Vox, SB Nation Forced to Cut Hundreds of Freelancers over Calif.’s New Labor Law

‘This is a bittersweet note of thanks to our California independent contractors…’

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Uber drivers lobby for ’employee’ designation in California. / IMAGE: Sacramento Bee via Youtube

(Ben Sellers, Liberty Headlines) A radical, union-backed effort in California to force ride-share companies like Uber to provide employee benefits to its independent contractors is now taking a toll on liberal media.

CNBC reported that far-left site Vox was expecting to lay off hundreds of freelancers as a result of the state’s AB 5 bill, which became law in September and will take effect next year.

The controversial law extends not only to major corporations in the developing “gig economy,” such as ride-share giants Uber and Lyft, but also to other fields that often rely on temp or piecemeal employees—including hospice care, janitorial work, babysitting, construction, food delivery and sex workers.

Freelance writers—who have become a major component in the business model of many foundering media companies—are limited under the law to only 35 articles for year before they are required to receive benefits and minimum wage.

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Vox Media’s portfolio includes six brands, covering a range of political and entertainment websites based mostly out of Washington, DC, and New York.

The decision is said to particularly impact its flagship sports-oriented site, SB Nation, which uses contractors for its California team blogs.

SB Nation’s executive director of team sites, John Ness, announced the upcoming change in a post on Monday.

“This is a bittersweet note of thanks to our California independent contractors,” Ness said. “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.”

He said more than 200 contributors had written thousands of posts over the past year.

SB Nation “has long relied upon us giving contractors the keys to publishing what they felt their communities wanted (and needed), and these contractors consistently lived up to the spirit and the letter of their agreements with us,” he wrote.

California contractors who continue onward will not be paid for their contributions, he said, although they may apply for some newly-created full- or part-time positions with the company.

The implications for the law related to other states with California operations remain unclear. Uber had indicated early on that it may revisit and consider overhauling its entire business model in response.

As for contract journalism work, it disproportionately will impact those whose stringers reside in California or other blue states that may consider enacting similar laws, potentially decimating a segment of the Left’s online media.

Sites including Vox’s political wing, Buzzfeed and HuffPo all outsource their writing and rely on user-contributed content as part of a hybrid model alongside paid industry professionals. It is unclear if the companies pay for the user content or simply publish it for free.

Both Buzzfeed and HuffPo (whose founding publishers overlap) were forced to enact major staff cuts earlier this year, which their move from mainstream to the extreme leftist fringes being partially attributable for the declines in traffic and advertising.

Notwithstanding the smug satisfaction of sticking it to the leftist media though, civil libertarians remain alarmed by the unintended consequences that could stem from the sweeping labor law.

One group, the Pacific Legal Foundation, is helping affected would-be journalists push back against what could amount to a First Amendment violation, exerting a chilling effect by establishing de facto limitations on the number of permissible articles a writer may submit.

PLF is representing the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Press Photographers Association in a newly filed lawsuit.

“Treating journalists differently based solely on the content of their speech is flatly unconstitutional,” said PLF attorney Jim Manley in a press release. “The government cannot single out journalists and deny them the freedom to work as freelancers.”

The groups also criticized the arbitrary nature of how various industries were designated.

“Under the law, a freelancer like me can write 200-plus press releases in a year for a marketing firm, and it’s no problem,” said San Diego freelance writer Randy Dotinga, a board member and former president of ASJA, in the press release.

“But if a newspaper wants me to write a weekly column about local politics, it must put me on staff—a very unlikely prospect—or violate the law,” he said. “Otherwise I am silenced.”