About Time

A week ago I got a small jolt when I opened my mailbox to find a letter with a return address titled “ABOUT.COM LAWSUIT.” After opening it, though, it tripped me down memory lane.
DIYmedia.net is a direct outgrowth of a project I began, literally, as a second-income (for pocket change). That was my stint as Pirate/Free Radio “Guide” for a firm called the Mining Company. This was 1996: the Interwebs was just catching fire, and search engines generally sucked.
The Mining Company’s business model was to hire “Guides” to oversee websites on specific topics. Guide duties included writing one feature story a week on their assigned subject and maintaining a well-organized links library (to outdo the search engine), for which we were paid a modest monthly stipend.
When miningco.com went live in March of 1997, I was one of ~60 “live at launch” Guides. The service caught on; traffic increased and, as knowledge is relatively infinite, so did the number of Guides. This all happened during the 80’s-like years of the late 1990s – fast money from nowhere, and scruples to boot.
To make a long story short, The Mining Company changed its name to About.com in 1999, and went public on NASDAQ. It’s founders and staff made a killing, and us Guides got some scratch too (I paid off my undergrad student loans and car). I even got featured in a radio commercial pimping the goodness of pirate radio that played in the top 10 U.S. markets (sublime!).
After that, the party started winding down.
Now responsive to investors, who demanded that dot-coms show profit, About.com began a series of contortions to maintain solulbility. This involved some downsizing, a revolving-door staff, and (at first) subtle changes to Guide contracts which began to squeeze our monthly income.
As entrepreneurs tend to be, the Mining Company’s founders saw the writing on the wall first, and sold out to a company called Primedia in 2000. Primedia is the media division of a vulture-capitalist firm called Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) – a firm who specializes in acquiring distressed companies, gutting them, and then selling the carcasses for a profit.
One of Primedia’s first moves was to obfuscate the data on which site traffic (and income) was calculated, and pile more work on the Guides. As time went on, we were treated more like employees than independent contractors. Add in a massive slash to Guides’ pay and the (seemingly) arbitrary “classification” of GuideSites into a variety of categories (killing off our communal spirit), and the stage for a revolt was set. I parted ways with the company in 2002, taking my content with me (as I had the legal right to do).
In March of 2002, 34 Guides filed a class-action notice against About.com. This was amended in November to include some 85 current and former Guides, and sued Primedia and About.com’s progenitors under a variety of allegations, including disingenuous accounting, arbitrary contractual changes without consent, and labor law violations. 41 of us gave notarized depositions in the case.
The wheels of justice grind slowly: About.com was sold from Primedia to the New York Times Company in 2005 for $410 million, of which Guides did not see a dime.
The pundits were dubious: how does the law classify virtual labor? Quite rightly, it turns out.
Fast-forward to 2007: after years of discovery, motions, and countermotions, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York found summary judgment in favor of some of our claims, clearing the way for a trial.
Given that About.com’s run through thousands of Guides in its 13-year history, there’s bound to be other parties who were harmed post-hoc. In the intervening two years the subject was debated, and last year, it turned out, the court certified our case as a class-action.
That set the stage for settlement negotiations, the terms of which were apparently just recently agreed upon. In a nutshell, Primedia/About.com et. al. will pay out north of $5.575 million to settle all claims without admitting guilt. The settlement will go before the courts for final disposition on October 7.
It sounds like a lot of money, but when you subtract attorney’s fees, claim administration, and myriad other costs you’re not left with much. It’s not like I’m reliving the days of 10 years ago, but now I can afford some dire repairs to the car I bought (in part, with About.com boodle, and still drive).