Vox Media is set to pay out millions of dollars to settle collective action lawsuits that cover more than 450 workers who managed or wrote for SB Nation, according to a proposed settlement agreement filed yesterday in federal court.
SB Nation, the sports “brand” under the Vox Media umbrella, was founded in the mid-aughts as a casual collection of blogs by and for sports fans. As it grew and morphed into Vox Media, a digital media behemoth encompassing multiple properties, the sports bloggers at the bottom of the operation were still expected to operate as “fans,” grateful to have a platform and maybe a chance at getting a real sportswriting job, while doing the work of full-time or nearly full-time employees: churning out content against which Vox Media could sell ads, garner pageviews, and draw massive investments. Though today SB Nation is a shell of what it once was—due in part to rounds of layoffs, poor management, and attrition—at its peak, SB Nation comprised a national site, staffed mostly by full-time employees, and hundreds of team sites, staffed mostly by lowly paid and unpaid workers. It was this latter group that sued Vox Media.
According to the terms of the $4 million settlement, which awaits final approval from a judge, a million and a half dollars will go to cover attorney and other legal fees. Another $2.5 million “will be apportioned based on weeks worked and a point-system, which is tied to whether the person was a Site Manager or a Contributor and whether the class member worked in California, New Jersey or elsewhere in the United States.”
The proposed settlement covers three different collective action lawsuits brought against Vox Media for misclassifying SB Nation team site workers—the people who wrote the blog posts and managed the social media accounts and took direction from actual, salaried SB Nation executives—as independent contractors and for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying fair wages. From the proposed settlement:
Plaintiffs estimate that the average award for Site Managers in Bradley is approximately $4,940.88 and the median award is approximately $3,989.08; , the average award for each Spruill Site Manager will be approximately $9,451.49 (including pro-rata distributions to aggrieved employees for the PAGA allocation) with a median award of approximately $7,538.43; the average award for each Spruill (non-site manager) contributor will be approximately $2,980.07 (including pro-rata distributions to aggrieved employees for the PAGA allocation) with a median award of approximately $2,410.20; the average award for each Reddington Site Manager will be approximately $7,360.79 with a median award of approximately $5,579.96; and the average award for each Reddington (non-site manager) contributor will be approximately $2,505.09 with a median award of approximately $2,165.50.
The first lawsuit was filed in September 2017 and cited this Deadspin report detailing how the company exploited workers. As the lawsuits gained steam, Vox Media and SB Nation executives variously attempted to reform the team site system and push back on characterizations of its business model was fundamentally anti-labor, with little success. Vox Media flack Meridith Webster told VICE News:
“We have not departed from the company’s previous position as we have always believed that we treat our content creators fairly. With regard to the settlement, Vox Media and the plaintiffs have reached a mutual settlement agreement covering the related class action lawsuits brought on behalf of SB Nation site managers and contributors. Settling all three lawsuits together and ending the litigation was the desired outcome for all parties. Ultimately, we weighed the costs of continued litigation and made a business decision that this settlement amount was reasonable and would enable the company to put these cases behind it and move on. There was no admission of liability. We are grateful for the many contributions of our content creators."
A lawyer for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On one hand, the proposed $4 million settlement would help make workers whole and is clearly a rebuke of scummy labor practices. On the other, it’s pocket change to a company like Vox Media and only covers a fraction of the lowly paid and unpaid workers on whose backs a media empire was built. After raking in $200 million in funding from Comcast in 2015, Vox Media was valued at one billion dollars. Last year, after acquiring New York Media (including Vulture, The Cut, and Intelligencer), the company was reportedly valued at $750 million.
The full proposed settlement can be read here.