amount of money at controversy is $6.3 million, which includes the $1,303,900 in alleged unpaid minimum wages as well as damages and attorney fees. Vox Media’s argument convinced a judge presiding over the case in state court, and so now it has been moved to federal court.

According to Naylor’s declaration, the average monthly stipend for the 258 SB Nation “content contributors” in California was $320 a month. Naylor’s declaration also included a spreadsheet that lists the 258 team-site workers, though not by name. One unidentified English Premier League team-site manager who worked for SB Nation for four years could, according to the spreadsheet, be owed $38,190; a team-site manager for a college site who worked for SB Nation for four years could be owed $53,526.37. Some of the workers listed are allegedly owed just a few hundred dollars, but more than 30 people are estimated to be owed sums in the five figures. (The full declaration and spreadsheet are embedded below.)

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Ness’s declaration, filed at the same time as Naylor’s, primarily deals with estimating the number of hours of work that would go into performing each SB Nation position, which is necessary for calculating how much they might have been underpaid. For example, this is what he said about the role of site manager:

Site Managers own the voice of their particular team brand. They might often blog multiple times per day and they oversee the independent contractors who produce other content, including posts to social media, video, audio, and other written blog posts for the team brand. There is variation in the number of hours each Site Manager might devote to performing services for Vox Media. Although Vox Media does not require Site Managers to work any set number of hours, if one included time spent watching all games in which the team brand’s sports team played, and if one assumes that Site Managers review all content related to their team brand (including all comments posted by readers and consumes third party news and commentary related to their team and sport), then I believe it is reasonable to estimate that an individual in the role of Site Manager could devote 35 hours per week to the team brand while the covered team is in season.

Ness’s full declaration, which includes his hourly work estimates for other team-site roles, is embedded below.

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While these declarations from Naylor and Ness do not admit any sort of wrongdoing or responsibility on the part of Vox Media, they do highlight a central issue. The information Vox Media revealed to get the case moved to federal court—information that had previously been very closely guarded—about their team-site workers (the number of workers and their roles, duration of work, estimated pay, type of site, estimated hours worked, and even estimates of money paid) offers the clearest look yet at the machinations of SB Nation’s team-site system; pulling back the curtain this far on their personnel files indicates how important it was for Vox Media to get the case moved to federal court. One plausible reason for that is the sheer amount of money involved. Vox Media estimates $1.3 million in wages could be owed to 258 people in a single state. It’s impossible to extrapolate that across the entire country in any meaningful way without Vox Media providing the necessary figures for all of the approximately 320 team sites across the United States, but it’s safe to assume that Vox Media would not want such a thing to happen.

Before the class action lawsuit was filed against Vox Media last September, a former team-site manager filed a separate collective action lawsuit against Vox Media in September 2017, also for misclassifying workers and not paying them fairly. This collective action lawsuit, which is currently open for plaintiffs to join, applies to any current or former SB Nation team-site manager who has worked for SB Nation as a team-site manager any time between March 27, 2015 and the present. The window to join the lawsuit opened in early April and in just a few days, dozens of plaintiffs had opted in. An attorney for the plaintiffs, James Goodley of Jennings Sigmond. P.C, said, “There is a 60-day window to join. Consent forms must be received by my office no later than June 3. Our current total (including named plaintiffs) is 69. We are pleased and hope many more continue to join.”

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Amid these lawsuits, Vox Media has made some changes to the team-site system. As I reported last year, they shuffled top leadership around and converted at least two team-site manager jobs to full-time paid positions with benefits. Sources now say that they have also increased, in some cases drastically, the monthly stipends for some team-site workers.

According to an SB Nation source who was granted anonymity so as not to jeopardize their position, certain team-site workers have seen their monthly stipends increase from a couple hundred dollars for an entire site to more than $1,000 for one person. A different source said contributors (not managers or deputy managers) now earn $200 a month for two posts a week. (Previously, contributors were generally not paid at all, or of they were, it was at the discretion of the team-site manager who could use their site budget to dole out $20 or $25 a month to contributors.) According to another source, a contributor went from being unpaid to earning $100 per month. Other team-site workers, however, say their monthly stipends have remained the same even though their site’s traffic has increased, and other contributors, called “trusted access users,” still do not get paid at all. Ness told Deadspin:

“We made the decision two years ago to roll out millions of dollars in new investment to SB Nation team brands. Last year, our teams saw the results of that investment in new contracts, customized budgets, new roles, and new opportunities. While those budgets vary greatly, the vast majority of contributors saw an increase in their stipends.”

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SB Nation and Vox Media executives have maintained that their plans for improving the team-site system began two years ago, and maybe that’s true (though Ness hasn’t even been working at SB Nation for two years), but one thing is certain: Whether Vox Media planned to make changes to the team-site worker system, they didn’t actually do it until their workers banded together, complained, and, eventually, filed lawsuits. Corporations don’t just decide to be more generous or more fair. They do it because they decide that it’s in their best interest.

SB Nation’s cynical exploitation of contributors does not stand alone in a sports media landscape that has become increasingly reliant on unpaid and underpaid workers. Along side Vox Media is FanSided, which apes SB Nation’s labor model while its partner, Sports Illustrated, eagerly touts the site’s “fan-focused editorial voice” to potential investors. There’s also 12up.com, which relies on the same basic model even as its parent company rakes in tens of millions of dollars in investment from the likes of Goldman Sachs and other investment groups. Even Major League Baseball is getting in on the act—I recently reported on MLBAM, the league’s digital-media arm, and how it treats its workers like shit and pays them even worse (just this year they settled a lawsuit for wage suppression).

I receive a lot of feedback on this reporting, mostly from the people who are being exploited, and one question they consistently ask—accusatorially, sincerely, in resignation—is this: “What am I supposed to do about it?” What is an aspiring sportswriter (or video editor or social-media producer) supposed to do other than accept the realities of the industry and work for scraps or “exposure,” all the while hoping for the big break that would presumably come with a fair wage? The lawsuits against Vox Media present an answer.

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Work generates money, and workers are entitled to their share of that money. Vox Media touts its billion-dollar valuation; FanSided is owned by the Koch-backed Meredith Corporation; 12up.com is part of an international media conglomerate valued at around $200 million; Major League Baseball made a record $10.3 billion in 2018. Sports media, and media in general, doesn’t have to run on exploitation. The money is out there, it just isn’t being properly distributed.

Nobody has to accept these conditions as the norm. SB Nation team-site workers didn’t. They filed lawsuits, and those lawsuits are steaming ahead towards real, lasting, positive change. It may take years for them to be resolved, as is the nature of this kind of legal action, but in the meantime, they’re already having an effect: SB Nation has increased how much it pays the thousands of people who fill up the hundreds of websites that help power SB Nation and Vox Media. That’s all because SB Nation team-site workers stood up for themselves.