Depending on who’s defining it, to whom, and why, SB Nation is either a popular website best-known for puckish, irreverent coverage and such whimsical projects as Jon Bois’s 17776, or a sprawling network of “team” or “fan” websites, each tightly focused on a particular topic, like the New York Mets or professional boxing. In either iteration, it is a foundational element of one of digital media’s foremost enterprises.
Twelve years ago, SB Nation began as a do-it-yourself venture, by and for fans, more a community of communities than a journalistic endeavor. It has since evolved and rebranded itself and emerged as Vox Media, which was valued at $1 billion in 2015 after a $200 million round of funding from NBCUniversal. The SB Nation network itself, consisting of 319 team websites, has remained in place, a vast operation read by millions of people every month and powered by unpaid and underpaid labor.
These sites are run by managers who are expected to post articles and videos, track and sometimes break news, manage writers, conduct interviews, assign stories, find contributors, edit posts, write analysis, and generally do the work of journalism. These responsibilities can add up to a demanding job—or, in some cases, a close to full-time one—but site managers are independent contractors who are paid a monthly stipend that varies widely. According to more than a dozen former and current site managers I spoke to, that stipend tends to hover around $600. The stipend often doubles as a budget. (Some site managers also receive money, or extra money to pay contributors, based on post-count or page-view metrics.) Site managers at most team sites are free to pay their budget to themselves in its entirety, use it to lure other contributors, split it with or among sub-editors or the site’s most prolific writers, or whatever else they like. Whatever they do, there isn’t much to go around. Many, perhaps even most, contributors do not get paid; no one is paid well. That many people who write for the team sites are not paid is in direct conflict with the SB Nation policy, which, according to company executives, mandates that everyone who contributes to Vox Media in any way must be paid for it. But even the people who do get paid are getting a raw deal. Many put in long hours and receive only token sums for work against which Vox sells ads—a setup that could, according to labor lawyers, conflict with labor laws.
Deadspin spoke to more than a dozen current and former site managers and SB Nation editor-in-chief Elena Bergeron and general manager Kevin Lockland, in addition to two labor lawyers, and found that SB Nation appears to be a system that, despite claims to being driven by passion, is driven by business imperatives; that offers little daily editorial guidance beyond deleting and apologizing for the racist, misogynistic, homophobic, or otherwise unacceptable posts that occasionally appear; that potentially exists in a legal gray area; and that is run by executives willing to go to great lengths to justify a business model that exploits thousands of poorly paid men and women.
Some of the site managers are lawyers, IT workers, and accountants who can afford to channel their obsessions into a side project. Some are even full-time SB Nation employees who started as team-site managers and worked their way up to actual salaried positions at SBNation.com but still manage team sites on the side. The breadth of full-time jobs the site managers have has always been not only a point of pride for SB Nation—Look how smart our people are!—but also a technique the company uses to brush aside concerns about why it doesn’t pay it workers—This is just something they do for fun in their spare time. It’s true that some site managers are simply hobbyists, but disingenuous to describe that as the norm. There are students, aspiring sportswriters, parents, and people working several part-time jobs who count on the small monthly stipend. And across the board, the pressure to build traffic on the team sites can be intense. Site managers may not be professionals, but they are expected to meet such professional expectations as keeping the site updated and covering news as it happens, no matter when that is.
“They tell me every day to do more posts, more on social, more video,” one site manager who makes less than $600 a month said. “Literally every day I feel like I’m not doing enough for my site.”
On Vox Media’s career page, jobs for SB Nation team-site managers and team site contributors are listed alongside real, salaried Vox Media jobs, like Director of Programming. Here’s a typical job description for site manager:
(This listing has since been removed, but others—some with even more wide-ranging responsibilities and stringent requirements—are regularly posted.)
Site managers who spoke on the condition of anonymity consistently described feeling replaceable: If they didn’t get enough posts up, or didn’t recruit enough writers, or didn’t post on Facebook enough, or didn’t draw enough page views, someone else would be brought in to do it, regardless of concern for quality of the work.
One site manager, after raising concerns about what was expected of him and the low pay, said he received a “raving email” from a superior “essentially saying I was just looking for trouble, that I was easily replaceable, and that if I wasn’t happy they could find someone else.” He said, “The response from above was that there are plenty of people who would love to be in your position. If you don’t want the 600 or whatever bucks a month, you can fuck right off and we’ll find someone else to do it.”
There is, unfortunately, little that is surprising about the insidiousness of SB Nation’s system. Journalism practically paved the way for the so-called gig economy with magazines relying on tenuous freelancer contracts, rampant use of unpaid internships (including at Gawker Media), and the only somewhat less sleazy newspaper internships done for “college credit.” But SB Nation stands out because as it has grown in size and importance, it hasn’t abandoned its tricks; it’s doubled down.
Like, say, Uber drivers, SB Nation team site writers are promised flexible hours, extra cash, the chance to pursue their passions and maybe even launch a better career. And like others in similar situations, they often get sucked into working longer hours and meeting quotas. The workers who help prop up the enterprise see little to no direct return on their work and there’s little if any reciprocity between labor and capital. The fact that most people don’t know or especially care about any of this does not make the status quo tenable, and the fact that people have agreed to an arrangement doesn’t mean they’re not being exploited for corporate gain.
Vox Media is a “unicorn” $1 billion digital media company that produces content galore across eight brands—Vox, Eater, Curbed, ReCode, The Verge, Racked, and Polygon, in addition to SB Nation—and boasts 170 million unique monthly visitors and more than 800 employees. In the beginning, though, its origin story goes, there were just passionate sports fans, blogging about their teams for fun and for free. Baseball fan and former journalist Tyler Bleszinski—with an assist from Markos Moulitsas, the liberal activist and founder of Daily Kos—came along to harness the power of this rabid sports fandom with a company called Sports Blog Nation. And then came former AOL executive Jim Bankoff, who joined the company as CEO in 2009 and attracted investment and talent and oversaw its eventual rebranding as Vox Media. At an industry meeting in 2015, Bankoff retailed the story:
“To be honest, it was the hobby of a former journalist …[whose] publication became the leading media outlet for the Oakland A’s. By the time I had met him, other journalists—approximately 20 sports bloggers covering specific sports and teams—had come together and were growing and covering their beats in a really interesting way.”
Bleszinski—whose Athletics Nation site, founded in 2003, was, if not actually “the leading media outlet for the Oakland A’s,” a popular and lively one—was definitely on to something. With its defiantly biased perspective and intense focus on its commenting community, it resembled nothing so much as Daily Kos, and so when Bleszinki and Moulitsas teamed up in 2005 to start SB Nation, using the A’s site as a replicable model, it made sense. They grouped some blogs together at first, and before too long built a network of sites covering most professional sports teams. In 2006, Brad Wells joined, and he helped staff up NFL team sites that did not yet have site managers or contributors.
“For me, at that time I think there were only five NFL blogs and all throughout 2006 and 2007 I was helping Tyler recruit people to fill out the rest of the NFL blog,” Wells, who has since left SB Nation, said. “I recruited six or seven bloggers that filled out the rest of the NFL, Chiefs blog, Jaguars, and several others.”
As SB Nation grew, it continued to milk content from unpaid bloggers across the internet who were happy to have a ready-made blogging platform, complete with a growing built-in audience, on which to write about their teams. The team sites were supposed to essentially be nicer, more curated message boards—by fans, for fans. And for the most part, at least for a time, they were. But then, after rounds of investment and acquisition, SB Nation got big.
“Ad sales really kicked up when they got venture capital and Jim Bankoff was brought on board,” Wells said.
SB Nation also grew its national site, SBNation.com, which at one time wasn’t much more than a directory of the team sites, and staffed it mostly, though certainly not exclusively, with full-time employees. All the while, the team site bloggers were still operating in the “by fans for fans” mode, even as their responsibilities increased to those more befitting massive and growing media concerns.
While business at SB Nation and Vox Media is—by their own account—booming, the requirements for site managers to produce are getting more demanding, at least in some areas. SB Nation NBA league manager Seth Pollack, for instance, sent a memo to his team-site managers earlier this year, that, among other requirements, mandated that all “writer contributors will be asked to sign new contracts specifying that they will only get paid if they reach their target number of posts.” (Read the full memo here.)
I reached out to Pollack for his perspective on the seemingly drastic changes—among other things, 25 percent of the monthly stipends would be held ransom unless sites and writers met their “targets”—but he declined to comment on the record.
Wells, who worked for SB Nation as a site manager and in various other capacities for eight years, didn’t mind the workload, he said, but did take issue with the direction SB Nation took over time.
“There was pressure to get contributors, but I always thought the contributor fee was ridiculously low and it put the pressure on managers. A lot of focus on numbers and less focus on quality,” he said. “I would write an article and they would say, ‘That was a good article, it got really good numbers.’”
At the height or his work for SB Nation in 2012 and 2013, Wells was the site manager for Stampede Blue, managing regional fan site SB Nation Indiana, co-manager of the Mocking the Draft site, and an on-air talent for the video production team.
“At that time, the most that I got from them in one month, because it would vary, but work with the video was fixed, put a post out that was sponsored by an advertiser, about $1400. A significant part of that was for the video work,” Wells said.
Wells said he always had a good relationship with Bankoff, whose mandate, according to Wells, was to “engage the community and create an alternative voice than what traditional media was doing,” though he did not get along with other SB Nation managers below Bankoff, not all of whom were interested in providing an alternative to other sports outlets.
“I would get feedback if a NFL player complained to them about me. That irritated me because it seemed to be counter to what Jim and I would talk about. I asked Jim, ‘What is it we’re supposed to be here? Buddying up with NFL? Getting access? Or do we want to be on the outside and scrappy?’ Jim was very frank and very clear and said, ‘I don’t think it’s necessary to have access, we can be just as effective with what we do and not have access.’ That was not the message from the managers and the SB Nation people.”
Eventually, Wells said, SB Nation’s insistence on the sort of team-friendly coverage you’d get at a typical outlet and emphasis on quantity over quality became too much.
“They would say, ‘We don’t want to be like Bleacher Report.’ They would say it in phone conversations and in email conversations. They’d say, ‘We’re not interested in slide shows and polls and things like that. Bleacher Report is about SEO crap, we’re supposed to be humor and tone and the place people want to go, not the place they accidentally click on.’ And then I felt like we weren’t going in that direction.”
While some sites are well-run, with tightly edited posts and a distinct vision, others lack editorial oversight, which can result not only in the publication of inane and dull posts, but also of wildly inappropriate ones that are later deleted. This year alone, a rambling and homophobic blog post about Gordon Hayward was published and then deleted without explanation (the blogger was removed from the site’s masthead; Pollack ignored our questions about his firing); a post about Ezekiel Elliott implying that women accuse men of violence for money, was published and then deleted on a Cowboys site (the blogger is still at the site); and a nearly wholly plagiarized post went up on the Broncos team site and was later deleted (the blogger was “let go”).
The SB Nation team site model is the perfect primordial soup within which to spawn posts like this. The entire point of these sites is ostensibly to provide a platform to passionate fans with minimal oversight; they are unprofessional by design, and in fact that’s what’s best about them. Put such sites under pressure to simply get content on the internet, though, and offensive takes, half-baked ideas, and plagiarism will repeatedly crop up—as would be expected in the absence of the professional infrastructure meant to prevent such things from being published, and has been true at many sites covering many fields in this manner. The flaws in the system are inherent to its design, all just part of doing business. And that’s exactly how SB Nation views it.
In 2015, Blezsinski, who has since left the company, wrote a post entitled Regarding Our Editorial Standards in response to an unhinged, and since deleted, blog about Josh Hamilton and his struggles with addiction. (The blogger and SBN “mutually parted ways.”) Blezsinski wrote:
“We take pride in the fact that our team blogs are allowed to express themselves and their rabid following of their teams unencumbered by the traditional editorial process. It’s what we’re great at and what makes us unique. But when someone does cross that line of good taste, we need to make sure that our readership realizes that we don’t embrace the culture of pure wild, wild west.”
These disastrous posts make up an insignificant amount of everything SB Nation posts, most of which is fine, and some of which is excellent, but the pattern is clear: SB Nation profits from everything—from the best and most professional posts to the lowest-grade shit—knowing they can just delete the latter without explanation when people get mad about it.
When Wells was laid off in 2014, he said, SB Nation offered him a severance in exchange for agreeing not to criticize the company publicly for two years. Wells had a full-time job and didn’t see any reason to take it, though he said he didn’t publicly criticize SB Nation for two years anyway.
Perhaps because site managers aren’t technically employees, edicts about posts and traffic, according to the managers I spoke to, are always couched as suggestions: It would be good to try… or One thing that works… or, even more artificially, questions that functionally serve as prompts. In one monthly report obtained by Deadspin, a league manager addressed video content, writing, “How is our effort here? Do you have someone actively trying to produce videos into your editorial story planning? Or someone willing to try a Facebook Live?”
This may be partially to preserve the laid-back vibe of the enterprise, but there is also a legal logic at work. If too much were explicitly required of site managers, they could then qualify as employees and have the right to fair pay. (The Fair Labor Standards Act covers employees; it does not cover independent contractors and other exempt workers.) So as long as SB Nation can convince their workers, at least, that they’re legally in the clear in classifying them as independent contractors, they have more cover under wage and hour laws. Most of the site managers I spoke to don’t dwell on the legal implications of their employment status, but do think about the low pay, especially those who are students or aspiring sports journalists or otherwise see their work as a way to advance their career.
The site manager who makes less than $600 per month said she hopes to use the job as a springboard to a full-time job. She says she writes between two and three posts a week and tries to bring in more writers as well. At one point, she said, her site had dozens of writers, photographers and copy editors.
“That has dropped significantly because they’re not paid and life happens and they have work or school,” she said. “I wish I could pay them, because they go to games and we can’t even give them gas money.”
Recently, several team-site managers have left their posts. Two of them mentioned the low pay in their farewell posts.
At the end of July, Tim Cato, the outgoing team-site manager for Mavs Moneyball (who has been hired as a staff writer at SB Nation proper) wrote:
Mavs Moneyball wasn’t my first job, but it was the one that has helped me pay rent the longest. To that point, I’m appreciative of my parents for spotting me some quick cash whenever I struggled, and I’m very aware how fortunate I am for that. I adore SB Nation, but if there’s anything I’d change, it’s that I’d love to see team bloggers be more fairly compensated for the timeless hours they sink into their websites. For us, remember that it’s almost completely a labor of love.
(Cato told me that for a while after he was hired as a staffer, he was still managing the team site and that during that time, he was not getting paid at all for his team-site duties.)
Just days before Cato’s announcement, the team-site manager for the Philadelphia 76ers “community,” Jake Pavorsky, announced he was stepping down, writing, “The changes SB Nation’s basketball network has decided to make in order to stay competitive during these turbulent times have certainly been a factor in my decision to leave.” He wrote:
When I first started writing for Liberty Ballers, I viewed it as a hobby and nothing more. As my role with the website grew, I quickly began to realize that this could be the beginning stages of a rewarding career. But when I started to become more invested in turning my sports writing gig into an eventual full time job, the industry began to crumble, and this past year has been especially ugly. ESPN laid off plenty of its writers and reporters in an attempt to save some extra money, and if the world’s largest sports media entity is forced to scale back, it speaks volumes. Over the past month alone, Fox Sports completely obliterated its writing staff, and now Vice Sports ceases to exist.
The sports press, like the press in general, struggles to stay ahead of the curve and remain financially viable. SB Nation found a loophole: Vastly underpay talented folks like Pavorsky and Cato for their work. Pavorsky, who wrote in his farewell post that he’s looking for paid jobs writing about the Sixers or other opportunities in basketball, declined to talk to me about why he left the site, but his colleagues are already busy recruiting the next batch of bloggers in a post that calls for experienced writers, draft analysts, social-media editors, and video personalities:
You are probably already aware of this, but blogging is not the most lucrative industry in the world! That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work for free, but you have to work hard for anything you make. […] For those of you not as concerned about the cash as you are about getting your work out there, you will definitely have every opportunity to do that. The opportunity is ultimately what you make of it, and I will be with you every step of the way to help you achieve whatever it is your end goal is.
Some team sites have larger budgets than others. Scott Wheeler, who, until recently, ran Pension Plan Puppets, SB Nation’s Toronto Maple Leafs team site and one of its biggest NHL sites, said he got a monthly stipend—he declined to say how big it was—and that of his 15 to 20 writers, all but two received some monthly payment between $20 and $100. Wheeler said that it wasn’t like that in the beginning, but that as the site grew its numbers and increased its traffic, it had access to more resources.
“I have nothing bad to say about SB Nation,” he said. “They’ve been pretty good to me and they’re the reason I have a job right now. I was 19 when I started, so not many other sites would give that responsibility to someone that young.”
Wheeler said that SB Nation offered him a job writing for all of the NHL sites, but that since it still wouldn’t have been a full-time salaried position, he instead he took a job with the Toronto Star.
“To be honest, I can understand why people would be disappointed that they weren’t getting more money, but for me it did launch my career,” he said. “Even for the people who don’t want a career, you have a platform.”
For Wheeler, who compared the job to an unpaid internship without the commute—”I don’t see it as them stealing from us or taking advantage of us. I was the only person on our staff who was ever going to wind up in journalism”—the system worked. He made it from the minors to the big leagues, or as another site manager put it to me, from the NCAA to the pros. The similarities between the SB Nation blogger system and the NCAA’s faux amateurism came up several times in my reporting.
“It really annoys me when SB Nation.com writers will talk about how they hate the NCAA ripping off athletes by not paying them, because that’s the same thing that’s happening here,” the site manager said. “The NCAA says, ‘Oh, the athletes just love to play,’ and SB Nation says ‘Oh these are fan sites, they’re doing this for fun.’ It’s bullshit, it’s the same power-serving argument.”
A different site manager agreed.
“There’s a huge pool [of bloggers], some of whom will become the top one percent, the Grant Brisbees of the world, or the pro players, and the way to develop them is exploiting this massive pool of promising people. But the vast majority is just going to wash out and the organization at the top gets to skim off the top without investing in the others.”
Despite feeling like the system is unfair, this site manager said, “I like doing it and I would not continue to do it if I didn’t. I think there is a freedom and a flexibility that we gain by the decentralized relationship. Is it enough to offset the terrible payments? But I say that and I’m still doing it. I could absolutely stop, but it’s still a positive experience.” He paused. “It’s almost like Stockholm syndrome, I’m saying it’s good even though it’s bullshit.”
Then he concluded: “There’s no reason the low income is necessary for this fun, relaxed, decentralized atmosphere. We could have that and also get paid our fair share of what [Vox Media] is getting. It’s not a trade-off, it’s just coercive power and theft.”
This site manager said he had no illusions about using his position to launch a sports journalism career—he is currently studying for a different career—but some site managers, like those in high school or college, hope that managing an SB Nation team site is a springboard into a full-time job in sports journalism.
Seth Rosenthal, who managed the Knicks team site, Posting and Toasting, for 10 years, starting when he was still in high school, used his SB Nation site manager position to do just that.
Seth Rosenthal now works as a producer at SBNation.com, referred to by many of the people I spoke to as “the mothership” or simply “dot com.” When he started the Knicks team site in 2007, he said he was making no money and “topped out at $150 or $200 bucks a month plus additional, either season-long or occasional specific sponsorship deals.” Rosenthal made it to to the promised land, but still struggles to make sense of the unpaid-blogger system, though he thinks the NCAA comparison is off.
“I see that parallel, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard an SB Nation employee or executive say or even insinuate we have a huge group of bloggers who do it for the love of it. Maybe that’s an assumption underlying it, but that’s something that’s never said. I have no idea how much money SB Nation is making off the team blogs, but an NCAA basketball player is losing out on millions of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars by not getting paid on his likeness and performance and for his work. I suspect that it’s not as much money being left on the table in this case. The NCAA would not be my comparison—I see it more as the basic unpaid internship.”
Though the comparison comes up a fair amount, site-manager jobs aren’t really like unpaid internships. The positions are largely unsupervised—there’s little formal training or close mentoring—and, even more basically, site managers and bloggers aren’t there to learn; they are expected to produce an at least vaguely professional product that Vox Media can then sell to advertisers. This is a genuine distinction.
This imperfect system worked for Rosenthal: He parlayed his years of blogging for no money into years of blogging for a small monthly stipend into a full-time job at the mothership. Rosenthal’s a sharp writer, with a tuned, witty voice, and he deserves his success. But he’s open about why the SB Nation team site system worked for him.
“I am a very fortunate and privileged individual and throughout college and even after I graduated college I could afford to work basically for free. And if you look around, the people who run the best team sites and furthermore have graduated and taken the opportunity to move on from the team site to the mainpage are people like me who could afford to do it,” he said. “I fully believe in the power of an SB Nation team blog to give you a platform to jumpstart your career with SB Nation or just as sports or media person in general, but to even get to that spot, you need to be willing to able to work for free. And that inherently thins the pool of people getting that initial opportunity.”
SBNation.com hires many of its full-time employees from team sites. Those staffers— Rosenthal, NFL league manager Joel Thorman, Grant Brisbee, NBA league manager Seth Pollack, MLB league manager Justin Bopp, NHL league manager Travis Hughes and others—have tended to be white men. Basically every league editor or league manager, with maybe one or two exceptions, was once managing a team site, per Rosenthal. This is one reason why Rosenthal sees the unpaid and underpaid bloggers as a problem for SB Nation.
“It’s definitely a hard problem to solve. I don’t know. I don’t know how I would deal with it. It’s a whole lot of sites with people in very different places and very different relationships with the teams that they cover,” he said. “I would not want to be the person responsible for trying to find a suitable way to compensate all those people fairly, but I think it has to be done and I’m certain that SB Nation knows it should be done and wants to solve it.”
Only SB Nation doesn’t know that—or at least they won’t admit it.
“It’s our company policy that everybody who contributes for a Vox Media property gets paid,” SB Nation’s editor-in-chief Elena Bergeron told me when I asked her about the fact that only site managers and some bloggers are paid for their work. (Bergeron was promoted to EIC after her concerns about the disastrous Daniel Holtzclaw piece, which torpedoed SB Nation’s longform vertical, were ignored in the editing process.)
For this story, Vox Media made only Bergeron and SB Nation general manager Kevin Lockland available to speak with me. I was granted one 30-minute video call. The interview, though brief, was enlightening.
After Bergeron insisted that everyone who contributes to the team sites gets paid, I told her that the site managers I had spoken to were all explicitly clear that not all of their staff were getting checks from Vox Media. She said, “It sounds like a personnel issue, that we have to make sure that everybody is in accordance with company policy.”
When I pressed this point again, asking about how site managers have a say in how their stipend is spent, Lockland chimed in.
“So, I think as Elena mentioned, first of all we have people who contribute, you know, the sites also have a lot of user-generated content, things like that. We give site managers a lot of autonomy to create the site and the content that they feel is best for that audience for that fan base, but as Elena mentioned, any time that the league managers work with site managers, look, if they feel like there’s a need for additional contributors, we pay them. If a site manager brings someone on because they want to contribute and they’re not getting paid, as Elena mentioned, that’s definitely not our policy. Not saying it hasn’t happened, though.”
When spoken out loud, the contradictions in how SB Nation describes itself are as clear as they are absurd: We don’t do the wrong thing you’re asking us about, and if it does happen it’s wrong. We give site managers autonomy, but also can kick them off the site if they do something that gets us too much negative attention. The idea, in general, seems to be that the team sites are essentially grassroots operations and that the people who run them as glorified hobbyists being given shining opportunities that they should be grateful for.
I read Bergeron and Lockland’s quotes to a few of the site managers. One site manager promptly cleaned up the water Bergeron and Lockland had muddied:
I would guess that 50 percent of our content comes from folks not getting anything. [Our league manager] knows that — we talked about how to use unpaid writers … and I would be shocked if his bosses didn’t know that. And [Lockland’s answer] seems like an attempt to blur the lines between fanposts, which are written and posted by fans with no oversight/editing by us (and thus are the way that most of the big screw-ups of the past have happened), and actual unpaid contributors, who write articles on a normal schedule that are edited and posted in the main layout. Again, they have to know the difference between those roles, so I’m not sure if they’re confused or trying to deliberately obfuscate the issue.
Another site manager said:
“I think a lot of SB Nation [team site] contributors are fine with working for free, and they shouldn’t be fine with that, but [Bergeron’s] quote could provoke some real rage. Like, I was expecting her to peddle the ‘Well, they’re just fans’ bullshit, because why lie like this? What do you have to gain?”
Another site manager said:
“I’m under no instruction to pay every single person who writes for me. I would have no problem if they told me to pay off my writers, but they would have to give us best practices, like how much do they get paid per post, how much do I get paid per post. If the instructions were to pay everyone who contributed, they’d be out more money than they are paying now.”
Another just laughed.
“Every single SB Nation site had paid and unpaid contributors,” he said. The idea that everyone is paid is “flatly false.”
SB Nation wouldn’t tell me how much money the team sites generate for the company or how much money was budgeted to pay the independent contractors who work for the sites. Lockland said that for the team sites, Vox Media cuts checks to “approximately 1,000 independent contractors per month, and the rates really … you know, there’s a range of rates based on the size of the site and different factors like that.”
First, that number is far too low to ensure every contributor is getting paid. If there are around five contributors per site—a highly conservative estimate—the company should be cutting more than half again as many checks as Lockland says it is.
Secondly, if each site gets around $600 per month, that amounts to $2.3 million a year—pennies for a company worth more than $1 billion, especially given that the work done by the people earning those pennies accounts for a significant portion of SB Nation’s overall traffic, according to ComScore. (SB Nation lumps all of its team-site traffic, as well as traffic from the Eater sites, Racked, and Curbed, under the total network traffic for SB Nation. This could be to bloat the SB Nation traffic numbers for advertisers, obscure how much traffic the team sites actually draw, both, or some other purpose. According to Vox Media this is because when Vox Media acquired those sites, ComScore put them under the SB Nation umbrella and Vox Media has simply not yet requested this be changed. It’s also worth noting that ComScore doesn’t collect data on all of the team sites.)
SB Nation is not paying everyone who contributes to Vox Media, which is in violation of company policy, but even the workers that SB Nation does pay could have legally valid complaints. There is an argument to be made that they are employees, not independent contractors, which would mean they are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates minimum wage and other protections. Hope Pordy of Spivak Lipton LLP said the issue of classifying independent contractors is complicated and frequently arises in gig-economy work.
“Are they truly independent contractors? That can be challenged, and the big question is who really has the right to control the means and methods of performing the work,” she said. “Do they set the hours, or require they work from a certain location? Are they saying you need to work this many hours per week? Imposing deadlines? Other things that are important is looking at how that work is being evaluated. Is there training? Who’s overseeing the work? Are they subject to the same workplace rules as staffers? What’s the longevity of work? Can they be terminated?”
SB Nation team site bloggers have flexibility in terms of hours and location, but the other considerations raise valid questions about whether team-site managers can be considered independent contractors.
“In my experience, when there’s a question, more often than not people are misclassified as independent contractors when they’re really employees,” said Seattle-based employment lawyer Michael Subit of Frank Freed Subit & Thomas.
“There are a couple of different types of FLSA cases,” he said. “One is a misclassification case, when an employer claims their workers are independent contractors or otherwise exempt. Hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 20 years have been paid out in settlements and judgements against companies that have misclassified their employees.”
Without more information, neither lawyer could determine whether team-site managers—who, again, are responsible for producing and editing all manner of content that populates the SB Nation’s team sites so that Vox Media can sell ads against it—are independent contractors or not. But they both pointed to the fact that case law hasn’t yet caught up with the shifting internet economy.
“People on the employers’ side believe the laws and the concepts we’ve used since the 1930s to make sure workers get paid what they’re supposed to don’t apply in the digital workplace, and that’s simply not true,” Subut said. “The concepts apply, they just apply in a slightly new and different way and that’s been one of the issues over the past 10 years. How does the FLSA which has been around for 80 years apply to digital assembly line workers and to workers on a production line? They’re still production workers, they’re still workers who produce the product for an employer.”
According to Bergeron, these are not production workers, and they’re not just working for money; they’re passionate fans and they want to write for SB Nation because it gives them a platform to be passionate.
“The reason that people do it with SB Nation is because of their affinity for what we’re doing, and it is a pretty clear-cut dynamic,” she said. “Like, people know what they’re signing up for when they want to contribute with our network.”
She said SB Nation gives bloggers “access to a platform that performs amazingly on mobile” with a “beautiful, readable” interface.
“That is something that’s not available to bloggers on their own should they choose a different platform,” she said.
Nestled in this justification is an implication about the type of person who’s willing to spend their time doing work for no or low wages simply because the CMS is good. Turning sites over to people who think the chance to blog on a certain platform is payment enough makes for a giant self-selection mechanism, drawing in people who can afford to work for exposure and experience instead of money. When I asked Bergeron about this, she said that recruiting diverse bloggers is something SB Nation “thinks about all the time,” and that the outfit is “constantly looking for new ways to recruit and thinking about how we open up recruiting to many different types of people.” She said part of getting more diverse voices is making everyone, especially women, feel welcome in the comment sections of the team sites, as many people who go on to write for SB Nation site start as commenters.
“Comment sections then become a tool of recruitment for who are paid contributors,” she said. “So there are several different levels of entry points in terms of who can and who can’t and who wants to and who doesn’t want to enter into this contract or relationship with us that we’re constantly exploring. We know that based on how women at large are treated and talked about in comment sections on sports pages, we gotta do a better job of moderating comments in order to make sure that women feel like they can post comments and thus have access to enter as bloggers.”
Getting paid, of course, would also make women want to participate; offering fair compensation for all work is going to draw a larger diversity of voices to the system.
Bergeron also did not entertain the comparison between the NCAA and SB Nation. “I could see maybe why, if you’re being very reductive, you make that comparison,” she said. “We do purposely want to have a network of sites that speak to individual localized communities and so the people that contribute to those sites have a wide attitude to control what they’re writing about and how they develop audience better that’s relative to their particular fan beats.”
Bergeron did not address the core similarity: Both the NCAA and SB Nation are profiting off of unpaid labor.
The SB Nation team-site institution is a relic from a past internet age, in which having a blog was something special and business strategies didn’t hinge directly on advertising dollars. When anyone can make a blog on WordPress or Tumblr or post something on Medium or any other of the near-infinite options for putting your ideas online, though, having a platform like an SB Nation blog site becomes more appealing. SB Nation knows this, plays up that advantage in recruiting contributors, and uses it to wring labor from people. It is not alone in having done this; many companies including Gawker Media Group, the former parent company of Deadspin, have attempted to carry out similar strategies. What makes this one unique is its persistence, scope, and professionalization, and the extent to which it has become integral to a billion-dollar enterprise; the issue isn’t the choices SB Nation has made so much as the ones it’s making. SB Nation (and by extension Vox Media) needs these blog sites because they are 319 online advertising canvasses. It doesn’t appear to really care what goes on them—so long as it’s drawing traffic and isn’t too fucked-up—or about the people who put it there.
In early June, after SB Nation was made aware I was working on this story, the SB Nation FAQ page was changed from this:
During my brief video call with Bergeron and Lockland, I was shocked by their rigid defense of the SB Nation team site system and by their assertions that all contributors were paid. After talking with Seth Rosenthal, who said the unpaid blogger problem was a tricky situation but one that SB Nation needed to solve, I fully expected to hear something about how the process for paying contributors wasn’t perfect, but the model had evolved from SB Nation’s early years and that they were working on improving the system and making sure it was fair for everyone. Instead Bergeron and Lockland essentially said there was no problem with the status quo. After the 30-minute video call, I sent follow-up emails, questions, and interview requests to speak to Bankoff and league managers. A spokesperson told me they were declining any other interviews and offered the following murky statement:
SB Nation proudly runs over 300 sports communities. We pay at least one person to manage each of these communities. Each manager is either a full time employee, a part time employee or a paid freelance contributor. Compensation varies based on several factors including the size of the audience and fulfilling an agreed-upon set of responsibilities such as creating posts for the site and moderating contributions of the audience. In addition to monetary compensation, Vox Media supports the communities with full, free access to our publishing platform, tools, hosting and editorial resources such as licensed photos and sports data.
We value the contributions of all of our employees and contractors, and want them to get fair value from working with us: they participate in publishing to our sites and moderating our communities; and we provide compensation and a robust outlet and resources for sharing their passion for a sport, team or community.
There are also many people who contribute to our communities without monetary compensation. Like other open social platforms on the internet, SB Nation communities are places where people (in our case, sports fans) can contribute freely and express their thoughts, analysis and opinions. Just as people contribute to communities on Reddit, Facebook and other social platforms, thousands of sports fans eagerly contribute to SB Nation communities. These contributions can come in the form of comments, Fanposts, Fanshots and main page posts and are motivated by a fan’s passion for a given topic.
We are always looking for opportunities to improve our communities and make the experience better for our audiences and our paid contributors and we will continue to do so. As models for managing web communities evolve, SB Nation will continue to evolve as well and we will explore new and better ways to serve and manage our contributors and audiences.
Vox Media is doing better than ever, but the network on which their fortunes were built is still a product of the work of people paid little or no money. Whether that’s company policy or not, that’s what’s happening. SB Nation seems to be in no rush to fix it.
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