In a recent memo, SB Nation’s “team brands director” John Ness—who has ostensibly spent the past year fixing SB Nation’s outdated and exploitative team site model, but is in reality just one more bullshitter Vox Media’s upper management has put between themselves and an increasingly angry army of bloggers and a pending collective action lawsuit—introduced a brand new shiny term for (some of) SB Nation’s unpaid workers: “Trusted Access Users.”
In a memo posted on SB Nation’s internal “Community Corner” message board on Nov. 19, Ness, who was brought in to, as he put it, “look at this glorious fan appreciation machine and help make it run better for everyone,” but who writes exactly like a sock puppet for Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff, said:
We’re proud that our team brand managers can invite users to use our publishing platform without asking them to sign up for any ongoing responsibilities. But we also think it’s critical that those contributors who aren’t on contract hear us say it plainly: they have no responsibilities. They should post when they want, if they want, full stop.
Translation: We like that our low-paid team-site managers can get unpaid people to help them get traffic and therefore money for our company, but we know we’re getting sued by people who say we didn’t pay them fairly for their work, so let’s cover our ass: These unpaid workers should only write when they want, okay?!
The memo expanded on this idea:
You probably already know people who fit the Trusted Access profile on your team brand: the lawyer-sports fan who dips in with a blog post when she wants to offer analysis or the writer who moved on when they had a kid years ago, but still likes to post an update every now and then. (Our co-founder still does this on Athletics Nation.) They are regular fans who have been granted select access to post on our site or our channels. SB Nation does not ask that they post anything, but we allow them to do so if they so choose. Hence, “Trusted Access.”
While this memo addresses the hypothetical “lawyer-sports fan who dips in with a blog post” and the “writer who moved on when they had a kid years ago, but still likes to post an update every now and then,” it—shockingly or not—makes no mention of all the people who write for SB Nation sites for free but would like to be paid, even if it just amounts to getting the measly stipend other contributors get. (It also doesn’t address the fact that people can write for fun and still get paid what they deserve, or the fact that acting like writing for fun is its own reward is shitty and perpetuates the exact problem that put SB Nation in the mess that it’s in now while, perhaps not incidentally, working to devalue the labor of everyone in the media industry.) The memo also doesn’t say anything about how team site managers and Vox Media are supposed to make sure these unpaid contributors are only writing when they really want to, or what recourse these “trusted access users” have if they feel pressured to write more to help the website reach its traffic goals. (After all, “every now and then” isn’t exactly a hard-and-fast rule.) I emailed John Ness and Vox Media to ask what answers they had to these and a variety of other questions, but neither Ness nor a Vox Media spokeswoman responded.
SB Nation has long been peddling the idea that it’s good for writers to work for them for little or no money, out of sheer fandom. Last year, Kevin Lockland—the guy who used to do basically what Ness is now nominally in charge of doing—wrote a memo to team site workers after a report I published about how the team sites, staffed by low-paid and unpaid workers, account for the vast majority of SB Nation’s traffic.
“SB Nation communities started as and continue to be a network of, by, and for fans that gives them a real voice and platform in the sports media ecosystem,” Lockland wrote, before taking an apologetic tone. “We do recognize there is always room to improve and that there is a need to improve. Together we are creating a new model, one that traditional sports media have not yet recognized, in order to give fans a fresh, independent voice.”
The new model is practically indistinguishable from the old model, and Ness appears to be relying on the same recycled talking points as his predecessor. SB Nation, though, didn’t want anyone to miss this brand-new way they’re trying to get away with not paying people. In a message that popped up when users signed into Chorus, Vox Media’s publishing platform, the company spelled the change out even more clearly than in the memo.
If you do not have a contract with us as a paid contributor, you are a designated Trusted Access User, and the below term will apply to your contributions. We are grateful to have you as part of our community and we’re proud that our Chrous platform can further your fandom.
Translation: If we don’t pay you, we gave you a new title to make you feel better about it. We like having you work for us for free and will keep on pretending that writing for our platform is powering your love of sports instead, of, uh, the fact that you like sports. If there was any doubt that this whole change was an act of pure legal ass-covering, the pop-up message also included this legalese:
As a Trusted Access User, you are voluntarily contributing to an SB Nation community(ies) and other than adherence to these terms, SB Nation (Vox Media, Inc.) does not have any on-going expectations or requirements for your contributions to the SB Nation team site. You acknowledge that you do not have any expectations of payment for you contributions of payment for your contributions to the SB Nation team site, and tp te extent your expectations change, you should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Translation: We’re trying to make it impossible for you to sue us for not paying you fairly.
Update (8 p.m. ET): After this story was published, a Vox Media flack sent the following statement along, asking for it to be attributed to Vox Media publisher Melissa Bell.
Last Monday, SB Nation launched a new set of community guidelines that offers clear terms and conditions for fans in the SB Nation Community and distinguishes Trusted Access Users from thousands of SB Nation’s paid contributors. Trusted Access Users are fan creators who participate in SB Nation communities without any obligations or expectations to post content. Trusted Access Users have been presented with the terms that govern their relationship with SB Nation, which include express acknowledgment that there is no obligation from them and there is no expectation of compensation in association with the user’s contributions. The terms also include a way to contact our central SB Nation leadership team. No Trusted Access Users should feel any pressure to contribute to any team site for any reason.
I’d encourage you to read a post by SB Nation’s editor in chief Elena Bergeron which outlines our overall investment in SB Nation Team Brands. SB Nation has built a platform that allows thousands of people to create and engage with communities around the teams they love, and we’re proud of this work.
I followed up to ask why the “trusted access users” didn’t participate in the “communities” as commenters or “Fanshot” writers. I asked why they were creating revenue-generating content for Vox Media if they weren’t being paid. The flack sent the following statement:
SB Nation has a variety of tools to engage with fans. Some of these tools include podcasts, in-real-life meetups, comments, FanPosts, FanShots, and Trusted Access. FanPosts, FanShots, and Comments are open to anyone and everyone. Team brand leaders can select Trusted Access Users from their community and and grant them access to our renowned technology platform, Chorus. Vox Media has developed a first-class publishing platform and, although there is no expectation to post anything, and they are not under contract to do so, we are proud to allow such access to our Trusted Access Users.