If you’ve been anywhere near sports twitter in the past 24 hours or so, you’ve probably seen people talking about Laura Wagner’s piece over at Deadspin, ‘How SB Nation Profits Off An Army Of Exploited Workers‘.
It’s a long, in-depth read, and I recommend that you take the time to pore through it. I don’t want to take too many clippings out of it, but if the gist of what was covered was as follows:
- Vox Media, SB Nation’s parent company, has built a billion dollar company on the backs of their blogging network.
- SB Nation, which consists of the bulk of their digital properties, is paying their site managers about $600 US a month, often with the inference that their salary is also a budget for them to work with to pay their other staff and cover expenses.
- Editor roles are promoted as hobby jobs but have job descriptions that are more extensive than mainstream sports outlets will demand of their staff
- While SBN promotes having a platform without significant editorial restriction, the other edge of that sword is that there is extremely limited assistance and mentorship available to Site Managers and that those managers are responsible overseeing and mentoring their contributors.
- Contributors salaries can be dramatically lower than editors; some don’t get paid at all, and even getting most of your staff to $20-100 per month is seen as a victory.
The article gives a rough estimate of $2.3 million in salaries paid to writers on team sites per year. Even if it’s closer to double that, it’s still an extremely far cry from the estimated value of the company, which is where you start to wonder about how lopsided of an arrangement this all is.
Now, I’ve been blogging for about a dozen years at this point, about ten of which have been near-solely dedicated to hockey. For about half of that time, I’ve had affiliations with blogging networks; most notably while climbing up the ladder of the Nation Network, a much smaller but still sizable, more Canadian hockey-focused network, but also with a few SB Nation contributions mixed in.
None of what’s being talked about above is new, or even specifically pertaining to SB Nation. It’s happening at just about every sports “blogging network”, to some degree. Being a site editor or contributor is something that comes with internet social status, and is vital to the growth of the companies you work for, but doesn’t exactly pay you well.
Personally speaking, as someone who has been on every step of the ladder within the content wing of one of these networks it took seven months to get my first paycheque, nearly three years to get to above $300 a month, before a bit of circumstance let me ramp things up in a few month span and get to pay that looked vaguely similar to a part-time job.
Now, it should be noted that the fact I got there is an outlier in this wing of the industry, involved a few shotgun wedding scenarios (me threatening to go back to self-operated in early years, a job offer in early 2016, and volunteering to take on a bunch of side-roles to boost my total). As I mentioned in my intro post to this site, I was at times writing 70-80 articles per month, operating social media accounts, acting as a first layer of help for other editors before getting into upper management, maintaining some elements of our older layout’s backend, and cutting and uploading video for some of our platforms to get to that wage.
That’s considered a success story, attached to someone with years of experience. That’s a story I could only get to because I live with my family and saved up a large nest egg from working retail, giving me some time to go without a day job in order to take a knowingly bad deal and hope to make it into a palatable one. I more or less got there but burned out by the time I did and would, never, ever recommend taking the risk.
Now imagine the people who invest real-world job hours into chasing their dreams on one of these networks, provide them tens to hundreds of thousands of monthly page views as star writers for big-money companies, then get lucky if they can pay for their car insurance or bus pass with the cheque.
Can it get you called up to the big leagues of mainstream media? Maybe. You have to be really good, really lucky, probably have a degree that you spent tens of thousands of dollars on, probably have some internships attached to you, and hope that the next person to leave a sports media job in your city isn’t having their position folded into buying off the news wire or filled by rotating interns.
Can it get you a social media following that you can parlay into your own thing? Maybe. But that means less in 2017 than it did in 2007; the wild west is gone, the influencers up to have been established, and you need to be an extreme talent to catch up now.
Can you just start your own blog? Technically so. But the point here is similar; you’re competing with the same hobbyists from ten years ago, likely meaning the quality race is similar, but if they’re on a network making $50 a month, they’ve got a company using the surplus budget on buying social media promotion, getting them highly ranked on google searches and news, and have the leverage of established platforms to sweep you under the rug.
Anybody trying to crack into the Leafs blogosphere will be pleased to know that two of the top 5 most-read sites are run by companies with $1 billion+ valuations, which is impressive considering that most fans of this team can’t name five active Leafs blogs that they read regularly.
The expectations don’t line up and they haven’t for a long. Every site has a robust content plan that resembles major media outlets. You can’t miss a single headline. It’s hard to sell that this is an industry of fans writing about what they care about when every call-up or Instagram photo needs an article in 30 minutes or less. It’s hard to say this is development of talent when the guidance basically amounts to “figure out what works because your traffic numbers need to go up, and fast”.
If the sites have more required coverage than they have passion coverage, then they aren’t hobbyist platforms. If the sites are rarely actually developing young writers into professional, full-time talent, then they aren’t launching pads. At that point, they’re content mills taking advantage of a race to the bottom.
Said race is encouraged when the model is defended, it wasn’t hard to find people defending it yesterday. You’ll note that the ones who did so tended to be those well into their adult years, who have real-world careers, don’t write much of their platforms’ content, and really do just value having a place to be and shoot the shit with their friends and readers.
That’s cool, but while the situation works for you, it drives down the cost and opportunity for those who want to make their leap. It’s similar to a retired billionaire coming to your primary work and volunteering to take your job in exchange for free food at the cafeteria because it seems fun and they can make some friends. Why not, right? They’re willing to do it and it doesn’t matter much to them.
Having not worked at the business ops side of this scope, I couldn’t tell you the exact revenues that these sites bring. But I do know that something’s a little weird when there are writers who make less per month than the company is willing to pay for a single photo to make one of their articles look professional enough. That something’s a little weird when you can’t justify chucking somebody $5-10 for a post but can justify $25 to boost the article on Facebook. The idea that the least valuable members of a written platform are the writers themselves seems intuitively backwards; so why do we defend corporations taking advantage of that very philosophy?
It’s not something that can be fixed easily at this point; we’re very close to a point of no return, where even the bigger outlets are creating their own forks of intern-driven fast-content to replicate the low-cost, high-return model. But writers and site managers should know and acknowledge their worth. There aren’t many traditional jobs left for grabs, so if this is what you want to do with your life, you need to push your hardest to make sure that these new jobs are actually jobs. If this isn’t a career ambition for you, well, push anyway so your friends that are trying to make it don’t get left behind. They need your help, because if you remain as “the happy floor”, you’re a key part of the problem.