In the nine months since Deadspin reported on how SB Nation’s business model relies on underpaying and not paying workers across its sprawling empire of more than 300 sports sites—“team sites,” as the jargon goes—bosses at SB Nation and its parent company, Vox Media, have put in a lot of work to make clear to people who work at their sites, people who cover what goes on there, and the general public that they are not awful corporate assholes, but are in fact sympathetic and humane people who want to do the right thing.
SB Nation higher-ups have, among other things, emphasized to team site managers, who earn a small monthly stipend for what in many cases amounts to full-time work, that they are not to treat people who aren’t paid as if they are; hired a new layer of management to oversee the team sites; and converted several poorly paid positions into real, full-time jobs. Some of these changes represent progress and address the real concerns of team site workers; other changes, like attempting to make clear that unpaid workers shouldn’t do the work of paid employees, accidentally or otherwise, look a lot like ass-covering maneuvers.
SB Nation refused to answer a variety of questions Deadspin posed to them, so it’s difficult to say exactly what the overall effect of their moves has been. Even read generously, though, these reforms appear to basically amount to making a fundamentally exploitative and anti-labor model slightly more generous to workers—not a bad thing, to be sure, but not anything more than it is. Vox Media was, when Deadspin started reporting on this story, a billion-dollar, venture capital-backed media company that resisted paying fair wages to the workers who filled up hundreds of websites with thousands of blog posts so that Vox could sell ads against them and generate revenue. Nothing about any of that appears to have changed.
In late April, Brandon Crockett, a former ad agency creative director turned writer, interviewed for a staff writer job at McCovey Chronicles, SB Nation’s San Francisco Giants team site, with site manager Bryan Murphy.
“While I thought that the staff writer position would simply be contributing a few times a week, as more or less outlined in the job description post on the site, Bryan told me I was one of four finalists being interviewed to be Grant Brisbee’s replacement,” Crockett said. (Brisbee ran the site until this year and has since 2011 also worked at SB Nation’s flagship national site, SBNation.com.)
On the call, “I made the comment that I was expecting this to be less intensive since the job title was ‘staff writer,’ which I assumed to be an entry-level position,” Crockett said. “[Murphy] then started talking about Grant Brisbee and how this was to potentially replace him and become the new voice of the blog. It was when he said that I’d potentially be the voice of the blog that I got very interested in the job and expressed that would be an enticing challenge.” Crockett, who had recently moved to a new country with his family, wasn’t looking for a full-time job, but said he would have made the McCovey Chronicles gig his full-time work in exchange for a modest stipend. He was thinking around $3,000 per month.
Murphy, Crockett said, told him that SB Nation wanted him to contribute to the site’s output of seven posts a day as well as help with the site’s podcast and video content. Despite the high expected output, Crockett said, he was interested in the job and excited about the idea of replacing Brisbee—until Murphy got to the part about compensation.
“At the very end, he told me what the monthly stipend was and said, $550. I asked him to repeat it, and he said, $550. He apologized, saying he knew it was awful and that he could possibly get some money out of another budget to push it up to $1,000, but that wasn’t a promise. He also said SB Nation told him there could be bonuses based on ad revenue, but he’d never seen any of that since he’d been a part of the team,” Crockett said. “He almost seemed defeated, as he did earlier in the interview, which confused me a bit, but once he threw out this whopper, I understood why his enthusiasm was so low.” (Murphy, who is not a full-time employee either, did not respond to a request for comment.)
A Vox Media spokeswoman said McCovey Chronicles runs about seven blog posts a day, written by Murphy and several other writers. SB Nation would not say how much the contributors are paid, but if each of the four main bylines that appear on the site make $550 a month, that would put the site’s monthly budget at $2,200. Arbitrarily (and generously) doubling that figure would put the site’s annual budget for all its contributors—eight different bylines appeared on the site during a recent 1o-day stretch—at around $53,000. That’s not a lot for anyone, especially when no one is getting benefits.
This is interesting not just in its own right but because Brisbee, currently listed on the McCovey Chronicles masthead as “lead writer guy,” published a blog post in February announcing that he was leaving the site, and explaining why:
One of the reasons I waited so long is that I wanted to make sure that the person taking over was paid fairly. Not full-time money, but enough to where I wouldn’t feel like a fraud for passing all the responsibility for this site to a college kid making $200 a month because that’s the only shitty model that today’s media environment allows. I’ve spent 13 years building this site — yes, this site is a surly teenager — and you’d better believe that I care about how it evolves and changes.
Deadspin asked Brisbee for comment about how the $550 monthly stipend squares with what he says he wants for the site’s evolution; he did not respond, and so he did not provide an explanation for why it is the media environment, rather than Vox Media’s corporate prerogatives, that forces SB Nation to pay college kids $200 a month for what can amount to full-time work. Neither team brands director John Ness nor SB Nation would say what exactly the McCovey Chronicles contributors were paid. A job description for the McCovey Chronicles staff writer position, which the Vox Media spokeswoman said has since been filled, is consistent with what Crockett said he was told he would be expected to do if he got the job:
Monitoring Twitter, MLB Network, and other team-specific news sources for breaking news in order to get articles and news items up onto the site quickly. (daytime; 4 days a week) — This means candidate will usually be the First and more likely the Final word on a lot of events both frivolous and pivotal to Giants history.
Availability: Every day of the regular baseball season and postseason (should Giants make it into the playoffs); schedule TBD if the Giants do not make the postseason, but will still require a commitment or interest in maintaining a high-level of output.
Covering breaking news four days a week, being available every day of the regular baseball season, and “maintaining a high-level of output” all the way into the postseason, if necessary, is equivalent to the workload of many full-time jobs at Vox Media and elsewhere. Crockett described the offer as “unacceptable” and said he was shocked and disappointed by SB Nation’s expectations.
“I told him that seemed unreasonable considering the amount of work asked for was going to require full-time hours if it were to be done well,” Crockett said.
Crockett believes that it’s partly up to would-be SB Nation writers to force better pay, which he suggested could be accomplished by some sort of collective action by current stipend-paid team site workers, and maybe even by forming a union. (While management recognized the Vox Media union early this year, that union includes only full-time employees and part-time employees whom the company has classified on W-2s. Team site contributors, who account for the majority of SB Nation’s overall traffic, and whom Vox Media insist are not employees, were left out in the cold.) The Vox Media union issued a statement to Deadspin about the team site workers:
The people who work on SB Nation’s team sites built Vox Media and remain a foundation of the company’s success. Team site workers deserve the dignity and respect that comes with appropriate compensation for the work they do.
We support their efforts to push the company to treat labor more equitably. We’ve been encouraged by the first steps the company has taken in the past six months to convert a small number of team site workers into full-time employees and clarify its team blog pay structure.
That work must continue, and the onus is on Vox Media’s management to do right by this massive group of people. The company contends that team site workers should be classified as contractors, which, if correct, means we cannot legally compel management to include this group in the bargaining unit. However, we support their upward mobility and fair treatment at this company.
We’re still in the early stages of Vox Media Union’s collective bargaining process, but we won’t hesitate to assist team site workers in this cause for as long as it takes. And where team site workers become union-eligible employees, we’re thrilled to welcome them to the bargaining unit.
The question of how to classify team site workers—as employees or as independent contractors—remains at the heart of the dispute over Vox Media’s unapologetic reliance on unpaid and underpaid labor. It’s also at the heart of a collective action lawsuit that was filed by team site workers against Vox Media last September. (The lawsuit is pending.) As Deadspin has reported, team site managers and league managers have long been careful to “suggest” their writers do certain things to increase output and traffic, like post on Facebook or do more video, rather than telling them to do so. This language seems to accord narrowly with the specific and sometimes opaque laws about what qualifies a person as an employee, which pose certain questions: Do they have set hours, deadlines, quotas? Can they be terminated? Do they receive training?
When Deadspin first reported on this story in the summer of 2017, the SB Nation company line—pushed most vehemently by Editor-in-Chief Elena Bergeron—was that everyone who contributed to a team site was paid. In June 2017, I asked her about this several times on a recorded call, on which a Vox Media spokeswoman was also present. I said my reporting showed that her claim was not accurate, and that many team site contributors were not paid. Bergeron asserted that “It’s company policy that we compensate everybody who contributes.” A day after Deadspin published the first SB Nation report, Bergeron sent an internal memo, obtained by Deadspin, that said, “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.” Whatever this meant, there was clearly a shift in policy overnight, and that policy has continued to evolve. (For starters, SB Nation now readily acknowledges that unpaid workers contribute to the team sites.)
SB Nation is now also explicitly banning site managers from assigning any sort of schedule or specific blog posts to unpaid contributors; the company can by this logic not be accused of using unpaid workers to perform the tasks of employees. In an internal memo posted last week on SB Nation’s “Community Corner” titled “Some Cool Updates for Team Brands,” Ness, who was hired last September, described SB Nation policy: “unpaid contributors should not be on any type of schedule, and managers should not rely on them for any post you think is critical to the day’s coverage or traffic.”
The kind of role Brandon Crockett said was described to him, which entails full-time or near-full-time work for a small stipend, has been part of SB Nation’s business model for years. While fundamentally unfair, those jobs exist in more of a gray area than using the work of people who are not paid at all. As articulated, though, the policy says nothing about who is responsible for making sure this policy on unpaid contributors is followed, or what recourse those contributors have if they feel explicit or implicit pressure to contribute. (Ness and SB Nation declined to answer questions on these topics.)
The memo from Ness also said, curiously, “Some of our most important voices don’t want to be paid.” Ness and SB Nation would not say which voices these were and why they didn’t want to be paid. This is all Ness would say: “We’re very proud of the work we’re doing on our team site investments, but we’d like to finish rolling out the plans and changes internally before speaking about them externally.”
SB Nation has made changes to the system. After months of public backlash from their own workers and the collective action lawsuit, these can be read either charitably—as a good-faith effort to show appreciation for their workers—or, perhaps more realistically, as damage control. Either way, they have in some cases had actual effects.
Among the first major changes were getting rid of former SB Nation general manager Kevin Lockland and creating a slew of new jobs intended to somehow or other support the unpaid and underpaid team site workers. After hiring Ness, SB Nation hired a stable of others serving support functions, including former SB Nation MLB league manager Justin Bopp as “team brand associate director,” Christine Conetta as “executive producer for team brands video,” former SB Nation team site manager John Gennaro as “executive director for team brands podcasts,” Morgan Kuriloff as “team brands coordinator,” Keenya Scott as “project manager,” and Jeanna Thomas as “talent manager.” What all these people will do to support unpaid and underpaid workers isn’t clear, but their job descriptions are in the full “Community Corner” memo below:
Hey everybody. If we haven’t met, let me introduce myself: I’m John Ness, Director of SB Nation Team Brands. We call them team brands because the blogs SB Nation launched years ago are now also reaching tans on Twitter, on podcasts, on Facebook and on t-shirts. It’s my job to make sure that all that can happen in a way that’s fun for you and in line with the big ol’ SB Nation brand.
At the beginning of the year, I and Justin Bopp, Associate Director of Team Brands, conducted calls with many site managers to give clarity on our planning around how to support the people who are part of our network. It was a pleasure introducing ourselves to so many managers in phone calls over the past few months. For those who were not on those calls, we talked about the following:
1. SB Nation has customized a resource plan for each team brand. We have sites that are different from anything else on the internet, and managers have unique budgets that reflect that the right approach to YOUR team’s fans might not be right for another’s. Some exciting related news: we’ve created a new full-time role called Producer at a few of our sites. Producers will play a strategic role for SB Nation and their respective sites, which we hope will lead to better best practices (yes I said better best practices) to offer to everyone. We hired a Producer for our Lakers site, Silver Screen and Roll, and we are now hirlng a Producer to work with David Haplrin at Blogging the Boys. This Producer position will be devoted to reaching Cowboys fan on whatever platform they’re using. If you know someone who’d be great, let us know.
2. New resources coming in 2018. When I arrived in the fall, I had a number of phone calls with team brands managers about how SB Nation could help better support them. Common themes included: help with podcasting, help with recruiting, help with video. So allow me to introduce our wider team of staffers supporting team brands, in alphabetical order:
— Executive Producer for Team Brands Video, Christine Conetta. Many of you know Christine, as she’s been on the team for more than a year, building an operation that’s steadily snowballed. Check out this new series Draft Steals which is more in-depth than what her team might have been done just a month ago
—Executive Producer for Team Brands Podcasts, John Gennaro. John was the site manager for Bolts From The Blue from 2008-2016, and more recently developed podcasts for the NFL Network. He’s reached out to many of you to learn about your podcasts, but feel free to drop him a line. He’s here to help us develop a plan to support team brands’ audio since it’s something that many of you are really passionate about. He’s at john.gennaro [AT] sbnation.com.
—Team Brands Coordinator, Morgan Kuriloff. Morgan is here to help with all things administrative — meaning payments and contracts, for starters. (We have new contracts coming shortly, at which time all contributors should expect an email from her.) She’s at morgan.kuriloff [AT] sbnation.com
—Project Manager, Keenya Scott. We have talented new team members to help make your lives easier, but we don’t want you to feel like you’re getting emails from half a dozen people. Keenya’s job is to make sure you’re getting the information you need about SB Nation and team brands updates from everyone when you want it. She’s at keenya.scott [AT] voxmedia.com.
—Talent Manager, Jeanna Thomas. Jeanna is helping with three things team brand managers have asked for: recruiting, creating a more diverse pipeline of talent, and help getting our best voices promoted off-platform. Jeanna got her start with SB Nation at The Falcoholic. That turned into a part-time news desk role with SB Nation NFL, which turned into covering the NFL full time for SB Nation. She’s at jeannathomas [AT] sbnation.com.
You should feel free to contact these folks and use them as new resources to support your sites when you think it would be helpful. They may also reach out and offer support from time to time, especially as everyone is getting accustomed to having new help available.
3. Our policy on unpaid contributors. We welcome contributions from many sources on our Team Brands, including from fans and consistent. but unpaid contributors. Some of our most important voices do not want to be paid. We need to be clear. though: our policy is that unpaid contributors should not be on any type of schedule, and managers should not rely on them for any post you think is critical to the day’s coverage or traffic. Managers can still make general “does anyone want to grab the Thursday night recap?”—type calls to all contributors. Just know that unpaid contributors are under no obligation to follow through if they offer to help. and team brand managers should not be setting that expectation.There’s a lot here. If you have questions, you should feel free to hit up me, the editors of your league or any of the people named above. Or comment below.It’s been a great year so far: NHL and NBA playoff coverage is excellent and Joel Thorman just shared some thoughts on another successful NFL draft on Blog Huddle. Hit me up with your thoughts at john.ness [AT] sbnation.com.
Early this year, as the memo says, SB Nation launched an effort in which Ness and Bopp aimed to call and speak to each of the 300-some team site managers. Deadspin obtained a recording of one of these calls to a site manager from early 2018. In it, Bopp recited what sounded like a script about the specialness of SB Nation’s “fan communities,” and how it’s the “creativity” of the “writers, editors, and managers” that “makes the network special.” However, Bopp then said, SB Nation “needed to be smarter about how we nurture our sites.” The team site manager on the call was told they would be receiving a customized budget and new resources to invest in their site in 2018, though they were not given any specifics about what this might mean; the site manager was also told that they needed to be very careful about using “volunteer contributors,” and that these workers shouldn’t be on a schedule. If an unpaid contributor needed to be put on a schedule, the site manager was told, they should talk to supervisors and get the person paid. According to the call reviewed by Deadspin, the site manager was not told how they would know if an unpaid contributor needed to be put on the schedule or how much that worker would then get paid once they were on the schedule.
This process of revamping the team site system, which has been in the works since fall, is doing a decent impression of what addressing the labor problems at SB Nation might look like. Squint your eyes the tiniest bit, though, and the changes mostly amount to paying a new layer of people to manage the unpaid and underpaid team site workers and, according to some sources, moderately upping stipends for some sites, rather than just fairly paying the site managers and contributors whose work drives Vox’s value.
One change, however, deserves straightforward praise: SB Nation has converted a few of its previously part-time jobs, like the one at the Lakers team site, into full-time positions. Some of these producer jobs have been posted publicly; others are simply team site manager jobs that have been converted into the full-time producer positions. According to sources, Brandon Lee Gowton of the Eagles team site and Wescott Eberts of the Texas Longhorns team site are two examples of team site managers who have transitioned into full-time “producer” roles. Ness confirmed that there are a total of six full-time team site producer roles, some of which have not been filled. The duties for team site manager and team site producer are essentially the same; Ness and SB Nation declined to specify how the two roles differ.
SB Nation team sites used to get by on monthly stipends of just a few hundred dollars and lots of unpaid people; now, some sites have slightly more to spend (again, SB Nation and Ness would not comment on any specific budgets) and fewer unpaid people. This is better, but it isn’t good enough. Hiring team site workers into full-time producer jobs, which carry salaries and benefits and the peace of mind that comes with knowing your employment is (relatively) secure, is a huge step in the right direction, but as of now, fewer than six lucky team site workers have been hired for such jobs.
Maybe SB Nation will soon convert the rest of the team site manager jobs into full-time positions. Maybe this will help draw a more diverse pool of writers and editors. Maybe they will give each team site manager a freelance budget to help draw other contributors, which would benefit the quality of the sites without hurting the “fan communities.” Maybe this is the way forward for SB Nation.
This all could be true. It could also be true, though, that SB Nation is making just enough tweaks to signal that things are changing without doing so, keeping workers feeling like they should be grateful for their underpaid jobs while preserving the status quo. It’s hard to say, as Ness and SB Nation simply won’t speak about the changes, but the fact that a writer said he was offered $550 a month to become the new voice of McCovey Chronicles, one of SB Nation’s oldest and most well-known team sites, points to one of these as the more credible explanation. There’s an obvious solution here that would among other things solve the public relations inconvenience of Vox Media not paying their workers fairly: They could pay their workers fairly. SB Nation is inching closer to this. It isn’t there.