On December 16, SBNation put up a post, topped by a stock photo of some young female San Jose Sharks fans, to tell the world they were terminating the contracts of a large number of writers for sites based in California. SBNation, isn’t just hockey or even just the big four professional sports, so that announcements affected 25 different sites. They reported in this post that over 200 people blogged on those sites in 2019.
SBNation termed this move “bittersweet” and most of us are still looking for the sweet and can’t find it.
The root of this decision is a new law (signed in to law on September 18) in the state of California that makes it harder for companies to classify workers as contractors instead of employees. The popular description of the law is an move against “gig economy” employers who contract out work almost exclusively. This law has actually grown out of a court decision, and has been in the works for some time.
The law affects journalism, and journalism-adjacent businesses in a particular way:
As CJR reported in March, some publishers responded to the Dynamex ruling by cutting ties with freelancers based in California. The passage of Assembly Bill 5 offers some relief: freelance writers, editors, photographers and editorial cartoonists were given a partial carve-out, allowing publishers to hire them for up to 35 separate “content submissions” in a given year. (The law exempts more than 20 professions, including doctor, lawyer, manicurist, travel agent and commercial fisherman. Graphic designers have a full exemption, which means California judges could find themselves ruling on how much Photoshop work it takes to distinguish photography from graphic design.)
And for many types of media today, that means they have to overhaul how they get their stories, and who they hire, or in a lot of cases, just don’t hire.
Nathan Cambridge, a freelance sportswriter in Los Angeles, covers football games and other high school and community college sporting events for local newspapers
“In an ideal world, the company would recognize the value of my content and think, ‘Rather than not being able to use this person anymore, I’ll give them a job,’ but that’s not the world we’re in with newspapers,” Cambridge says. “What’s going to happen is, I’m going to hit 35 and they’re going to stop giving me assignments.”
And this is where the reality of media itself smashes into the intent of California’s lawmakers to protect the rights of workers. Something all sides in this conversation should realize is that there isn’t a big pot of gold greedily being horded by publishers of most forms of media. SBNation, for example, has suggested they are going to hire 15 paid employees to run the 25 sites in California.
For us here at PPP, we don’t expect anything to change, and we have no contributors who live in California, so no one is being fired out from under us. But the hockey sites as a group are connected, and we share back and forth, standing on an even playing field as writers and site managers who aren’t journalists, who aren’t working at a job where an editor hands us assignments, but as bloggers who, frankly, run off at the mouth for the most part.
We’re here to talk, to argue, to opinionate, and we’re here — here on SBNation — because when the sites were originally founded and PPP joined up, it was a way to link writers like us (fans who blog, bloggers who are fans) to an audience. SBNation pays for the infrastructure that all of us as individuals would have to re-invent hundreds of times over to go out and just blog as the OK Boomer advice has been from professional journalists in the past.
The media landscape has changed a lot, just in the time PPP has existed. And when people do try to go out on their own and “just blog” following that advice, they quickly find out they’ve got two full time jobs that don’t pay them anything: one writing and one shilling their brand on social media. Oh, and then there’s the cost and technical skill of putting a site on the air.
So, it’s fair to say that SBNation provides a service to the fans who want to blog, and then they divvy up the ad revenue as they see fit. They’ve seen fit to dole it out in small portions to non-professional writers and site managers, and now for one set of sites, that’s going to change:
For some of [the California site contractors], 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.
Our common playing field is getting tipped. And in whose favour is a very open question. There is nothing sweet here for anyone, not Vox who owns SBNation, not us looking in on this from another country where our rules about contracting vs employment are different, and not the 200 or so people who are now competing for a very, very few jobs or who can blog for no compensation at all.
Many of the hockey sites have decided to take today to go dark to protest this situation:
We are very disturbed and concerned by two separate, yet related, issues that arose as a result of this decision. First, the decision to cut loose the entire writing staffs of 25 SB Nation team sites was a complete surprise to everyone impacted. It dropped out of the clear blue sky with no warning and minimal contact from SB Nation management prior to being made public. The fact that it happened a week and a half prior to Christmas makes it even more difficult to accept.
The California law that prompted this decision was enacted on September 18, yet the affected writers had no knowledge that their contracts with Vox Media were at risk until they were told that the contracts were being terminated, nearly three months later.
SBN management has stated that part- and full-time positions, which are now posted, will be used to replace the current contractor positions that will no longer be available as a result of the new California law. While current contractors have been invited to apply for these newly-created positions, the reality is that many of the writers affected by this decision have little to no interest in traditional employment with the requisite expectations on time and commitments that employment entails. Many of us have existing jobs and careers that we work our SBN commitments around. While it isn’t by any means a perfect scenario, it works for a good number of our writers, and it’s heartbreaking that so many good writers are being sacrificed outright as the result of an ill-conceived law and ill-conceived decisions resulting from that law.
Read more here.
SBNation has chosen to carry some of their California contractors through next year in a transition phase. I personally do not see any way out of this mess that doesn’t involve California relaxing it’s rules or exempting some or all forms of journalism from this law the way they have many other professions.
But the decision to remove non-California residents from their site-manger and writer positions, to terminate contracts with little warning, and to wait until the end of 2019 to disclose how they were going to deal with a law passed months before failed the fans who built those 25 sites in a fundamental way.
There might never be a good solution to this conundrum. There can only ever be integrity and respect in dealing with each other as we try to navigate this difficult media landscape.
PPP has chosen to discuss this with you today in a way that we hope is helpful to you in understanding the issues, and we will cover the Leafs game this afternoon with a game day thread for you to meet and talk with us, which is what we’re here for, is what makes these sites unique and is not something a professional content creator can ever replicate.
See you at 2 pm for the game.