Written in Ink

What You Need to Know About Gawker's Lawsuit Over Unpaid Interns

This past Friday, Hamilton Nolan shed some light on the alleged low compensation of Vice Media's writers, accusing Shane Smith's empire of a top heavy pay structure that excessively rewarded the owners at the expense of his workers. The information was gathered from anonymous sources—current and former writers at Vice—and although Vice aggressively shot back at Gawker for making its internal policies a conversation piece, it neither affirmed nor denied the allegations.

Vice did, however, accuse Gawker of hypocrisy.

As some of you know, Gawker has been saddled with a compensation scandal of its own. Last June a group of former Gawker Media interns filed a lawsuit against Nick Denton's blog network, claiming they were entitled to back pay, overtime, and other reparations for working not as interns but full fledged employees as defined by New York's wage and labor laws. Ouch.


This does, by most Gawker's standards, amount to hypocrisy apropos the Vice Media (and Condé Nast) accusations and turns this media-on-media race to the bottom into a story most of us would devour (and do) on a regular basis here. Yet for some reason whether it be legalities, greed, or evolutionary adaptations, it seems there has been a kibosh on any discussion of the case by Gawker staff. I, like others, think it warrants a candid talk (hell, at least Vice published its screed), so if the writers aren't going to do it, then the hive mind should. Thus, below, I've summarized the most salient points on the matter.

The Basics

First, this isn't a beat down. I want to start a discussion about the issue here, not settle it. So to that end, I won't be playing judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, or witness—only presenting the facts. (Maybe a pinch of commentary as well.) PandoDaily got the chatter machine going when they unearthed documents (linked above) through a FOIA back in February which show the main disputes of this case. All of the information below has been taken directly from these primary sources, not the websites reporting on them.


OK, so what actually happened?

In a nut shell: a group of individuals was hired as "unpaid interns," asked to perform a set of tasks over a few months, and left Gawker at the end of their stints with little to no pay. A series of emails were sent by the interns to Gawker staff, who did not respond, regarding letters of recommendation (which I'll get to later), and before long a handful of the interns gathered together to sue Gawker for unpaid wages. Later, other interns from Gawker's past were also invited to join in a class action lawsuit including depositions and affidavits.


Why do they think they deserve money? They were unpaid interns.

Yes, but we can only say that nominally for sure. Unfortunately for Gawker (though fortunately for working students in this position), a worker isn't subject to the laws corresponding to the title their employer bestows upon them, but to the laws corresponding to their activities performed. When a worker performs tasks whose benefits flow to the company as an integral part of the business plan, they are considered employees and subject to the relevant wage and labor laws. When workers perform activities that primarily flow to themselves and lie outside the company's necessary business operations, they may be exempted from these wage and labor laws. This is a very simplified definition. Further specificity can be hashed out in the comments.


Well what were the tasks they performed?

That's the problem. This case is largely going to be decided on facts and circumstances. Each side will argue what tasks happened and which didn't. This is the main thrust of what each side is arguing based on the documents made public:

According to the interns, they were responsible for:

-Creating content which included writing, researching, editing, and lodging stories


-Managing content

-Promoting content

-Moderating comment forums

-Managing the Gawker community of users

-Receiving a $200/mo stipend (some interns, not all)

However, according to Gawker affidavits (including those of Brian Barrett, Charlie Jane Anders, Whitson Gordon, and Jessica Coen), interns were responsible for:

-Nothing necessary for the continued operations of the websites.

Gawker does say they did receive:

-training on curating a website, pitching stories, general writing, and research

-bylines where applicable

-letters of recommendation

-The $200/mo stipend (some interns, not all)

The tl;dr here is that the interns are arguing they were carrying out necessary aspects of the business while Gawker naturally disagrees. We likely won't know who is telling the truth or what the court decides because a settlement could occur first (as in the case of Nast), or no one performs another FOIA.


Is there anything more specific?

Well, according to the documents, a full time Gawker employee (and friend of Crosstalk) named Kaila Hale-Stern was an intern supervisor of sorts, communicating the needs of Gawker staff to the interns. In some of the documents, Hale-Stern uses a tone with the interns that does not comport with the not-actually-doing-anything-important stance that Gawker is taking. For example, here's an example of Hale-Stern doling out commands (click to expand):


Though jovial, it doesn't sound like she's managing a group of individuals gleaning invaluable knowledge from writers and editors. She talks in terms of "hands on deck," "patrolling," and "combing through pending comments" as if the interns are necessary workhorses. Later in other documents, she goes on to describe their efforts as "hard work," normally a harmless compliment, but here, a potentially damning description. It's these little things that could make or break Gawker's case in court and/or lead to a larger settlement.

What about that email correspondence you mentioned?

After the interns left, a series of emails went back and forth which you can see in part below, essentially bemoaning the fact that no one cared about them anymore. Why is this important? Well among other things, the interns discuss how they were expecting a letter of recommendation from Hale-Stern as well as an invitation to a employee meet-and-greet. According to the docs, neither came. If the letters of recommendation never happened, the argument that Gawker is standing on is diminished: the interns did not benefit nearly as much from their intern positions as Gawker did.


In addition, the tone of the interns changes toward the end of this back and forth. From one of the interns (images taken from public FOIA documents):


And then:


That doesn't necessarily sound like the satisfied interns bursting with new skills ready to conquer the world that Gawker would like to present as evidence. To be fair, it doesn't sound like a smoking gun, though, either. In any case, I wouldn't be surprised if this malaise was the start of the whole disagreement.

Why This Debacle Matters

First, most of us like to think of ourselves as ethically consistent (even if we're not always the shiniest diamond in the window). As such, we like knowing that the positions taken by the authors here are founded on comparable consistency. None of us wants to play follow the leader with a leader who's in fact a secret, immobile pile of poop. We can sleep better after posting that last comment sometime around 3:42AM if we don't think we've been had.


Secondly, our clicks are votes. When we read stories, we're telling advertisers to divert their funds to Gawker for its worthwhile market of energetic, hep readers . That ad revenue in turn goes to Denton and his employees (or not, as the case may be), and because Gawker still presumably uses unpaid interns, it may be enriching an owner who is not fairly paying his workers right now. We talk about class injustices all the time. How can we read these articles when we're a part of the problem? I don't think we want to be economic injustice accomplices. Gawker has reportedly ended its unpaid internships, but with the ensuing court battles, your ad revenue could be used on legal fees to to strip these individuals of earnings they potentially deserve.

And lastly, this shit is what Gawker is supposed to be doing. Since its founding, it has taken its razor sharp criticism to the big time media and political players, pointing out their flaws and by extension forcing pressure for change in the culture. Recently, it's taken aim at Silicon Valley for its hypocrisies, tone deaf culture, and perpetuation of the same sins our predecessors have committed, now in new clothes. If Gawker is choosing to lose its weird, roots and join the old boy's club with exploitation of workers at the bottom of the pyramid, someone needs to call them out. Because that's exactly what they've taught us to do.


So what does this mean now?

Well, Gawker is in the midst of technical legal arguments to get the class action divided into individual cases (thereby forcing total legal fees to multiply a hundredfold, making litigation cost prohibitive for the plaintiffs). The reason? They claim the experiences of the interns varied too much for them to be grouped as a single class. I'm not saying it's valid, but it does sound like standard legal strategy (read: in Gawker's best interests).


Other than that, we'll just have to keep watch on sites that are reporting on this. PandoDaily seems to be especially interested, though biased with its longstanding feud between its own Paul Carr and Valleywag, so that's one place to start. Ideally we as readers could keep this case in mind when consuming the more accusatorial stories Gawker puts out and hopefully call out hypocrisies. I don't know who's in the right and who's in the wrong. And that's exactly the point, here. Gossip/Media journalists should be doing this work. Maybe we could apply enough pressure for them to address this in public.

[image via flickr]


This post is very detailed and legally complex. I would like it to be as accurate and useful for us as possible, so I will be making changes for any corrections provided in the comments.

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