Yesterday, Deadspin published a report about how Vox Media and SB Nation profit off of unpaid and underpaid workers. With names and other identifying information redacted by request, here are some of the dozens of emails I received in response to the article.
Most are from current or former team site managers corroborating the reporting; others offer mild defenses and alternative perspectives about the SB Nation team site model.
The internal memos that SB Nation’s editor-in-chief Elena Bergeron and audience developer Chris Thorman sent to team site managers and contributors are at the end.
“My base stipend was $50 per month”
Just wanted to write you and say your article about SB Nation’s profits off exploited workers was something I wanted to scream “hell yeah!” to while my blood simultaneously boiled. I recently wrapped up two years as a college site manager and of my staff that averaged 20 or so writers during my tenure, only 3-4 of them ever received checks from SB Nation.
On top of this, when I left my position, my replacement immediately began making a stipend of $250 per month. Sounds like a small amount compared to the $600/month average reported in your article right? WELL WAIT JUST A SECOND... When I became manager in 2015, my base stipend was $50/month. Despite notable site growth during my time as manager (2+ million pageview increase per year between 2014-2016), my base stipend was never raised once. Gee, thanks for rewarding my hard work, SB Nation.
I wish the talented people who worked with and for me during the past two years could be compensated for their good work. It’d lead to a better quality product all-around.
“I was pressured to work harder and longer each month”
I was the managing editor for [redacted] team site from 2013 to 2015.
I was pressured to work harder and longer each month, all while I was being paid a mere $100 a month.
In one year, I grew the site from 500,000 pageviews to 1.2 million. It was one of the fastest growing sites in their network, but I was repeatedly told it wasn’t good enough and that we needed to push Facebook more.
Then news started coming out about Vox Media’s deal with Facebook, and it became clear just how much Vox Media was making (and why they were pushing everyone to grow their Facebook pages). Most site managers don’t have a clue, or didn’t at that time, as they are repeatedly told that paying staff isn’t within the budget and they are barely breaking even.
I am thankful for the experience I got at [redacted], and I found a love for writing. Ultimately, it led to me to attempt to go it alone. To build something, that if it ever makes money, will take care of the people that make it run.
“I’ve written over 400 posts for the site”
I read your Deadspin piece on SB Nation and I absolutely loved it; it’s exactly the criticisms I’ve played in my head for the past few years, so it’s nice seeing a mainstream site give that some credence and having it pushed into the discourse. I just thought I’d add on my own experience...
I write for one of the team blogs [redacted], and it’s the highest-trafficked site for SBN [sport redacted], about 25-30 million views a year. I’ve been a staff writer since November of 2013, and I’ve written over 400 posts for the site. I had a brief foray into social but was canned almost immediately because I didn’t hit their “numbers,” forgetting the fact that their insane push on FB is for very little traffic gain (most of it is organic searches via SEO), but that’s besides the point. To be a social media editor our stipend was $50 a month. That’s expanded even since then with live video integration, game updates, “fanshot” content. It’s basically what a corporation would hire a social editor to do, so I pity the next person who got that.
Then I was just a staff writer, which was been fine. I do it mostly for the tight-knit community, and I think most writers are on the same page as me: we do this in spite of SBN because it’s the best game in town for having a voice. I was an aspiring sports media journalist until I realized—fuck it, there’s no way I can find a job right out of college and SBN is all I have, so I got a full-time as [job redacted] and write about four times a week on the side, but that does take up a considerable amount of my free time. They’ve only been paying me $100 a month for a few months now, so before that I was one or two posts a week for zilch.
I love writing, and I will continue to do that. I personally believe I am owed thousands in back-pay and all writers should be unionized, but that type of collective action is hard when the team sites are so isolated, and I have my own job as well. I really appreciate you voicing this legitimate criticism which I consider absolutely heinous considering the upper management’s net worth.
Management has made it infinitely worse for site managers since last night... essentially the comment they provided you on all contributors being paid was a total lie, and it put managers in the position where if there weren’t paid contributors then it was somehow the site manager’s fault they were given a shoe-string budget and are explicitly told they can have unpaid contributors. It’s just their way of passing the buck and saying if there are breaches of company conduct, blame the manager and not us. Seems to be the way they handle editorial indiscretion as well. My manager is having a total conniption because she either lays off a swath of the staff, or management forks over the money to pay everyone. You can imagine what direction that’s headed in.
“I had to stop my actual job to write about breaking news”
Thank you for your piece today on SB Nation/Vox. I was managing editor of one of the larger team sites on the network from 2013-2015. I had a site budget that I could distribute any way I wanted, including to myself. I took 80% of it for myself which paid me somewhere close to $5/hour in actual work being done, and even less if you consider that you’re really never off the clock — I can’t even begin to count the amount of times I had to stop my actual job to write about breaking news, or head home in the middle of evenings out with friends to write up something, or at least coordinate somebody else to. I had countless writers who wrote for free and there was never any communication from the network that everyone needed to be paid. There’s simply not enough money to go around to hold people accountable to write a minimum amount a week anyway, so if somebody didn’t write as much as I was pressed for them to, does $20-30 a month really incentivize them otherwise?
There were no hard requirements to meet a minimum amount of posts, but every time I had a “review” with [redacted], he would remind me of the “minimum” of six posts a day. This could be accomplished in a number of ways, which eventually led to me introducing link dumps and extra game threads that had no quality content at all, just to meet a minimum bar. I still focused on quality first and refused many suggestions of that were glorified clickbait or SEO generators. Now the site has veered to more social, video, quick hitting content than ever before, presumably because of [redacted] and his directives from above.
“I am absolutely upset at how the site’s pay system has been portrayed by the management”
I definitely want to confirm that the notion all contributors are paid is ludicrous bullshit. I joined a popular NBA team site last year when the site manager approached me after developing a relationship through our own team blog.
It was clearly specified that I would only get paid $50 per month if I posted 4 times per week. Even as a small-time blogger, I still typically get paid about $20 per post at various other websites. I elected to write for the site anyway for a number of (not great) reasons, but I have never been paid and nor do several others at our site.
I am absolutely upset at how the site’s pay system has been portrayed by the management and I want to thank you for doing the large amount of research to write this article. I don’t know if any of this is of value to you any longer, but I wanted to share my thoughts after reading the post. If you want to refer to some of what I told you vaguely and without my name, I don’t have a problem with it.
“My portion of our stipend is about $7.50 per day”
I helped start [redacted] in 2012, and I’m still the co-manager. My portion of our stipend is about $7.50 per day for writing a daily post, editing and publishing other posts, etc. Luckily I have a decent job doing something I enjoy and this is mostly a hobby. But it does take up a good chunk of time. Another thing to consider is site moderation. We’re constantly having to scour the comments sections for spam bots and manually delete them. There doesn’t seem to be another strategy for this issue.
To me, the philosophical shift from being irreverent outsiders to now being just like Bleacher Report from five years ago is just as disturbing as the pay issue. The strategies that we are fed in emails from league managers are stale, reactive, and do nothing to set us apart from any other sports media entity.For the most part, SB Nation has left our site alone and hasn’t meddled with our personnel, for which I’m grateful. We have a unique voice among our fanbase and if they did anything to change that I’d probably leave. I also have tremendous respect for Spencer Hall and a few others who helped get me started on the site. But as a whole, the trifling amount we’re compensated is a joke when you look at the traffic we generate. At the height of the Johnny Manziel era, we were getting as many pageviews per month as MLB.com and were splitting about $800/month between 3 or 4 editors/managers. We asked for more money and the league managers made getting an extra couple hundred bucks for the site each month seem like an act of God.
“They purported to want to know how to solve the SB Nation diversity problem”
I’m sure others have written to you about your SBNation story who were invited to their “summit of women writers” in August of 2015, when they hosted us in DC. I’m pretty sure I was the only person invited who was not an active site manager, though I may be wrong about that. I was writing for Stanley Cup of Chowder about the CWHL and the Boston Blades at the time. Lots of writers from across all sports were there. They purported to want to know how to solve the SBNation diversity problem and we gave them very clear answers on the matter (better oversight of site managers being a major one). Elena Bergeron, Kevin Lockland, and Travis Hughes were in the room for much of this discussion. To hear them act as if it never happened is quite amusing to me.
-Zoë Hayden, former SB Nation contributor
“When I was ultimately let go, I was told that I wasn’t enough of a fan”
My name is [redacted] and I’ve worked for SBNation and two other team-based news outlets. All three of them, to one extent or another, have abused my labor, lied to me about potential pay increases, and SBNation let me go when I refused to write for free. I saved much of the conversations from Slack, but many of the phrases used in your article were used with me when they “terminated” my “employment” and failed to compensate me for my time.
When I was ultimately let go, I was told that I wasn’t enough of a fan, which translated to me not being willing to write for free when I had come from a paying gig, even if I was grossly underpaid for the amount of work I was doing with [another site].
Not once in my brief stay with SBNation was I ever compensated for any promoting, writing, or radio work that I did. At the end of all of it, the site editor decided he wanted to run the radio show after not wanting anything to do with it for nearly six months. Upon letting me go, he gave me the same crap about “having a byline” and all this other garbage. I still have the Slack messages saved.
“I begged and begged for more money to add writers”
I started out just with an old blogspot.com blog, nobody read it, but the FSU site manager (Bud Elliott) liked it and got me noticed. We mostly tried to focus on Clemson football, with a cursory look at the other sports. In 2009, SBN finally came to me and offered me $50 a month to work for them and run the Clemson site, which I named “ShakinTheSouthland.com”. I had no budget to pay my co-writer, so I gave him half of my $50, or a good chunk of anything we made off of their occasional Ad revenue pitches, which itself wasn’t really that much. Probably no more than a couple hundred over 6 months.
We were expected to do 4 posts per week, each. This was in the initial contract.
At the time we were averaging about 30 site hits a day, so pretty paltry by any measure. However we had the network to maintain the sites and give us a good commenting format (blogspot sucked on the latter and still does).
I never ever got paid more than $150 a month in “salary” in the next 5 years, as the site hits went from 30 to 300,000 per day. 400-500,000 in football season. My total income from a full year never topped $4000, which itself was mostly from their special sponsorship ads or stories that you occasionally see pop up on the site. In doing this, I was spending between 20-30 hours per week of my own time, after my normal 9-5, either editing or writing articles of my own. I refused to skimp quality, so mine tended to be long-winded and analytical, which SBN eventually grew tired of.
I eventually talked them into giving my co-writer a stipend of $100 a month, 2 years into it. He was writing as much as myself the entire time.
All the while, they constantly send you ideas for increasing page views and site traffic, and pester you to write more. They don’t come right out and say “You need to write X per day”, but we knew from others who had been let go that there is a requirement there that is unspoken.
I begged and begged for more money to add writers, even at $50 a month. I was refused by the ACC league and SBN College managers whenever I brought it up.
When they finally got into the college recruiting game, they relented. I could add one writer to solely cover recruiting for $50 a month, which I think was eventually raised to $100 per month before I was let go in 2014. Of course, he had to spend that on recruiting site memberships so he could get the news, since its nearly all paywalled nowadays.
Somewhere in 2012 and 2013 our relationship soured. I was asked to participate in their ad campaigns and churn out link posts (collections of news links), or make simple posts with a video or one or two paragraphs to raise the article numbers. “You should do a new post for this or that!” I begged for writers to do this, and was refused. The 3-4 volunteers I had did so for free, they knew this coming in, but I told them if I could get them money I would. I was never given a budget to add them. Therefore, I never participated in the stupid ad campaigns. I joined to write about football, not foo-foo shit to generate content.
As such, I rarely responded to the league spam emails, which tend to amount to 50 emails per day, and they felt I wasn’t part of their community.
Meanwhile, site traffic kept going up, though at a slower pace than before.
In the end, I was let go for a bullshit reason. I had written a post examining Clemson’s athletic financials, and questioned the AD privately. He responded, and I put that in my post without identifying myself. It was a purely factual question and response about the accounting of numbers. No one said anything to me, and I had never once been given guidelines. I had done it a few times before, for the same financial investigation, and nothing was brought up. Of course Clemson has to tell me since they are public and I am actually a booster that pays them, but no disparagement was made on my part.
However in this case Clemson’s SID called SBNation and complained. SBnation’s managers then called me to ask my thoughts, and I told them exactly what happened. They said it was against journalistic practices to do what I did, despite having never told me what to do or say before in the previous 5 years. They told me Clemson threatened to cut access and would say similar things to other ACC members with SBNation sites, then they ended the phone call by telling me I was immediately terminated. I knew the real reason was that I had not participated in the “group” and refused to separate my 2000 word posts into 5 separate posts through the week.
Then I called Clemson, who said nothing like that ever came from them. They merely complained that I did not ID myself as a SBNation writer, despite the fact that my site was quite infamous around the athletic department.
In either case, I can accept that I may have violated some journalistic practice. I refuse to accept that I could be fired for doing something I was never told I couldn’t do, since we’re not really journalists. They always told us we were writers and bloggers, only the credentialed folks and mothership folks were journalists, and used that to justify the lack of pay.
After termination, they demanded my facebook page be given to them with all passwords to it, and then demanded I turn over my site twitter, for no compensation. I created both, and it was my intellectual property that got the followers, and he could not have them. I told him to fuck off, he could pay me the going rate per site/twitter follower based on pre-established legal precedent (it was about $1.50 per, and I had over 4000 followers). He then threatened to get legal involved, which got him nowhere. After I had told them no and given them a money figure, they backed down and left me alone.
So that’s my story, we were, in the end, expected to crank out 4-5 articles a week and my site “budget” probably never topped $400 a month. We were expected to keep as many writers as possible writing, and me to edit them in addition to writing my own. I kept up the 20-30 hr/week schedule in addition to my regular 40hr day job for most of that 5 years, and have basically nothing to show for taking my site from nothing to one of the best in the league and one of the best in the whole college network from a quality standpoint, if not a page view standpoint.
“I had burned through most of my savings”
My name is [redacted], I wrote at SB Nation [redacted] from 2013-2016, and managed the site from 2015-2016.
Just wanted to drop you a note saying excellent work. By the time I started at SBN I was in my late 20's with two children but still, foolishly in hindsight, looking to chase my dreams.
My time at SBN saw my marriage and finances suffer significantly, as the time spent managing one of the networks larger, and in my very biased opinion, most prestigious baseball sites took over my priorities. By the time I left late last year I had burned through most of my savings, and my relationship with my wife was at an all-time low.
Did SBN “make” me do this? Of course not. But as your article very accurately pointed out the combination of constant “suggestions” with just enough people (Grant Brisbee, Jeff Sullivan, etc.) breaking through to full time jobs makes for an intoxicating and difficult cycle to break. While I made many, many relationships I am grateful for in my time at SBN, none of them were with people that worked above me, all of whom I knew viewed me as little more than a hamster on a wheel.
“I had multiple parody Twitter accounts pop up, also threatening me, and got no support.”
I just read your story. I worked at SBNation for a little over a year [...] I was a blog manager when I was 14 years old, and ran [redacted]. I was paid $25 a month, and there were constant complaints I didn’t have enough stories, enough writers, enough content, enough pageviews.
This was [redacted] about seven years ago, so of course the following was really small. Because of my age (they did zero background check before hiring me) they forced me to have a co-manager, cutting into my pay, basically to babysit my content.
Meanwhile, I had a few incidents running this site where a pro [redacted] league threatened legal action for one of my stories about the league folding, and I got zero support from SBN, even after I was threatened wrongly. I had multiple parody Twitter accounts pop up, also threatening me, and got no support. A team [sic] literally threatened me saying he knew where I lived because I wrote about how his team was performing poorly, and SBN’s legal team wouldn’t get back to me, ever.
Eventually, the site started to do really well, and I started a podcast network with my writers, and even a few accomplished national writers, and we got advertising on the shows that paid really, really well. A lot more than the $25 a month they paid, which, honestly looking back really feels like exploiting a kid just really excited to do journalism for one of the first times.
SBNation stepped in and said not only was I supposed to give them allllll the money I made off the platform (which, I argued was not totally on their site, I ran the podcasts myself on BlogTalkRadio.com), I had to shut down the shows if I didn’t get their permission to run them.
I left the network, and made more than 20x a month than they paid me, at 16 years old.
“I thought your headline was a bit hyperbolic”
I thought your piece was, for the most part, very even handed about SB Nation and blogging in general. If I would take exception to anything, I thought your headline was a bit hyperbolic.
I am one of those low paid bloggers (a hundred bucks a month, but I am not the site manager, just one of the main contributors) but I am far from the profile of a 20-something blogger trying to break in to the industry. And though you do explain in your piece that a lot of us are folks that have day jobs and do this as a hobby, to say we’re exploited seems a bit over the top. I’m a guy that makes enough money, so this is, in every sense of the word, a hobby that pays for my yearly fishing trip.
Even the young kids trying to break in the business know what they’re getting into, for the most part, at least on our site. They get to write for the big platform that SB Nation provides to get their name out there, and use it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. And for [redacted], we don’t mandate a minimum number of posts contributors need to write a week or a month. I thought you kind of glossed over that part of the story. At least somewhat.
I mean yeah, at the end of the day, SB Nation is making a shit ton of money and they ask some folks to work, essentially, a full time job. That’s a shitty deal for people that think this might turn into a full time gig. If I was in a different circumstance in life, it would probably piss me off as opposed to being a minor annoyance, but this allows me to follow a passionate hobby and gives me some walking around money for my effort.
For a lot of us, we’re okay with the arrangement. We weren’t sold a bill of goods on getting paid, or how much we have to contribute, so to say exploited, I feel, was a bit much.
“Not every site manager had quotas to meet”
I just read the article, and frankly, it was excellent. You touched on basically every complaint that I had with my later years with Vox, and did it in a very reasonable manor. I’d just like to make note of the fact that not every site manager had quotas to meet, or any sort of push to recruit heavily. None of my league managers (soccer) ever put any pressure on me to meet any sort of quota, I think they were very understanding that I worked a full time job and only had limited availability. The pay sucked, but the people in charge knew it and didn’t ever make any sort of demands as a result.
“More offended by the piece calling them ‘exploited’ than the actual non-payment”
As an SBNation Site Manager, you can probably imagine that much of my work day today was spent on discussions with my staff and my superiors about your article. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of the sentiments you expressed, I do think it was very well done and very fair.
If you’re open to it, I’d propose a (partial) alternate perspective: I had several staff writers reach out to me saying that they were actually more offended by the piece calling them “exploited” than the actual non-payment, because they’re adults who know exactly what they’re doing. Many writers don’t contribute enough that they generate enough ad revenue to matter to them (a lot of our writers are adults with real jobs and lives, and the most prominent contributor who expressed this sentiment wrote 33 times in the last calendar year), and simply do it because they enjoy it, they enjoy [redacted], and they enjoy the community. At the same time, I have young writers on my staff who fit exactly the mold that you’re describing. You aren’t wrong, but there’s definitely another dimension to it as well—I had two writers tell me they actually prefer doing it for free because it frees them of feeling overly obligated, or committed, or like they’re “working.”
Today Deadspin released a story about the pay structure for SB Nation team sites and I wanted to address a few things in regard to that.SB Nation pays ~1,000 contributors a month to do a lot of things in sports media: editing, writing, video creation, social media, community building and much more. I’m really proud of the work you do and I know you are too. In a time when many other outlets are laying off sports writers, I’m really happy to be able to say that Vox Media continues to invest in SB Nation as the digital media landscape changes and evolves.
The fact that we have that many folks contributing and have over 300 communities means that we pretty much always need to do a better job of staying on top of compensating those of you who are regularly contributing. Part of this is by design - the independence you have to run your own site and manage your own staff is part of what makes SB Nation special and what makes your team communities unique. As you know, the SB Nation community extends far beyond paid staff, with thousands of people contributing to our platform in many different ways. Giving fans a place where they feel empowered to share their voice is at the heart of what we do.
That said, we can and will do a better job of more clearly articulating our company policies, and making sure everyone is aware, on board and able to follow them. We will also do a better job of making sure we regularly review the contributions of you and your staff and that contributions are compensated appropriately and according to our policy.I love the varied contributors and the passion of communities at SB Nation. It’s what hooked me all the way back in 2006. We are always looking for new ways to foster voices and communities and to make sure that all fans have a place to connect. Making sure you are happy and fulfilled is the biggest key to that success.
Please reach out to me personally ([email redacted]) or a league manager if you have any questions or comments.
I just want to take a second to add my voice to Jim’s and Chris’ responses to the Deadspin story that ran yesterday. I also want to make sure everyone hears directly from me on this issue, since I haven’t had a chance to interact one-on-one with most people on team sites yet.
I have a lot of respect for what’s been built at SB Nation long before I got here and recognize that we could not be in the position we are today without team communities having built something really unique. My job is to make sure that we keep growing and keep connecting. But I want to underscore that in the few months that I’ve been EIC, Chris, Kevin Lockland and all the league managers have been huge advocates for team sites and are key to helping me rethink how we need to manage and resource team sites for the future. That planning had started before the Deadspin post and it’ll continue after, in partnership with the people who know SB Nation best: y’all.
Before we get into all that, I think it’s important to address my comment in the story, (“It’s our company policy that everybody who contributes for a Vox Media property gets paid,”) which a lot of you have asked questions about, either to me directly, to Jim Bankoff, or to league managers. That’s the answer I gave the reporter, repeatedly, when asked questions regarding specific payments to site managers. We don’t have any sites that don’t have any paid contributors, many have multiple paid contributors, and some have a fluid number of unpaid contributors at any given time. As a community-driven network, we have to have the flexibility to allow volunteered content on our platform in order to allow entry to people who are driven to express their passion.
We have a wide network of contributors with varied structures to their individual agreements for compensation. In addition we have methods for non-paid contributions that people volunteer for which should always be clearly stated and mutually agreed upon. As you might guess, a Deadspin interview is not the place to parse those distinctions.
Beyond that, there’s still work to be done on making sure team brands have a sustainable model, goals, and structure for the future. Jim has empowered me to make those but to do that I’ll need your insight. Thought you should have mine in return. Reach out to me, Chris, or Kevin directly if you’ve got any questions.
Correction (August 21, 12:40 p.m. ET): This post originally stated Zoë Hayden was a site manager. She was a contributor.
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