Late in yesterday’s daily thread, we were linked to this piece by Laura Wagner at Deadspin entitled “How SB Nation Profits Off An Army Of Exploited Workers“. It’s a very good read for those of you unfamiliar with how SB Nation operates, but for many of you it may not be a surprise, considering that this site rose from the ashes of It’s All Over, Fat Man!, of which in turn arose from SB Nation’s Broncos blog, Mile High Report.
Due to these relations, and the attention Wagner’s article will likely get in the coming days, I felt it would be appropriate to compare and contrast a few of the aspects brought to light.
When I founded this site, I was not quite sure how it would evolve, as it came together rather quickly following the abrupt demise of IAOFM. But even in that quick moment, there were a few core principles that I knew I wanted to stick to.
Thin Air is not in it for the money.
The central damning accusation levied at SB Nation is its aggressive manipulation of the independent contractor exception to the Fair Labor Standards Act, allowing the company to pay writers and managers very little in order to increase their prophets.
I knew from Day 1 that I did not want to go down the money rabbit hole. No paywall, no ads, no nothing (and I got fairly grumpy when Disqus embedded ads in the comments without even asking me). It is money that I do not need, and it effectively costs me nothing to run this site anyway, as the server is already a sunk cost for my web development work.
In doing so, I feel this sends a message for a site that is truly a community effort: everyone gets paid the same as I, the publisher, does: zero. Adding money into any venture always complicates, and without care can create perverse incentives, as we are seeing from SB Nation.
Thin Air does not create content for the sake of creating content.
One of those perverse incentives that I picked up in Wagner’s article is SB Nation’s continuous nudging for its sites to produce high volumes of traffic. This highlighted anonymous quote sums it up:
“They tell me every day to do more posts, more on social, more video,” one site manager who makes less than $600 a month said. “Literally every day I feel like I’m not doing enough for my site.”
It’s not hard to figure out why this is pushed from a revenue standpoint: more posts means more clicks for advertisers, even if it contains content aggregated news or information that can be found easily elsewhere.
This type of regurgitation has never interested me, and I’ve largely seen it as unnecessary. I was able to put together this Twitter list of Broncos and NFL news in a matter of minutes, and I think it tells you enough about the core of what’s going on. If you’re not a Twitter fan, David Singer’s River of News also does the job well. Furthermore, the operation of our daily Orange Overview threads has come to serve both the tasks of finding news, and then talking about that news in comment replies.
I also make it clear that no one, including myself, is under pressure to write or comment all the time on this site. I certainly wish for you to contribute, but the type of prodding that is being alleged at SB Nation I feel will just lead to poorer and uninspired content as much as it will lead to richer and devoted content.
I do think that there are two fair criticisms of Thin Air in this regard that limit its potential. One is that I do not promote this site as much as I could. I suppose I just don’t have much self-promotion in my personality. I certainly welcome anyone else who wishes to do so, but at the same time I’m not going to nudge you into getting the word out.
The other is that the level of original content is low. While I always welcome more contributors to the cause, I also want people writing about what they’re most comfortable and knowledgeable about. I feel I’m quite adept at looking at the Broncos through the lens of a front office, dealing with contract, salary cap, and roster issues. But I am also poor at other aspects (Xs and Os and film review is the big one), and thus I’m not going to insult readers by writing about something I don’t know enough about.
Thin Air complements, and does not supplement, the hard work done by full time NFL journalists and analysts
But to offer a defense of the low amount of original content, I will submit this: creating such high level content is much harder than it looks. Off the top of my head, I’ve tried in the past to write articles about the collective bargaining agreement, domestic violence, concussions, and whether the NFL will remain king, and I’ve ended up stalling or junking those efforts because I realized I was in over my head. These, and other ideas, might one day see the light of the internet, but it will take more time and work to do than I have be able or willing to put forward thus far.
Several times during these aborted attempts, I would wish that I had an entire day or more to research the issue at hand, or that I had an editor that could assist me through the process and help to write a better article. These resources, of course, are the advantage that professional writers have at their disposal. And even with that, it’s still a challenging job to do. Whenever we link to an article that’s been written about the Broncos or the NFL, we should be grateful for the work done by the author, even if we disagree with portions within it.
And this isn’t limited to strict writing: other NFL sites–including, but not limited to: Pro Football Reference, Football Outsiders, and Over The Cap–do valuable and extensive work to bring knowledge about the sport that is not easy to put together. (I can attest to this directly with regards to the last link.)
Fan community driven sites like this one, SB Nation’s network, and others, can’t easily replicate that. These sites do provide a valuable role in learning about the sports they are covering, as fans have some unique insights that non-fans do not. But on the same token they also have limitations that other sites do not, and it’s important to recognize and be honest with those limitations.
It’s unfortunate that the likes of SB Nation haven’t been more transparent on what their motives are. It’s my goal here at Thin Air to be free of those types of outside motives, and to host a community that’s free from the pressures of the same.