What’s a fair amount for a billion-dollar company to pay a writer for reporting, writing, and publishing one post per day on the company’s website? Two posts per day? One post per week? Two posts per week? These are the questions Vox Media and SB Nation are batting back and forth as they grind their way, ever so slowly, toward making it look like they’re fairly paying the thousands of (previously unpaid or lowly paid) people who write for their hundreds of sports websites. Based on new SB Nation employment contracts obtained by Deadspin, the company is now paying some team site writers a few dollars per post.
Over the past few months, SB Nation has sent out new contracts to its army of team site workers. One contract, reviewed by Deadspin and included in full below (with identifying information redacted), stipulates $40 a month for 1.5 posts per day. However, a source said the wording on the contract was actually an embarrassing blunder: The contract should have said 1.5 posts per week for the monthly stipend of $40. It also requires that the workers—who Vox Media lawyers have insisted in court documents are not employees—sign away their intellectual property rights for the material they create.
Sources say the incorrect contracts were sent out to multiple people, prompting SB Nation to send another memo warning them not to sign the first contracts, but to wait for corrected versions to arrive. Another source had the same problem with their contract; it stipulated two posts per day for $25 a month, while it should have said two posts per week for $25 a month.
I asked John Ness, the guy hired last year to be SB Nation’s Team Brands Director—a fancy title meaning he’s the guy tasked with keeping the underpaid employees happy—about the contracts. He declined to answer, but a Vox Media spokesperson said, “A subset of the blogger contracts sent last week contained a typo and had to be cancelled, and were quickly reissued the same afternoon with accurate information.”
Even after the correction, the pay is, in some cases, extremely low. Two posts per week for $25 a month shakes out to about about $3.13 per blog, and it’s unclear how SB Nation landed on that number. Equally unclear is how they decide which workers get the $25 a month contract and which get the $40 a month deal, and it hasn’t escaped team site workers’ notice that Vox Media is pinching pennies with the people who account for the majority of SB Nation’s traffic. Beyond that, there’s the question of how these contracts, complete with a list of 11 policies contributors must adhere to, affect the workers all-important classification as independent contractors.
This question about whether team site workers are independent contractors or employees arises constantly, and it’s at the heart of a collective action lawsuit brought by team site workers against SB Nation. At issue is just how much direction and control SB Nation is legally allowed to assert over their lowly paid team site workers before they have to be considered employees.
This tension came up again recently when the head of SB Nation’s podcasts, John Gennaro, sent out a memo telling team site workers not to use Skype or Google Hangout for their podcasting because the audio quality was low. He told them to use a paid product called RINGR, which had a free 30-day trial. The memo didn’t say anything about who would pay for the service after that, and a team site source told me that they were under the impression the costs would fall to the team site workers making the podcasts, which Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff bragged was an “area of growth” in a recent interview.
When reached for comment, Gennaro said if the team site workers wanted to keep using RINGR and didn’t want to pay for it, SB Nation would cover the cost. In a statement, a Vox Media spokesperson said that there was no expectation for team site workers to make podcasts, but that they have the freedom to do so if they want to. The statement framed Gennaro’s memo, which contained a subhead titled “Step 1: No More Skype” as merely helpful guidance.
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