Diaries of an Unpaid SB Nation Idiot

I’ve written about 180 articles for SB Nation. I’ve received $0.00.

That’s totally fine. Well, mostly fine. The majority of those articles were written for my benefit, and maybe like two other people. Nothing I’ve ever written has set the internet alight.

I’ve never asked for a paycheck and never expected one. I’ve never been asked to unionize, or felt any obligation to do so.

I write mostly because it’s cathartic for me. I’ve written articles that have taken weeks that were seen by maybe two people. My article on this here site about John Isner took a solid week and a half to work through, and you almost assuredly read none of it. I write because I want to write, and I have wrote and will write for SB Nation because I like the editors I’ve had there. The promise of a naturally larger audience tied to the legitimacy provided by SBNation.com is nice too.

So, two months ago, when Deadspin came out with both barrels blazing, ready to let loose on SB Nation for its reliance on unpaid or underpaid writers, I knew it wasn’t really me who Deadspin was championing. It’s the site managers of mid-level sites who clearly deserved a bigger chunk than what they were getting, and maybe a few unpaid bloggers who are really good at driving traffic.

I’m neither of those people, but I know plenty from both camps.

The story snowballed and burned itself out. SB Nation promised to make things better, and then the story was overtaken by the general chaos of American online media. But now, months after the Deadspin story burned out its oxygen supply, Vox is unionizing.

First of all, unions are good. I’m glad Vox full-time employees are trying to unionize, and I hope they win. Workers’ rights are always worth fighting for. Considering that workers’ rights for journalists have not been great recently (see: The Gothamist), it’s important for journalists to safeguard their interests.

However, do not for one single second think that those who are unionizing will do anything meaningful to address the biggest offense of Vox Media: its legions and legions of unpaid writers.

Other than Seth Rosenberg and Mike Prada, who were both featured prominently in the original Deadspin profile, no SB Nation full-time employees voiced any kind of support to unpaid writers when Deadspin was the one pushing the conversation. Instead, they either remained totally silent or got off some jokes about the whole thing.

The only reason they would genuflect and recognize unpaid writers is to score PR points.

Many of the people who are willing to pat themselves on the back for championing the little guy are the same people who oversaw budget cuts to numerous sites. Mountain West Connection was an awesome blog that left the SB Nation platform because they weren’t getting paid enough. When the people who oversaw their paychecks go on to tell you they’re ready to more equitably restructure the pay system for affiliate sites, it’s hard to take them at their word.

This is the same site that makes a habit of lifting content from its affiliate sites to repackage it on their homepage, often giving no credit to the site they used as a springboard.

Let’s go back to the Deadspin story. When that broke, none of these new SB Nation proletarian champions said a word in support of the unpaid workers that generate the vast majority of SB Nation’s traffic. They fell in line behind the company and Editor-in-Chief Elena Bergeron, .

There are unpaid writers at SB Nation fansites? That’s just how we do business! Underpaid positions lead to homogenous newsrooms? Not our fault! A network of 350 sites puts together a lot of traffic? Not a problem!

What turned a non-story into a story were two paragraphs. First, a very simple, very bad, and demonstrably untrue line that came from Editor-in-Chief Elena Bergeron.

“It’s our company policy that everybody who contributes for a Vox Media property gets paid,” SB Nation’s editor-in-chief Elena Bergeron told me when I asked her about the fact that only site managers and some bloggers are paid for their work.

This is false.

At best, it’s an egregious falsehood based in a tremendous lack of knowledge about how SB Nation actually functions. At worst, it’s just a lie. Later in the piece, General Manager Kevin Lockland wrote a long unintelligible paragraph that boiled down to: “we dish out $400-800 a month for your millions of page views, and we don’t care what happens later.” 1. Okay.

The memo SB Nation sent out after the Deadspin article published (which, fittingly, was sent only to site managers and not all site contributors despite emails being listed on every writer’s SB Nation profile) did little to assuage any concerns about the disconnect between the higher-ups at the mothership and people like me.

As someone who was a fan of SB Nation before I started writing for one of its subsidiaries, this is incredibly disheartening.

How SB Nation responded to the criticism (and, more often, did not respond) doesn’t make me feel confident that it wishes the same for my affiliate sites.

Most didn’t say anything. That was a little disheartening. People in the SB Nation community have been quick to come to the mothership’s defense. It’s like your family, you’re allowed to make fun of them, but if someone else does, there’s a problem.

Those that did talk about it, like Elena Bergeron, didn’t help their cause.

I understand the point of that first tweet, but there’s something revealing about treating hundreds of sites with wildly different goals, voices, and quality as just a lump of 300. The next tweet is nearly a verbatim argument the NCAA uses to support its amateurism model, a model that SB Nation continuously (and rightly) derides while remaining oblivious to how similar their business model is. As for prioritizing the “fan [sic],” I guess that’s a reference to the “Come fan with us” mantra SB Nation adopted. As for the “srsly?” post, well…

Yeah, that one didn’t sit extremely well with me.

If SB Nation believes in the importance of their team sites, which Bergeron tried to do in her explanation memo, they could do a better job of showing it. Elena Bergeron has never read any article posted on a site that I write for, and I can say that with darn near certainty. Neither has anyone else who makes decisions about what SB Nation is going to look like in the future. Instead of seeing the Deadspin feature as a wakeup call to better integrate the auxiliary sites into the mothership, SB Nation has decided to ignore it and let the story run its course.

And then we have this union. It would’ve been neat if peoples whose salaries are at least partly paid for by ad revenue generated by people who make zero dollars at least recognized some concerns. They have certainly recognized their own concerns. But they don’t.

I mean, the same people who are asking for the union today had the nerve to tweet things like this after the Deadspin article about how affiliate sites technically outdraw SBNation.com in traffic:

This was, of course, deleted within minutes of being posted. Not a great look for the manager of SB Nation’s college team sites.

It funnels down to one point for me: don’t ask me, an unpaid SB Nation minion, to have your back when you showed no interest in getting mine. Certainly don’t pretend to back my friends and colleagues who work long hours on top of their daily jobs to give SB Nation the content they need.

SB Nation’s only significant brand differentiator, other than a commitment to a vaguely woke, milquetoast social media tone, is its fan sites. I’d wager that nearly everyone who comes to SBNation.com with any kind of regularity came from a fan site first. That’s what makes SB Nation a place you want to visit. You have these very dedicated, very unique hubs of people who share a similar passion to you. From there, SBNation.com becomes a one-stop place to find team-specific content 2.

The only hope for unpaid writers in the Vox conglomerate who sustain this unique interaction is that their kind benefactors who are allowed to unionize are intimately aware and concerned about the issues the unpaid writers are facing.

Nothing suggests that’s anything other than a pipe dream.

It’s hard not to take that as an insult to the work so many talented people have done.

Footnotes

  1. Good team sites employ at least 5-7 writers and are expected to write 60-80 times a month, while also producing 8 videos a month that are needed to reach an “incentive.” One manager of a mid-level blog calculated that it would come out to about $7.40 per article/video or $1.60 per hour. Most of the high-volume SB Nation sites probably couldn’t pay peons like me even if they wanted to or could.
  2. It’s also full of hundreds of clickbait content farm articles.

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