Vox Media’s SB Nation has taken criticism over the years for having a lot of team site content from unpaid contributors and not-highly-paid site managers, which has also led to a lawsuit. The company is now parting ways with their California-based contractors thanks to incoming legislation impacting freelance writers, announcing Monday that they “will move California’s team blogs from our established system with hundreds of contractors to a new one run by a team of new SB Nation employees” and “will end our contracts with most contractors at California brands.” But that shift, and the way it was announced, has received a lot of blowback from those impacted, similar to past SB Nation public comments that haven’t lined up with the facts.
First, here’s the key part of the SB Nation announcement, which is under the byline of SB Nation director of team brands John Ness:
In 2020, we will move California’s team blogs from our established system with hundreds of contractors to a new one run by a team of new SB Nation employees. In the early weeks and months of 2020, we will end our contracts with most contractors at California brands. This shift is part of a business and staffing strategy that we have been exploring over the past two years, but one that is also necessary in light of California’s new independent contractor law, which goes into effect January 1, 2020. That new law makes it impossible for us to continue with our current California team site structure because it restricts contractors from producing more than 35 written content “submissions” per year. To comply with this new law, we will not be replacing California contractors with contractors from other states.Rather, we’re encouraging any contractors interested in one of our newly-created full-time or part-time employee positions to apply (you can find them here). We know many of our California contractors already have other full-time jobs and may not have the bandwidth to apply, but we hope to see many of them join us as employees.
We are committed to three things during this transition.
First, continuing to invest more in strengthening our communities in 2020. We know this model works: Two years ago, SB Nation invested in our team sites so that we could support more writing, resource new initiatives like podcasting, and create full-time positions at our biggest communities. In California, we’re doubling down on that last part of the strategy. SB Nation employees are already running our two fastest-growing California communities, Silver Screen & Roll and Niners Nation in the role of site producer.
Second, we’re committed to continuing our relationship with team site contractors in California today. For some of them, that will mean full or part-time employment at SB Nation, but for others it will mean offering a platform: They’ve built a following among our communities and after their contracts end, they’ll have the option (but no obligation) to continue blogging on those communities whenever (and only when) they like. They will be the first of our new Community Insiders – with a special lane to write on the site and a special place on the masthead. Community Insiders’ participation in events, blogging and any other community activities will always be 100 percent voluntary with no obligations to SB Nation at all. But to the extent these incredibly talented people want to remain involved in the communities that they helped build, create and foster, they will be – with special access to the features of the best sports conversation platform on the web.
Third, we are committed to doing right by these individuals who have been honorable and respected business partners. The network Tyler built has long relied upon us giving contractors the keys to publishing what they felt their communities wanted (and needed), and these contractors consistently lived up to the spirit and the letter of their agreements with us. We’ve offered each of them paid notice that recognizes their contributions and gives them time to decide what’s next for them.
That approach has received a lot of backlash, and it’s notable that the job listings they mention included only five California-focused positions as of Monday afternoon (there are 12 SB Nation positions listed overall, with two of those specifying a NY or DC location). The announcement itself mentions “hundreds of contractors,” so this looks like quite the job loss overall. Oh, but people can stay as “no obligation” (and presumably no pay) “Community Insiders.”
Even beyond the job loss details, though, there has been criticism for how SB Nation announced this without first informing those affected. A thorough piece headlined “Did Vox just fire the entire Golden State of Mind staff via Twitter?” from “Duby Dub Dubs” (a staff writer at SB Nation Warriors’ blog Golden State of Mind) illustrates the issues many have with how this was handled. Some highlights:
We’ve been asking Vox about this for months without response. As the normal contracting renewal period passed towards the end of Summer, there was a growing sense of dread amongst us that Vox was about to do us all dirty. You see, they didn’t just not renew contracts, they wouldn’t even provide updates or talk timeline for next steps.
…Everyone just (apparently) lost their writing gig.
I don’t know. Maybe some of us will stick around. I know that for me, my NBA experience won’t feel the same without GSOM in it. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a worse way to handle this communication, so maybe it’s time to cancel SBN?
Duby Dub Dubs also posted a comment on the announcement:
On behalf of those writers and community members, I would like to extend a heartfelt “fuck off”.
We have been creating content for years, many of us doing so for free, and ALL of us doing it at a below market rate for professional quality content.
Flowery language aside, this announcement coming out like this, rather than from our trusted site managers is a really, really crummy way to conduct yourselves. Beyond that, at least have the courtesy to more clearly communicate exactly what this means – instead of posting an extremely vague “k thank bye!” on social media.
And there are some other notable comments on that announcement post. Here are a few of those:
SB Nation also took a lot of criticism for this on Twitter:
“Unfortunately we can no longer legally exploit our writers so we’re damned if we’re going to treat them like actual employees”
— Jim Doherty* (@jimdoherty09) December 16, 2019
If these folks were offering value, why not just hire them outright?
— y i k e s s y k e s (@MrjSykes) December 16, 2019
So you're upset about a law that doesn't let you exploit writers you supposedly can't afford to pay as real employees?
— Michael Cresci (@MikeDetective1) December 16, 2019
It’s notable that SB Nation’s approach here has seen them criticized from two different sides. They’re taking flak from existing contractors upset that they’re being axed without notice, and they’re also taking backlash from those who disapprove of how SB Nation pays (or doesn’t pay) site managers and contributors, with many of those critics blasting this for being a move in response to legislation and a move that only impacts one state. So with this change, and with the way it was announced, SB Nation managed to get a whole lot of people mad at them.
What’s perhaps most interesting here is that while SB Nation’s post tries to portray their specific actions here as something that were forced on them thanks to California legislation, that’s not necessarily the case. Yes, AB-5 would have caused problems for SB Nation under their current setup; that law has drawn a lot of criticism from freelancers and publishers of many stripes, and it’s going to lead to changes for a lot of freelancers. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into “fire all the contractors”; there are ways for contractors to still contribute to publications for pay if they’re under the 35 contributions per year threshold the bill outlines, and SB Nation could have offered these contractors revised contracts that would comply with the new law.
And if there was a need to shift particular people to part-time or full-time employee status because they were going to be writing more than 35 pieces a year, SB Nation could have done that by working out deals with those people instead of going “You’re fired, but hey, you can apply for one of five remaining jobs, alongside everyone else who’s going to apply!” Also, if this shift was really about producing a better SB Nation model overall, it would seem that they would do it on a wider level. Doing this just in one state where a law is going to affect them doesn’t suggest it’s a proactive move or a desirable move, but rather something they’re being pushed into by local legislation.
The previous SB Nation model can certainly be criticized. The lawsuit claims (and other reporting supports) that SB Nation has at times put a whole lot of employee-like expectations and demands on people who are not being paid at anywhere near the level of employees, and there are obvious problems with that. But the backlash from the terminated contractors here illustrates another side of this; there are a lot of people who the current setup has worked for on one level or another, even with its significant problems (AA’s Sean Keeley wrote a 2017 piece on the pros and cons of his time running a team site for SBN, which is well worth a read here), and just saying “You’re all fired” to California contractors (while keeping the model elsewhere) isn’t necessarily the best way to improve things. Overall, SB Nation’s handling of this has led to a whole lot of people mad at them, and while any change here (or even the status quo) wouldn’t have pleased everyone, the way this was done appears particularly disastrous.