Between November 2008 and December 2016, I was the editor and site manager for Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, SB Nation’s Syracuse blog. When SBNation.com launched as an editorial hub in 2009, I was one of its original editors and writers. For a brief time, I worked as a full-time employee for the SB Nation sales support staff. When Vox Media acquired the Curbed Network in 2013, my role as editor of Curbed Seattle coincidentally fell under the same umbrella as my TNIAAM job. In 2015, because of the time I put into both sites, I was hired once more as a full-time Vox Media employee until I left at the end of 2016.
The point being that in those eight-plus years, my livelihood was tied to Vox Media in some way, shape, or form. And yet, I would hardly ever say that I felt like I was a true member of the Vox family. Almost all of the work I did under the banner was remote. Of the countless blog posts I wrote, from a reaction to Jim Boeheim’s latest outburst to finding out the current price of the Sleepless in Seattle houseboat, I wrote most of them while sitting in a coffee shop or my kitchen. Like so many other bloggers working under the Vox umbrella, I put the independent in independent contractor.
I left both Vox properties in January 2017 due in large part to a move from Seattle to Chicago. Since I was about to give up my gig as editor of Curbed Seattle, I’d be returning to the status of Vox Media independent contractor. At the same time, I had come to a realization that I was emotionally exhausted after spending over ten years (I’d created TNIAAM in 2005) putting more hours than I can ever count into making those sites the best I thought they could be. If I’m honest I probably burned out on TNIAAM a year or two earlier but considering that site was my baby, it was a long, hard goodbye.
The sometimes-paltry compensation I’d received over the time when I wasn’t a full-time employee certainly didn’t tip the scales towards my continued employment. When I first joined SBNation as a blogger looking for a way to monetize my growing site, I was more than happy to take on a monthly stipend of a couple hundred dollars. That was a couple hundred dollars more than I was making as a guy running a blog by himself. Plus the relationship gave me access to backend tools, content partnerships, and promotional opportunities that I didn’t have otherwise. As an office drone looking for a way to begin transitioning into a full-time writer, it felt like an important first step.
I learned pretty quickly that except for a handful of talented bloggers, the only way most of us were ever going to make a living at this was to find ways to monetize our growing communities with worthwhile offerings. So even though my monthly check from SBNation barely paid my electric bill, I started generating other income on the back of my blog. I edited a Syracuse basketball preview magazine back when that was still a thing. I wrote a book all about Syracuse sports. I made editorial advertising deals with local sponsors, something that SB Nation encouraged and let me keep entirely for myself. Writing the blog also gave me opportunities to write for other outlets and raise my profile. I even got the chance to contribute a couple March Madness previews to Deadspin (for which I was “paid in exposure,” FYI). Eventually, the success of the blog even allowed me to become an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s iSchool.
Things weren’t all rosy during all of this. Despite the blog taking off and finding multiple ways to make money, the transition from working in an office with a steady salary and benefits to the life of a freelance blogger was a tough one. There were some very lean months in there. Months on end where I would check the bank account each morning to make sure I had enough money for a muffin at the coffee shop while I churned out six or seven pieces of content for TNIAAM. There were a lot of factors involved in that but it certainly created an internal grudge at times between myself and my employer. That grudge got stronger when I started writing for Curbed and earned way more money for running a site that received way less traffic than TNIAAM. It got even stronger when TNIAAM and Curbed were under the same banner and the pay disparity didn’t change.
All of which is to say that I have very mixed emotions about Vox Media and SBNation. I owe them greatly for helping me create my career as a writer and editor, a career path that saved my sanity. I think they gave me the support, the tools, and platform to do what I wanted whenever I wanted and they never told me “no.” The people I worked with at SB Nation were supportive and kind and I can’t remember a single instance where anyone scolded me or threatened me over anything I did or did not do.
But I also have resentment about the lack of compensation I received over that long period of time. A resentment strengthened over the years when it didn’t seem like Vox was willing to consider that it needed to change the model, even as it swallowed up other content brands that paid its contributors better.
You might ask, why stay in a gig that doesn’t make you 100 percent happy? Well, why do any of us stay in gigs that don’t make us 100 percent happy? The New York Times wasn’t knocking on my door. No one was. Sometimes you do what you gotta do until the opportunities strike, and then you take care of yourself.
So when I read Laura Wagner’s Deadspin piece titled, “How SB Nation Profits Off An Army Of Exploited Workers,” I admit my first thought was that the penny had finally dropped. The chickens were coming home to roost.
However, the more I read, the more I realized there actually isn’t a whole lot new information here. Anyone who had come into contact with SB Nation over the years already knew that the pay was meager. Anyone who has tread in the world of online content could tell you that the people producing that content are almost always underpaid. Was this shocking reveal really all that much of a reveal?
The kill shot is SB Nation editor-in-chief Elena Bergeron saying it’s “company policy that everybody who contributes for a Vox Media property gets paid,” which is incorrect and damning. It’s also really confusing. Having worked there for as long as I did, I know that the SBNation.com editor has practically nothing to do with the team blogs, so of course she wouldn’t be up to speed on the ins and outs of the blogger pay structure. It’s a little bit like having someone at ESPN comment on matters at ABC because both companies are owned by Disney.
And then I stopped to think about where this article was coming from. I started thinking about why Deadspin would want to write this piece. I started thinking about the reasons Deadspin (and Gawker, R.I.P.) often writes hit pieces like this.
First, some more background on running a blog at SB Nation.
After a long time writing blog posts about the miserable state of Syracuse football while sitting in my cubicle at an office job I hated, I eventually broke down and started bringing on other writers. I was able to provide a small monthly stipend to some of them but most wrote for free. I tried to be as upfront as possible with everyone and let them know if they were uncomfortable with the arrangement they could walk at any time and I wouldn’t hold it against them. I had quite a few writers disappear after one week. Most of them stuck around for at least a few months. I figured if I couldn’t pay them, the least I could do was provide an opportunity for young writers to pad their portfolio and go on to do greater things.
Thankfully, many of them have. TNIAAM writer alums have gone on to write for The Daily Orange, New York Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Bergen Record, NHL.com, The Business Journals, and many other outlets. I was lucky enough to be able to eventually hand off the site to one of them as well.
On the flip side, it was always really easy for competitors like Scout or Rivals to swoop in and steal a good writer. And I’m sure the lack of a financial incentive kept a lot of good writers from participating in the first place. It was what it was but so long as the writer was happy with their decisions, I was happy for them.
As for how I and the blog were treated by SB Nation staff, honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better setup. I can’t speak for other blog managers but for almost the entire time I was there, I was left to my own devices. They trusted me to make TNIAAM the best goddamn Syracuse blog on the internet and I trusted them to help me out when I asked for it. If other blog managers say they got a hard time from SB Nation staff, my first thought is that maybe they weren’t very good blog managers. It always seemed like the squeaky wheels got the grease, and it was up to you not to squeak.
Being a college blog, I dealt directly with college blog managers and I can’t even think of a time when they didn’t answer a question quickly or hear out my concerns. They were hamstrung at times, almost always when it came to compensation, but they were otherwise as supportive as any blogger could ask for.
Beyond that, we never really dealt with or heard from other SB Nation or Vox Media personnel. We certainly never heard from SBNation.com staff or high-up editorial folks. That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if Bergeron didn’t even know team blogger policies until she sat down for that interview. There was zero interaction between that position, its predecessors, and blog managers. An invisible wall existed between the two sides. Yes, there was mutual promotion between the two sides, but there was also a very clear understanding that you deal with your point people and your point people only.
Every quarter or so we’d get an update from CEO Jim Bankoff who would tell us how well the company is doing or that we’d just received a new round of funding. I know those were supposed to get me pumped about working there, but these updates usually just made me wonder why I wasn’t getting more money.
So you can see the push and pull. Working for them was great. Getting paid by them was not great. The opportunities working for them created were great. The inability to lean on being an SB Nation blogger-only as a profession was not great. I’m sure you can find me some examples of financially successful bloggers who write for SB Nation full-time but I’m also sure I could show you that they also have their hand in another aspect of the company (recruiting content, video, etc.).
The truth is that while there are a lot of great SB Nation blogs in the ever-growing network, most of them are always going to top out at “just fine.” There’s a finite audience for each one of them and they’re made up of fickle sports fans with seasonal interests. There are blogs that write a ton of articles every day and can’t find traction. There are blogs that write sparingly but every post takes off. There are blogs that just do the bare minimum to meet their mandated or personal quotas and that’s good enough for them.
I can empathize that trying to find a way to pay a network of blogs that vary in terms of size, audience, and quality has to be daunting. Not that it excuses underpaying content creators, but I can understand the complexities involved. Do you pay based on performance? Do you pay more in basketball season than during the summer doldrums when traffic falls off a cliff? Do you make blog managers employees and deal with the constant churn and turnover?
It’s not lost on me that these are some of the same arguments people make about paying college athletes. I’ve argued long and loud about compensating NCAA student-athletes always aware that we were dealing with the same economics in our own house.
Ultimately what I’ve taken away from the experience is that it’s up to you to determine your own worth, be it as a writer, a painter, or an accountant. Once you do that, act accordingly. If you’re cool using SB Nation’s platform to further your career and find better-paying opportunities, do it. If you think you’re better than writing for free, go prove it to yourself. If you think you deserve to be paid $1,000 per article, then by god go try to make it happen. I salute your moxie.
So coming back around to the Deadspin piece, I can’t really argue with the point that most bloggers who write for SB Nation are underpaid. It’s factual. But I think the problem I have with it is how the article tries to paint the process as some kind of communist operation where the proletariat suffers unwillingly.
Look, I’m a longtime fan of Deadspin. I think the Will Leitch Era is one of the most important times in online sports media history. Deadspin changed the game on what could be considered sports news and commentary and they still provide tons of quality content with a purpose and journalistic integrity. But sometimes, Deadspin, and Gawker Media before it, just love to take a big dump on their competitors for the sake of it.
The days of outing rival media company gay executives is over (though not without it’s consequences) but you can usually read a few Deadspin stories about a rival and get a pretty good sense of what’s stuck in their craw even if the articles are about different things.
For instance, a July story about an ill-advised blog post about Gordon Hayward on the SB Nation Utah Jazz site ends with this kicker:
Even the editors and site managers in the SB Nation web only receive a paltry monthly stipend for their work, though, so nobody can be too surprised when one of them, while working on a holiday for not much pay, publishes an ill-advised post that probably would have never seen the light of day had it been subject to a professionalized editing process.
A February post about an SB Nation blogger who plagiarized becomes a running screed that’s basically the predecessor to this recent piece:
One of the hundreds of unpaid randos who produce the vast majority of the blogs on SB Nation’s network of sites has been, uh, fired(?), after the discovery that she’d extensively plagiarized an article about NFL draft prospects in a post for the blogging network’s Denver Broncos site.
…The choice to rely on, and make money off of, a vast cloud of random minimally checked near-strangers is the choice to countenance shoddy work.
You can feel the contempt, but it’s such a bummer to see it focused on the unpaid or low-paid bloggers, as if they’re the bad guys because one person out of a thousand was a dummy. That’s some Bob Costas “mom’s basement” shit right there.
Why does Deadspin have such a vested interest in the unpaid, unwashed masses over at SB Nation? Because, as I’m sure they’ll tell you, they’re unionized. And they like writing about other outlets with unionized writers. A lot. They’re a bit obsessive about it.
They also like writing about outlets that don’t have unionized writers but, as noted, the tone is a little different.
They could take the tact of saying, “Hey, SB Nation writers, you’re getting screwed and we want to help you.” Instead, articles like this drive home the prevailing opinion that Deadspin’s writers really want to say, “Hey, SB Nation writers, you’re getting screwed, we’re not, because we’re better than you, so go fuck yourselves.”
It’s agenda journalism, which is still journalism but doesn’t feel quite as good. It doesn’t feel organic. You just know they don’t actually care about the people who write for SB Nation, this is just a way for them to show superiority and gloat.
I remember when I first moved to Seattle, I was so excited to pick up the new issue of The Stranger and Seattle Weekly each Wednesday. I felt like I was finally getting the kind of perspective and analysis of local events that spoke to me. One day I remember opening up Seattle Weekly and reading an investigative article about underage prostitution. The gist of the piece seemed to be that it’s not actually as big a deal as people make and, hey, some of the underage prostitutes kinda like it.
I was blown away by the insane premise and how the article ended up getting printed. What I soon realized is that the Seattle Weekly’s parent company, Village Voice Media, was getting a lot of criticism over their Backpage.com service, which featured adult service ads, some of which were said to be advertising underage prostitutes. The article, it seems, was written with the specific agenda to downplay the problem so that the company could feel better about the way it made its profit. That’s some Rupert Murdoch shit right there. I only read The Stranger after that.
It was the first time I realized that even the media outlets I thought were ahead of the curve and “on my side” were still entities with their own agendas and goals. And sometimes they let those agendas get the better of them.
Now, I’m not trying to draw a straight line between the (mostly white and male) unpaid SB Nation bloggers and underage prostitutes. But then again, the title and lead image of the Deadspin piece does try to draw a straight line between unpaid SB Nation bloggers and sweatshop workers, so I suppose it would be only slightly crasser. The point remains that sometimes a hit piece is just a hit piece, and other times, a hit piece comes with an agenda that changes its value. It’s hard to know the difference most of the time, and it doesn’t mean the points aren’t valid, but it does raise questions about whether or not they’d have bothered to write the article otherwise.