In a turn of events that will surprise absolutely no one, Vox Media publisher Melissa Bell thinks that Deadspin’s reporting on SB Nation’s business model, which—even after more than a year of reforms—relies primarily on paying team site managers and contributors low monthly stipends or nothing at all, is too mean, calling it “empty and vitriolic.” In an email to Deadspin Editor-in-Chief Megan Greenwell—which was then promptly posted on SB Nation’s internal “Community Corner” message board, along with a memo from “Team Brands Director” John Ness—Bell wrote:
[SB Nation EIC] Elena Bergeron and John Ness, among many thousands of others, have put in huge amounts of effort to strengthen SB Nation’s vast network of team brands, and I’m very proud of their work. I’m also frustrated that Deadspin feels the need to repeatedly ignore what they are doing to build community, and the large investment we are making in content creation, and instead chooses to publish the same misinformed and largely unsourced statements about SB Nation, many of which are taken out of context. At this point, such journalism (and I am using the term quite loosely here), is reduced to nothing but empty, vitriolic rhetoric.
Deadspin has reported and continues to report on a large number of media companies, including Bleacher Report, FanSided, The Athletic, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, NJ.com, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Barstool, SB Nation, and others. During my reporting on SB Nation, I have never published a story—all of which have been clearly sourced, by the way, to people at SB Nation and to SB Nation’s own internal documents—without emailing various SB Nation and Vox Media representatives for comment. They are of course free to respond only with bland PR speak, but neither I nor anyone else are obliged to write what they would prefer to have written—to congratulate them, for instance, for spending money on “content creation” as if that was something other than the bare minimum that can be expected of a media operation, or to treat their doing so as somehow compensating for the fact that their business is built around paying thousands of workers poorly or not at all.
I’m disappointed by the latest Deadspin article, and the overly aggressive and unnecessarily demeaning approach your team considers “sports media reporting.” For over a year, Deadspin has obfuscated, or willfully misinterpreted, what SB Nation does – and how platforms work across the internet.
Deadspin’s early reports about SB Nation are cited in a collective action lawsuit that was filed last year against Vox Media on behalf of SB Nation team site managers who say SB Nation did not pay them fairly for their work. That case is still pending, making SB Nation’s efforts to overhaul this team site system (already a meaningful topic for a sports media reporter) eminently newsworthy; if the company considers accurate descriptions of what they do “unnecessarily demeaning,” the problem is perhaps not with the coverage. In Monday’s post, which prompted the letter from Bell, I reported on the existence of a newsworthy document that dealt explicitly with changes to the team site system. Nothing in my reporting has involved obfuscation or willful misinterpretation, but if Bell wants to explain what she disagrees with in my reporting, I’d love to sit down with her, or any other Vox Media representative, for an interview. Bell continued:
SB Nation finds thousands of great, original voices, signs them to contracts and pays them for their work, then gives them the tools and infrastructure to build a strong, engaged community around the sports they love. We also proudly open our platform to fans who have not signed contracts with us, giving them access to the same best-in-class tools and the opportunity to express and share their passion for their team through posting and commenting. While we’re proud of the business we’re building at SB Nation, we do not, and cannot, fund every comment or post voluntarily made by someone within our 75-million-person audience.
Here, Bell deliberately tries to muddy the waters about what the team site system is. No one, and certainly not anyone at Deadspin, is saying that every person who posts a comment on an SB Nation team site should be paid. At issue is whether people who are registered on SB Nation’s platform and are producing content, often on terms set by managers, against which ads are sold and revenue is generated, should be paid fairly. This isn’t even the first time this issue of using low-paid digital media workers has spurred legal action. In 2009, AOL, where Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff used to work, settled with unpaid “volunteers” for a reported $15 million in Hallissey et al. v. America Online. Of course, the specifics of these cases aren’t identical, but there are enough similarities to place them both on the same continuum.
Bell’s letter went on:
Yes, the time our audience spends with us – either by reading our work, commenting on our site, or using Chorus to write as part of a team community – helps our ability to fund our work. It’s a model similar to the one Deadspin uses: your commenters and your audiences make your sites stronger. But while Deadspin’s platform allows any user to blog on it, we allow our managers to make that decision team by team because we think it’s a more valuable way to connect our fans.
I’m proud we’re able to invest millions of dollars into SB Nation every year, paying for great voices across our network and developing innovative tools for our community members to use if they would like. The model allows us to contract and fairly fund thousands of contributors, as well as to enable many fans who are not under contract with us to use the same world-class tools to contribute and celebrate the sports they love.
Again, Bell attempts to present criticisms of her company’s business model as criticisms of the company’s workforce and audience, and to try and blur the lines between commenter and contributor, showing, once again, Vox Media’s own commitment to obfuscating the team site network model—which, as Bell surely knows, is entirely different from Deadspin’s Kinja platform. Every single person whose work appears on Deadspin is a salaried employee or a freelancer paid fair-market rates. The same cannot be said for people blogging on SB Nation team sites, many of whom remain unpaid or extremely poorly paid. I know this because many of them have told me.
I have tried numerous times to speak with John Ness and other SB Nation and Vox Media representatives about the team site overhaul process over the course of my reporting, and have been rebuffed at every turn, fed only useless, jargony statements. Despite this, I work with what Vox Media gives me and make sure to include in my reports team site reforms that are actually meaningful, like converting some team site manager jobs to full-time positions with benefits. Even so, while I hear frequently from SB Nation workers, no one from management has given me an interview since Elena Bergeron, Kevin Lockland, and Vox Media spokeswoman Fay Sliger spoke with me over Skype for 30 minutes more than a year ago.
Deadspin will continue to report on SB Nation and Vox Media, as well as other media organizations, as it always has. Bell, Ness, or whomever Vox Media wants to put forward will continue to be invited to participate in those stories. They can either continue to complain, or actually engage the issues the stories raise. If they choose the latter, here are some of my questions: How many people are paid contributors for SB Nation team sites? How many people are “trusted access users”? How much are the paid contributors paid? How much revenue does SB Nation earn? What would an SB Nation revenue sharing system look like? What would converting more team site jobs to full-time positions with benefits look like? Have these options been considered? Why isn’t it possible for people to work for SB Nation team sites for fun and also get paid for their work? As a journalistic entity, is Vox Media concerned about the team site system devaluing labor?
These are important questions, not only narrowly, but also because SB Nation’s team site model reinforces an age-old gatekeeping problem in media, and especially sports media: There are some people who can afford to work for little or no money, and some people who can’t. SB Nation specifically and Vox Media broadly style themselves as forward-looking and progressive, but when it comes to the workers who create the “content” that helps power the company, they have a white-knuckled grip on outdated and reactive labor policies.
Ness, meanwhile, sent Bell’s letter around to staff under the following memo, which speaks for itself as clearly as it speaks to any lawyers who might be interested in the arrangements SB Nation has with people who work for it, and the expectations that are set for them:
There was another Deadspin piece Monday about us. I don’t make a habit of replying to these, but since this one was in response to an important announcement last week, I wanted to address (and re-stress) a few things.
First off, I am very proud of the stuff created here: Last week, Karim Zidan wrote this important analysis of how Trump and the UFC reinforce each other. Good Bull Hunting’s “graphical preview” of Saturday’s game is the kind of innovative internetting the world needs in 2018. Tuesday on Bright Side of the Sun, the writer of the Deadpool movies matched every donationto the fund to send kids to a Suns game. And Broad Street Hockey published three (3) podcast episodes in 12 hours following the firing of the Flyers’ GM. These dramatically different things could only co-exist in our wonderfully wild machine.
And for this machine to work, we need to communicate clearly with you even when there’s noise. Which brings me to that Deadspin article, which aims to explain my post last week about Trusted Access Users and our new Chorus terms. A lot of it consists of italicized “translations” of … my alleged thoughts, I guess? I won’t recap it line by line, but it’s important that we’re all on the same page. Therefore, a few points:
We’ve reiterated this all year, but I’ll say it again: people without contracts should never feel any pressure to write.
If you’re a Team Brand Manager, we are expecting you to be clear in your communication with any Trusted Access User. If someone would like to have a contract role but has not been offered one, it’s very important that they hear from us plainly that we have no roles available and we have no expectations from them.If you need a clear policy to point Trusted Access Users to: use my post or Elena’s post so they know we’re serious and that we have zero expectations from them. We also added a pop-up in Chorus so we could be certain we were communicating directly with our users and ensure that anyone who heard erroneous information – whether from Deadspin or elsewhere – gets the correct information.
If you are a Trusted Access User and you feel formal or informal pressure to produce content – or if you have any other concerns about your team brand that you feel unable to raise with the team brand manager – please reach out to me or your league’s editorial manager. I said it over 100 times in calls with managers last winter, and I’ll be happy to say it 100 more: if you are not on contract with us, please only write if you want to. If you’re a Trusted Access User, it’s because the manager of the site trusts you, and we want to give you access to our technology platform to share your content. We’re very glad you’re here! But don’t write if you don’t want to write or if you suspect it is a route to getting a contract from us. It is not.
We post open contract opportunities often and regularly! They’re on our Talent Manager Twitter handle and promoted by the Team Brands that have a role to fill. To reiterate how and when we post these opportunities: We start with a customized budget for each of our hundreds of brands and the defined roles that make sense. When one of those roles opens up, we open it up to applicants. And I’m very proud – as Elena noted in her post from last week – that the company has invested millions of dollars in Team Brand contractors this year.
Finally, I wasn’t the only one motivated to write a bit about Deadspin’s piece today. Vox Media’s publisher Melissa Bell sent this note over to Megan Greenwell, the Editor in Chief at Deadspin, today. We do not have plans to post this publicly, but I wanted you all to see it:
Yesterday, Deadspin EIC Megan Greenwell sent a response to Bell that included many of the points laid out in this post. She has not heard back.