Rebecca Tolin, a freelance environment editor for San Diego News Network, made less than $50 for the 10 pieces she produced for the website. Tolin is a veteran reporter, with 10 years experience in TV and print, some of it for KPBS-TV and CityBeat. In San Diego, depending on the media outlet, she could expect to receive anywhere from $75 to $1,000 per piece for average-length stories.
But her deal with SDNN, like all the contract editors' deals, relies on a revenue-sharing agreement under which Tolin is paid based on the ads sold onto pages in the environment section or accompanying the stories she writes. In addition to the $50 she made from ad-sharing, she was paid a monthly stipend of under $500, until two weeks ago, when SDNN cut all the stipends. Given that she put in 30 hours a week for the company, and thus cannot spend much time moonlighting, her time at SDNN is likely over.
“For that amount of money—it's not sustainable,” Tolin told CityBeat.
Tolin would follow out the door two members of SDNN's ad staff and at least three other contract editors for the paper, all of them victims of an unusual business model and the terrible local economy.
SDNN had been beset even before it launched. The content-management system its founders bought was too complicated for staff to use and had to be scrapped the week before launch, causing a five-day delay and forcing SDNN to roll out new sections over time. Less than a week after it started, founding executive editor Ron James was unceremoniously fired, a move that still reverberates through the company since James hired most of the editorial staff.
But with the economy in the tank, the method of paying staff from revenue has meant that a lot of employees, like Tolin, barely get paid. Writers receive 80 percent of the revenue from ads sold on their story pages, and editors get a smaller slice of anything sold into their sections.
SDNN editor Barbara Bry didn't return numerous calls from CityBeat, but a review of SDNN.com during the last month suggests that it's struggling to sell ads. On the day of this writing, the site had four: a cruise line, a car dealer, a theater company and a nonprofit arts festival. The revenue situation can be seen another way: If Tolin's $50 represented 80 percent of revenue on her stories, then all of the ads sold into her 10 stories brought in, at most, $62.50.
All of which may be why in addition to cutting stipends, the company has eliminated its freelance budget.
“With the freelance budget gone, the expectation falls on the editor to write those stories,” said SDNN's former North Coast editor Wehtahnah Tucker. “I then have to fill those holes. And looking at those holes, there were too many of them.”
Tucker is one of several community-based contract editors leaving SDNN, along with Julie Pendray, editor of the North Central section. These men and women were tasked with working with SDNN's community-paper partners, which also had a revenue sharing deal, and commissioning street-level stories. They were to provide what Bry once told CityBeat would be SDNN's emphasis on “hyper-local content.” But some of the regions—like Tucker's—have no partners to provide stories. So the departure of all these editors suggests a change in SDNN's core mission.
“There's tons of stories that won't be covered now,” Tucker said. SDNN's “focus is as evidenced by what's on the site. The focus is more general categorical arts and entertainment, music, sports, lifestyle.”
SDNN recently rolled out sections for Food & Drink, Travel and Sports, each of which have regular contributors assigned to them. Caron Golden, a veteran food writer in San Diego who contributes to the Food & Drink section, gets some cash every time she publishes, in addition to the revenue share. She said she hasn't received her first revenue-share check yet, but she isn't expecting much.
”I went into it knowing it would be slow going from the beginning,” she told CityBeat. “Obviously, none of us wants to continue to work for free.”
Golden pointed out that not all is gloom at SDNN. She said she'd just received an e-mail from managing editor William Yelles reporting a jump in traffic (possibly driven by coverage of American Idol runner-up and San Diego native Adam Lambert). And Tolin still hopes to find a big-money sponsor for her section so she can stay. But if she leaves, it will be without regret.
“It's been a good experience,” Tolin said. “I've had a lot of freedom to write the kind of stories I want to write.”