SB Nation Will No Longer Use California-Based Contractors

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:

  1. the industry is really shitty right now overall, with a lot of outlets trying to evolve and find a feasible revenue model
  2. we have a lot of freelancers in the business, more than what you would find on other career paths
  3. 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
  4. 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.

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22 Responses

    1. It’ll be the smartest bet/easiest money you ever made. Cowboys just dropped 44 on the rams and the eagles barely beat the 2 win giants and 3 win redskins (not to mention losing to the 2 win dolphins). Despite the delusion of eagles drones, their “season” such as it was, ends Sunday at home at the hands of a rival who will pound them harder than Sandusky did 8 year olds

  1. Very interesting Kevin. These are the types of articles I like reading – informative and not something I would otherwise know else about. Thank you.

  2. What a surprise! California passes a law to “help their workers”, but in reality it just ends up costing them jobs. Go liberalism!

          1. You’re proving my point idiot. Who passed the law in California? I didn’t know that conservatives ran the California legislature. Learn something new everday!

    1. This is the correct take here. This law intends to help workers but winds up hurting workers and business. Many of these contributors were doing this as a side-hustle and not as their actual job. You could argue that SB Nation should have paid more fairly for contributions, for sure, but the side gig money which is also an enjoyable hobby for most, is now gone. And speaking from some experience here as most of our writers are contractors, it would remove and cost some of our writers tens of thousands per year– who work hard and contribute to the bottom line and are paid fairly for it. Law is comically misguided in how it approaches the situation. Writing like this is unique in that the fixed time to create something scales radically differently depending on how many people read it and how it’s monetized.

      1. Thanks Kyle. Anyone with a 1st grade grasp of economics would understand this. So that obviously rules out Shart and the rest of the left.

        1. And some of us get past first grade. And then we understand why devaluing work doesn’t help the situation.

          But I am sure you and your first grade education are just happy to get any job you can get.

      2. You should really be offering health benefits to your employees. Or at least to the ones who write the gambling posts. Based on their picks, I imagine they get their kneecaps broken a lot.

    2. I mean the amount of “work” hasn’t changed at all, it’s just going to be handled by a dozen or so full time permanent staff instead of a few hundred freelancers. I’m sure the state itself is happy, they’d rather have 15 decent-paying jobs that pay taxes than 150 contract workers making a few bucks a day under the table. At the end of the day are the people losing their 20 dollar a week checks really losing much? If it’s such a great hobby, is $3 a story really the reason you’re doing it? Just write it for free and start a blog if you love writing that much.

      I’m not trying to knock the writers at all, really, nor do I feel any strong way about this law. I’m just playing devils advocate… at the payscale kevin describes this kind of work HAD to be a second or third gig by design. OK so the writers may lose access to a wider audience but twitter is a thing and nobody is losing their house over this, so what’s the big deal really?

  3. Writers are their own worst enemy. They are one of the few industries in this country not competing on a global scale and they still can’t get ahead. They give away their time and then wonder why it is so devalued. When I went to school for accounting there is no way I would every do something for free. I might not have had much experience, but I still had something to offer the company that was worth money. If I didn’t then they wouldn’t have brought me on board. If they were about teaching then they would be in that industry.

    1. Somewhat true, but it’s also a lot of people are clamoring for few high-paid opportunities, and will do anything to create it. In some cases, that can be very smart. Guessing SB Nation has created career paths for a number of folks– Jimmy Kempski, Eliot Shorr-Parks, I believe. So these are the equivalent of internships. No one is forcing someone to write for SB Nation or FanSided either. People are welcome to create their own platform, though that’s more difficult. Where SB Nation should have been smarter, however, was in recognizing genuinely valuable voice and compensating them accordingly rather than compelling them to work insane hours for negligible pay. That’s just bad business and invites this sort of scrutiny. Still, the law is bad.

      1. It doesn’t help that the barrier to entry for writing has been destroyed. Anyone with a 5th grade education and an opinion to share is now a writer. And because they come cheaper than those with actual journalism degrees companies are more than willing to hire them. It’s all about the clicks now even as the product has suffered. Journalism is killing itself as it races to the bottom.

      2. Actually Kempski and ESP would be the equivalent of lottery winners. People who succeeded against insurmountable odds based mostly on luck. Someone is bound to win the Powerball too, but it doesn’t make spending your money on it a smart decision.

  4. California, desperate to make life worse for normal people while pretending to help, has effectively killed freelance writing in the state. Their main target was Uber, but as is typical with such big government policies, the consequences go far beyond that.

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