In 2015, Time Inc., the listing titan of 20th-century publishing, bought FanSided—a network of more than 300 sport- and team-centric blogs producing the sort of easily digestible and SEO-friendly posts that exist purely to show up near the top in Google searches—and attached it to their legacy publication, Sports Illustrated. This year, the Meredith Corporation, backed by the Koch brothers, bought Time Inc., gobbling up both properties, among many others. Lost in these shifting corporate ownerships and sought-after synergies is FanSided’s production class: thousands of workers who write thousands of posts each month for little or no money.
This work was done first for the benefit of FanSided and then for the benefit of the much larger Time Inc.; now it is being done for the benefit of the even larger Meredith Corporation, which is currently trying to sell off Sports Illustrated, and FanSided along with it. No matter who owns FanSided, though, its business model remains the same: sell ads against the inessential work produced by exploited labor. Some people work 30 hours a week to make $50 a month; some are high schoolers whom FanSided has gleefully used as a source of free labor; others have never made more than $15 in a given month, despite helping to fill FanSided’s websites with what can only be called content; others have asked for raises only to be slapped down and patronized.
Like the unpaid and poorly-paid bloggers who prop up Vox Media’s SB Nation, FanSided bloggers are aware that they are part of a system that treats them like spinning cogs in a content machine. Among them are people who have spoken to Deadspin about their experiences. Some feel fed up with the long hours and exploitative model; some feel grateful for the opportunity to write about sports on a “real” platform. Whatever their feelings, they are working time-consuming jobs, prodded to do more and more by their bosses, all while being compelled to aggressively recruit more unpaid workers and sell them on the merits of writing for free. While some welcome the work as a hobby, others cling to the company line, which promises a path to a career in sportswriting and offers the false prospect of one day writing for Sports Illustrated. All of this is done in the service of making more money for FanSided and whichever corporate overlords happen to own it on a given day.
Founded by brothers Zach and Adam Best in 2007, FanSided boasts a self-reported audience of 15 million unique visitors per month; that’s a good number of readers, and it’s no wonder Time Inc. saw FanSided as a valuable asset. Sports Illustrated, eager to boost its flagging digital credentials, began a content-sharing deal with FanSided even before the sale, with clear benefits for both sides: traffic for SI, credibility for FanSided. When the 2015 sale to Time Inc. was completed, Sports Illustrated published a bumptious missive about how FanSided would help the legacy publication:
FanSided’s unique fan-focused editorial voice, very popular mobile app and personalized digital newsletter are behind its rapidly growing popularity among millennial sports and entertainment fans. FanSided’s community of 1,500+ contributors will deepen Sports Illustrated’s local sports coverage and add more weight to the brand’s new customization platform, which is set to launch later this year. Time Inc. also plans to further leverage FanSided’s entertainment and lifestyle coverage across its brand portfolio.
There was no mention of how this would all happen; perhaps it was believed that an impressive splooge of buzzwords would do the trick. (Meredith spokeswoman Kari Stephenson, whose LinkedIn profile says she is in charge of “brand communications for Sports Illustrated,” declined to answer specific questions about FanSided’s current relationship with the magazine. Sports Illustrated’s managing editor, Chris Stone, also declined to discuss FanSided, referring my query to Stephenson.) Nor was there any mention of the fact that the 1,500+ contributors whose work would deepen SI’s local coverage were poorly paid or unpaid—and sometimes in high school—or that these workers account for the vast majority of FanSided’s traffic. According to an analysis of data from ComScore, the industry standard for measuring digital traffic, the FanSided network—that is, the collection of 300-plus team sites staffed by unpaid and poorly-paid people—accounts for approximately 76 percent of the company’s traffic, meaning that FanSided.com, which is also partially staffed by underpaid writers, accounts for less than a quarter of the company’s traffic.
For its part, FanSided bragged that it was now one of Time’s “iconic brands.” The statement, written by Adam and Zach Best, didn’t mention the company’s labor model, as would be expected; FanSided works hard to keep its labor practices hidden from both the public and its own employees, warning its workers not speak to reporters about the company.
In addition to trying to coerce employees into the sort of silence that, among other things, keeps them in the dark about how little money they are collectively making, various representatives from FanSided, Sports Illustrated, and Meredith refused to answer most of Deadspin’s questions. Those who have actually toiled within FanSided’s content mill, however, were more willing to talk.
Neal Lynch, a 37-year-old living in New Jersey who now works in video operations, worked for FanSided from December 2015 until March 2017, first as a co-editor of the New York Giants team site GMen HQ, then as a writer for NFL Spin Zone, which is part of the FanSided.com flagship site. As co-editor of the Giants site, he and another editor were responsible for writing and publishing the bulk of the posts. According to documents reviewed by Deadspin, FanSided recruiting director Kyle Franzoni told Lynch the site would bring in a monthly stipend amounting to $1.50 per 1,000 pageviews, or $50, whichever was higher, but the money would only be paid out if the site published 50 posts per month. The rate would increase to $2.00 per 1,000 pageviews or $100 if the site published 100 posts in a month. That money would then be split between Lynch and his co-editor.
This tracks with what another former site manager said: Site managers could end up writing more than 50 posts a month and, factoring in additional duties like editing and taking care of social media, end up working 30-hour weeks while getting only $50 a month.
According to other sources—all of whom were granted anonymity because they either still work for FanSided or are aspiring writers and fear speaking out against the company could hurt their chances of getting other work—a “pay for clicks” payment model is the standard across the sites. One source who currently works for FanSided said the rate is $1 per 1,000 clicks; another said that in May 2016, that rate was “updated to $1.75 per 1,000 page views for 50-99 posts, and $2.50 per 1,000 page views for 100 or more posts.” (FanSided’s CEO Zach Best declined to answer more than a dozen specific questions about FanSided’s labor model, pay structure, and partnership with Sports Illustrated.
He forwarded my questions to Stephenson, the Meredith spokeswoman, who wouldn’t answer specific questions about the company’s pay structure either.)
The pay-for-clicks model might be the most common way contributors receive their money (the ones who are paid at all, that is), but it isn’t the only way. One current team-site writer said that writers are sometimes offered a flat fee for a blog post. Recently, he said, he was offered $60 for a 30-slide slideshow blog post.
“I think the most I made from FanSided was like $15 per month, because I was in high school then and didn’t really have time to write much,” he said. “For someone like me, the view-based system obviously sucks because I don’t have time to write 30-plus articles a month, but at the same time I understand the system and why it is set up that way.”
This writer wasn’t the only one to feel frustrated about the low pay. One person acknowledged the pay was “below market value,” but said that it gave them the freedom to write. Another current FanSided writer said that if companies can afford to pay their workers, they should. “My general thought is that anyone who has the money and doesn’t pay their interns or workers is wrong,” the writer said. “On the other hand, if a place truly doesn’t have the money to pay someone but they want to give people the chance to write. I don’t know any company well enough to say who has enough and who doesn’t. Offering the opportunity is important, but there should be an opportunity for everyone to be fairly compensated.”
There does appear to be money available. The Meredith spokeswoman confirmed that all 51 people on FanSided’s masthead are salaried employees. (People with titles like “VP Content & Strategy” and “VP Of Corporate Communications & Business Development” are not asked to work for $50 a month.) There are also funds at the ready for FanSided editors to pursue high-profile freelance assignments. Several weeks ago, for instance, Deadspin’s Drew Magary was offered $1,000 to write a 1,000-word NFL preview post by FanSided editor Matt Verderame. (Verderame did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
Lynch said he never made more than $100 a month as a site editor, even though the work amounted to a moderately demanding part-time job, taking about 20 to 25 hours per week. The welcome email Franzoni sent when Lynch started encouraged him to try and ease his workload by building up a staff of unpaid contributors:
We do not hold our editors to a specific individual post count minimum, but many strive to maintain at least a post-per-day on average (25-30 per month). You’re free and encouraged to go above and beyond that level of frequency, but not mandated.
Building a staff of contributing writers is often key to ensuring that a site reaches that 50 post threshold. in cases where an editor doesn’t want to write them all themselves, and it can also be a great benefit to a site. Having more staff can offer readers a variety of voices and insights, while offering up a multitude of angles on bigger stories/events. Our staff writer positions are volunteer roles, but they can be great assets so you are encouraged to help recruit writers to join the site and help build the community around the site.
Editors will typically be actively involved in managing these writers (communicating site goals, offering up advice, basic copy-editing asfif [sic] needed, etc.).
Lynch was able to find some volunteer staff writers to pitch in one or two posts a week, but he said turnover was high because these were mostly college and high school kids who were looking for a hobby, not something they had to contribute to on a regular basis. He also felt uncomfortable about his managers’ eagerness to place high school students on his staff.
“The recruiting director and national NFL editor/lead writer would often send us applications from kids under the age of 18, which I thought was wrong,” Lynch said. “A new NFL editor would try to automatically add unpaid contributors under 18, but the co-editor and I would decline. Eventually, with more applications from underage candidates for unpaid contributor positions and low submissions from accepted unpaid contributors, we acquiesced.”
One 2016 email exchange between Lynch and Phil Watson, FanSided’s “Assistant Editorial Director for Locals/Extras Division”—in which Lynch expressed his hesitancy to add yet another high school kid to his staff—ended with Watson laying his motivations bare: “It’s a kid who wants to write for you for free. So what I’m asking is for a definitive arswer [sic]: Can you work with him?” (Watson did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
Team-site editors were encouraged to aggressively court potential recruits who might be willing to write for free. A May 2016 newsletter posted on the company’s internal memo board by Michael Dunlap, vice-president of corporate communications and business development, featured a section titled “FOCUS ON…SEALING THE DEAL WITH RECRUITS.” The advice reads like it was written by someone who’d just huffed paint while watching Glengarry Glen Ross or Boiler Room:
You’ve identified a writer you’d love to bring to your site, and they’re on the fence. It’s time for you to seal the deal, time to…apologize for not being like other sites? No!
Never, ever apologize for what your site isn’t.
Always sell the strengths of your site and the network and always tailor your pitch to what the recruit is most interested in.
This blurb from Entrepreneur is meant for selling a product, but it’s just as important for us in selling our site and the potential for any would-be contributor:
When interacting with a prospect, you must first seek to understand what’s going on in the other person’s world. Then and only then will your ideas be accepted and understood by the prospect.
You must know what the prospect’s goals are. For example, maybe they’re new to the industry, and their primary goal is to have their words broadcast to the entire world. That’s an easy one for us, as our network of sites reaches every corner of the globe.
There was more:
It’s all about your approach and how you portray the site. Look at the following and realize that they both say the same thing, but in a very different way:
Prospect: How big is the site?
Terrible Answer: Not too bad. We’re not as big as SB Nation or anything.
Great Answer: We’re growing fast. We just finished our fourth month of steady growth and we’re on pace to make it five. You mentioned wanting to get your name out there — we keep getting linked from NBA.com (or wherever), which definitely accomplishes that goal. On social media, we’ve had three different players interact with our accounts in the last month alone, which brings even more attention to us.
See the difference? The terrible answer actually apologized and downplayed the site, despite the fact that the propsect never gave any indication as to what they’d consider good or bad. What if that prospect had no clue about SB Nation (or didn’t care), but was just asking a simple question?
The great answer did it right — hammer them with the positives, be specific about how we can help the writer reach a goal, give them a big name for more credibility and sell the site’s growth and future opportunity. If a potential writer is listening to your pitch, they’re already interested. You just have to figure out their motivation and show them how the site can provide them with everything they want…and more!
Lynch says he also received monthly emails from his managers encouraging him to chase higher traffic numbers. One email from Verderame suggested more slideshows and mock drafts:
Matt Verderame <email@example.com> Thu, Mar 3, 2016, 1:03 PM to me -
Guys, Sorry for being a little late on this. You have been doing a tremendous job, and I could not be prouder of the effort being put it. Keep it up! My goal for your site this month is 200,000. It’s lofty, but slideshows, mock drafts and constant free agency rumors will get you there without a doubt!
Lynch eventually stepped down from the Giants team site, but was offered a job writing for NFL Spin Zone, the NFL section of the flagship FanSided.com site. This was meant to be a reward for team-site editors hoping for a way to earn more money and exposure, giving Lynch the opportunity to take the next step up the organizational ladder and start writing for a national NFL site.
In that job, Lynch only had to write eight posts a month, for about the same monthly pay as he was making as when he was a site editor (i.e. no more than $100 per month). Lynch felt the pay still wasn’t commensurate with the work, though, especially because publishing seven blog posts a month would result in no money. The job placed an emphasis on creating slideshows, which are more time-consuming because, Lynch said, each had to contain at least five slides, at 200-300 words apiece. At one point, Lynch asked his managers if they could adjust his pay, citing the fact that many of his posts were lengthy slideshows, meaning that while each only counted as one blog post, they were the equivalent of five or more. His supervisor, Michael Dunlap, turned him down in an email:
Using your Spin Zone example, you’re forgetting that the site expert also gets paid (at $2/1000 PV) and I as the director also get paid (salary) and then you also have the site expenses. and of course they need to have some kind of room for development and a little profit.
Unfortunately we are not able to adjust paid contributor payment numbers. Now, as far as the amount you’re making — that you can do something about. You can work to expand your social network. you can ensure you’re focusing on trending, relevant topics using great keywords and you can build up your cache of evergreen content, so that you keep bringing in residual pageviews.
(Dunlap did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
In the absence of better pay, Lynch says, he was fed another incentive to keep producing work: the possibility of eventually writing for Sports Illustrated.
“They do dangle that SI carrot in front of you,” Lynch said. “Saying like, ‘Oh, some of our FanSided contributors have gone on to write for Sports Illustrated.’” Another current worker said, “I would say they play up that link [with Sports Illustrated], that we’re associated with them, but I’m not sure if it goes beyond that.”
The newsletter with recruiting tips encouraged team-site editors to emphasize FanSided’s association with Sports Illustrated, as well as the possibility of being hired as a full-time employee:
Maybe they’re a more experienced writer and they’re looking for a network that provides more revenue earning potential. We continue to hire full-time employees and we’re constantly expanding our paid contributor model. Every single site has an expert that is paid, and we’re always willing to look for co-experts. Boom.
Is it prestige that the writer is looking for? Do they want to see their name in bright lights and become a known commodity on social media? How about the fact that we’re under the same umbrella as well-known brands like Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly, who send our work out to their audience each week? There’s also Bleacher Report, who use our articles regularly in their Team Stream app. Don’t forget about our own powerful brands, like FanSided.com, NFL Spin Zone and Winter is Coming, to name a few.
This enthusiasm for potential synergy with SI doesn’t seem to cut both ways, though. Lynch said FanSided writers were warned by FanSided brass not to associate themselves with SI publicly. “The thing they were emphatic about when I was there was that, even though they were a member of the SI digital network, they said we can’t mention them anywhere. Not in Twitter bios or anywhere,” Lynch said. “I think there’s a reason behind that. Because the writers are volunteer and I have to imagine a lot of them are underage or not properly vetted, and you open yourself up to a lot of liability that way.”
Another source confirmed that after the sale to Time Inc., FanSided workers were told not to affiliate themselves with Sports Illustrated, despite the fact that FanSided work was promoted on Sports Illustrated’s website and social media accounts.
There also seems to be a recent effort from SI to distance itself from FanSided, just a few years after bragging about how FanSided would “deepen Sports Illustrated’s local sports coverage.” On March 20, according to the Wayback Machine, which archives websites, Sports Illustrated removed the FanSided tab from its homepage. The next day, Meredith announced Sports Illustrated was for sale. (The Meredith spokeswoman said FanSided is still featured on the section home pages—NBA, MLB, Soccer, etc—and, after a recent redesign, will again be included on the main home page.) The main SI Twitter account still tweets out links to FanSided posts occasionally, but not nearly as often as it used to. In the first eight months of this year, SI tweeted links to FanSided stories 34 times. In the first eight months of last year, SI had tweeted out more than 300 FanSided links.
The sorts of incentives FanSided claims to offer its writers—prestige, upward mobility, the ability to bask in the reflected glow of Sports Illustrated—are hard to reconcile with the actual experience of working there. “Get clicks at all costs,” is how one current writer described the culture at FanSided.
When Verderame sent Lynch a note encouraging him to chase 200,000 page views for the month, he asked him to push out as many mock drafts, free-agency rumors, and slideshows as possible. When Lynch asked for better pay, Dunlap told him the best way forward was to focus on “trending, relevant topics using great keywords and you can build up your cache of evergreen content, so that you keep bringing in residual pageviews.” Lynch wasn’t instructed to produce better work, but more work, of the kind designed to collect as much mindless, SEO-driven traffic as possible. His supervisors weren’t looking for anything designed to engage or entertain readers, but rather easily produced internet chum.
There’s no question that a high quantity of these sorts of posts would bring more traffic to FanSided, thus allowing the company to make more money; what’s less clear is how they would personally benefit Lynch, either in terms of prestige or improvement as a writer. “No one is knocking down my door, being like, ‘Wow, you wrote for FanSided,’” Lynch said, adding that most of the editorial feedback he received had to do with the formatting of his posts, not the content.
Based on a memo sent by Dunlap in April 2017, FanSided is not a place where writers have much opportunity to improve their reporting chops, either. In the memo, Dunlap explained why the site was hesitant to hand out credentials to sporting events:
Our network is far from “against” credentials, but we do take the responsibility that comes with them more seriously than many networks. Our brand’s reputation is on the line every time we send someone to an event, and the risk we take is often not worth the reward. To that point, we are by and large a network driven by opinion and analysis, not by reporting (where the majority of the value of credentials lie).
The focus on quantity is reflected in the existence of the “Everest Club” within the company, to which writers can gain entry by writing 300-plus posts a month. But the financial rewards earned from that kind of dedication to blogging brings are limited. According to Lynch, site manager earnings are capped at $2,500 per month. The Meredith spokeswoman confirmed this number, but clarified that workers are capped at $2,500 per month per site, and that they “can write for multiple sites.”
If this sort of exploitation in the name of fandom and career aspirations sounds familiar, that’s because it is. FanSided is an SB Nation knock-off in practically every way: From the team-site structure and the rah-rah fan voice to the secrecy around how much they pay their workers and the fact that they’re ultimately powered by unpaid and poorly-paid people, FanSided is, like both SB Nation and pre-2012 Bleacher Report, a content mill that relies heavily on a manipulative sense of teamwork to convince its workers that they’re cranking out blog posts for pennies out of sheer love of the work (and maybe a shot at a full-time writing job). The reluctance to call writing blog posts for a website owned by a massive media conglomerate what it is—a job—is emblazoned right there on FanSided’s about page:
“We’re the network for fans. Nowhere else will you find the edgy, educated, and candid ‘fanpinions that the FanSided Network dishes out each and every day, all year round. Fandom has no offseason. Neither do we. Sports and entertainment aren’t our jobs. Sports and entertainment are our lives.”
Like SB Nation team-site managers, most FanSided team-site managers have other jobs and see writing for FanSided—which warns that the pay will not amount to a full-time job—as a hobby. Still, it’s not lost on them that they’re being used to make money for a massive corporation. “I know it’s shit and there is no excuse, but I also participate, so there’s only so much righteous indignation one can have while still making a few bucks,” a current writer said. “I would say there is a problem with rewarding writers, even internally. I feel like I’ve worked pretty hard and when I’ve applied for open full-time positions, I didn’t even get an email back. I’d say unless you’re overly focused on the numbers, you aren’t going to get their attention.”
“[FanSided is] definitely preying on fanatic fandom. I wrote about the Giants for free on my own blog, but that’s on my own time,” Lynch said. “If I’m doing it to meet deadlines or a quota then it’s different.”
With SB Nation facing an ongoing collective action lawsuit brought by former team site managers, as well as undergoing something of an overhaul of their “contributor” system, it’s no surprise that FanSided and Meredith want to avoid the same scrutiny. (On Tuesday, a federal judge denied Vox Media’s motion to dismiss; the lawsuit will proceed.) Representatives from Meredith, FanSided, and Sports Illustrated were reluctant to answer questions for this story; FanSided directed its workers to keep quiet too.
When Deadspin began reporting this story and reaching out to sources, FanSided posted a message on an internal employee message board called The Huddle, warning workers not to talk about how much they’re paid:
Like any site or network, FanSided has gone through its fair share of growing pains since it was founded in 2007. A lot of energy and effort went into building this network and we’re ultimately very proud of how far we have come. We’ve learned a lot along the way and much of that we share with our community so that they can continue to help us grow further. As such, there are things that FanSided wants to remain proprietary. These include company secrets, literature, tutorials, payment structure, traffic numbers, etc.
Sharing any of this information, any official emails and communications, or anything posted on The Huddle is strictly prohibited.
If you are ever contacted by outside media looking for comment on FanSided or any of our sites please refer them to your Editorial Director, who will refer them to our VP of Corporate Communications.
In response to more than a dozen questions about FanSided’s place in Meredith’s holdings, its partnership with Sports Illustrated, and its labor model, the Meredith spokeswoman declined to answer with specifics, except to say, “hiring people under 18 has not been the practice under Time Inc. or Meredith.” The following statement was sent in response to the other questions:
FanSided currently owns and operates over 300 websites, utilizing a combination of full-time employees and independent contractors to provide content. All contributors sign an agreement that clearly outlines expectations and revenue earning opportunities. We are diligent in making sure that any contributor that wishes to contribute to a FanSided site reviews and accepts the terms under which they will do so. FanSided appreciates and respects its community of fan contributors and is constantly examining ways to evolve, including improving the support, tutorials and technical tools we already provide.
It’s also possible that Meredith’s reluctance to talk about FanSided stems from a rising internal distaste for the blog network. After all, FanSided was a small piece of the larger Time Inc. acquisition, and Meredith would have little motivation to remedy the site’s labor practices while it is in the middle of trying to sell off a chunk of the publications it bought from Time Inc. In a statement to Deadspin, Art Slusark, another Meredith spokesperson, sent a statement to Deadspin in which he made clear that the company has no interest in considering how FanSided treats its workers:
Just want to make it clear to you that Meredith acquired Sports Illustrated on January 31, 2018 as part of the Time Inc. acquisition. On March 21, 2018, we announced we were putting SI, along with Time, Fortune and Money up for sale. That process is ongoing and we hope to be in a position to announce something soon.
Any of these allegations or practices you are referring to that may have occurred – and I emphasize may – were absolutely prior to Meredith’s ownership. And, as Kari expressed to you, if they occurred, they predated Time Inc.’s ownership of the brand. Quite frankly, we are focused on finding a great home of [sic] the SI brand, and have no plans whatsoever to review a practice that MAY have occurred well in the past.
This statement shrugs off the allegations and couches them in hypotheticals—without denying anything about how FanSided operates, including the low pay, hiring high schoolers, and the murky relationship between SI and FanSided. And according to Deadspin’s reporting, which involved interviews with multiple current employees, not much has changed for FanSided workers since Meredith acquired the company.
Ultimately, the unpaid and poorly paid workers at FanSided are influenced by forces beyond their control. The existence of the technology that powers FanSided (and SB Nation) creates a demand for “fans” to fill up hundreds of websites with “content.” These workers wouldn’t necessarily be writing blogs if not for the so-called opportunity to do so at the sites, which are owned by multi-billion dollar corporations who would rather hold their noses and not look too closely at the labor model or the “work” being churned out by teens and adults who think they aren’t getting enough money for their work. Some of the writing produced by this feverish machine is in fact fine, but such outcomes are incidental.
The real FanSided business model is nothing more elegant than a gaming of the system through various SEO and social media plays, something no one needs and no one asked for, existing strictly to make money by exploiting algorithmic quirks as well as people. These people are at the whim of industry conditions that have normalized the use of cheap labor and turned media outlets into distressed assets to be passed along between various ownership groups. The former allows FanSided managers to view their underpaid employees as nothing more than click-producing cogs, and to ask them to act like sweaty-palmed pyramid schemers in pursuit of more free labor; the latter allows for an endless passing of responsibility, up the management chain and then back and forth from one faceless corporate overlord to the next. So far, every owner of FanSided has been afforded the luxury of inattention. Perhaps the next one won’t be so lucky.
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