You may have seen this yesterday, but I’ll try to keep it simple and use language that makes sense.
Long story short, Vox Media’s SB Nation has taken a lot of crap over the years for publishing content from unpaid and/or barely-paid contributors and using site managers who also don’t make a lot of money. People typically agree to work for them because they like the experience and they like the sense of community they get from being involved with hyper-local, team-specific sites. Bigger journalism fish, like the people who used to work at Deadspin, for example, think Vox is just exploiting their employees for cheap content.
Anyway, SB Nation is cutting ties with California based contractors after the state passed a new law restricting the amount of stories that writers are allowed to contribute on a per-year basis.
Here’s a quick explainer on that new law, Assembly Bill 5, via the LA Times:
Writers and photographers who submit more than 35 published works per year to a publisher must be treated as an employee of that publisher.
In practical terms, that means the publisher must deduct Social Security and Medicare taxes from the contributor’s fees and contribute to workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance on his or her behalf, among other responsibilities. On the writer’s side, employment status makes it harder to take tax deductions for home offices, travel and equipment.
Although every employer located in California is subject to the law, freelancers fear that AB 5 will discourage more employers from out of state from hiring Californians to avoid the paperwork and legal liabilities implicit in the law.
So if this thing passed in Pennsylvania and you were theoretically writing 6-8 stories a month for The Good Phight while making $3 per post, that would be no bueno moving forward. You’d either have to cut back your contribution or they’d have to reclassify your employment status, and in SB Nation’s case, they decided to simply end their contracts with most of their California-based people, writing this:
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.
There are a handful of job openings, but not a ton, so the net loss in total “employees” will be pretty big.
That said, a couple of things to know about writing writing/news/journalism:
- the industry is really shitty right now overall, with a lot of outlets trying to evolve and find a feasible revenue model
- we have a lot of freelancers in the business, more than what you would find on other career paths
- it’s harder to get a foot in the door and become successful doing this, so a lot of folks are willing to work for opportunity instead of money, at least initially
- some people are not trying to earn a “living wage” and know they can’t earn a “living wage” doing this
So a law like AB5 comes around, which is intended to prevent employers from exploiting freelancers and independent contractors for cheap labor, but instead places like SB Nation just say “ah fuck it” instead, and then replace “hundreds of contractors” with a handful of real jobs. The Athletic did this with their soccer staff recently, basically turning five writers into full time, regional employees while telling the rest of the freelancers that they were no longer needed.
Anyway, something to keep an eye on. These laws are created with good intentions, but it’s also naive to think that media outlets, most already struggling, will just start bringing on full timers while giving them health care and vacation and a 401k and all of that other stuff. Sounds kind of lame, since everybody should probably have those things in a perfect world, but that’s the reality of the industry and free market American Capitalism.