SB Nation faces murky future after Vox Media furloughs national writers for three months
The future of one of the earliest sports websites, SB Nation, is in doubt after a raft of furloughs Friday left the outlet without nearly all of its national writers for the next three months, and potentially longer.
Bankoff added, “Areas disproportionately impacted include revenue areas where short-term demand will be lower such as sales, sales support, production, events; editorial areas including SB Nation’s national sports coverage . . .”
SB Nation is known best for its network of more than 300 team-centric blogs, which are run mostly by low-paid contractors or volunteers. But the site also employs around 100 full-time staffers, and Friday’s furloughs, which last from May 1 through July 31, wiped out much of the editorial team that writes and edits for the national site.
Among those affected were former editorial director and writer Spencer Hall, prominent basketball writer Mike Prada, feature writer Natalie Weiner and a team of college football reporters and editors. In all, around 20 people from the site were furloughed, roughly one-fifth of the full-time staff, and nearly all of the site’s employees who focus on writing.
“I am one of the people @voxmedia will be furloughing for 3 months starting on May 1,” Prada tweeted Friday morning. “I don’t know what the future holds for me or @SBNation, but I’m so proud of the work we do.”
The Vox Media Union tweeted Friday that it disagreed with the furloughs, arguing that hundreds of Vox employees had offered to take pay cuts in lieu of the furloughs. The union said they had won guarantees of no additional layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts through the end of July.
According to four people familiar with the situation, the furloughed SB Nation employees also have been offered severance packages that they can accept by May 31, which several staffers said raised concerns about the future of the site and whether the company wants them back or if they’d return.
“It’s hard to look at this and think sbnation.com would continue to exist as any reader has known it,” one furloughed writer said.
In a statement, Vox publisher Melissa Bell wrote, “We recognize the uncertainty of being on furlough during this time is not tenable for some people, so if some of our employees need to take severance now, we’re discussing that with them.”
The national SB Nation site stood out for Hall’s essays about college football, inventive videos and interactives produced by Jon Bois, who remains at the site, and its college football vertical, Banner Society.
Friday’s furloughs hit other aspects of Vox Media, including technology website The Verge and food-centric publication Eater. (Vox also publishes an eponymous news site and Silicon Valley-focused Recode and recently merged with New York Media, the publisher of New York Magazine.) Most affected, though, was SB Nation, founded in 2005 and the original website of what would become Vox Media’s sprawling portfolio.
Several SB Nation employees described the situation at the website as tense going back several years. While the company expanded in other areas of the business, little investment was made in SB Nation, they said. When prominent writers and editors left the site, they almost never were replaced.
On a staff-wide call with remaining Vox employees Friday morning, Bell explained that part of the reason for the changes at SB Nation was because the sales team has had a hard time explaining the site’s combination of team communities and a national site to advertisers, according to a transcript of the call.
“We perceive this is a corporate reorganization and something they wanted to do anyway,” one furloughed writer said. “And now they are doing it under the guise of a global pandemic.”
In the statement, Bell wrote, “While it’s true SB Nation and SBNation.com have been dealing with an identity crisis for some time, we’d been looking at ways to shift their structure and strategic approach . . . While we hoped to work on shifting the strategy with the whole team, we can’t – given the decline in national sports and need to take aggressive cost saving steps. We’ll retain a small team and focus on reimagining how the site can serve the entire network, which means that while we hope to bring people back to the SB Nation, we will be taking different approaches as we adjust our strategy in the months ahead.”
What mostly remains of SB Nation, at least for the moment, is the team sites that also have faced scrutiny for their business model. A group of team site writers filed a class-action lawsuit against Vox Media arguing that they were misclassified as independent contractors and the company cut a number of California positions after the state passed a new law governing freelancers.
SB Nation is the latest sports outlet to contract in the past year, a trend that predates the global pandemic and has been exacerbated by it. Deadspin imploded last year, while Sports Illustrated has experienced deep staff cuts both before and during the sports shutdown. ESPN has furloughed its game production staff and asked its highest-paid employees to take temporary pay cuts.
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