As head editor for the local chapter of an online food-culture publication, Brogan Dearinger spent most mornings last fall coming up with story ideas, editing submissions and checking the performance of articles.
But there was no money in it—at least not for her.
Ms. Dearinger, then a senior at Indiana University Bloomington, was among about 8,000 unpaid college students working for local chapters of Spoon University Inc., a for-profit media company.
“They are always pushing us to publish more,” Ms. Dearinger said. “Since writers don’t get paid for their articles, sometimes it’s hard to motivate them to write more articles.”
Spoon said it encourages writers “to publish more only in the same way that Facebook urges its users to return to their platform. Nobody is compelled to do anything.”
Spoon is among a group of for-profit media startups—including Her Campus Media LLC, focused on college women, and millennial-centric Odyssey Media Group Inc.—that have popped up across college markets in recent years.
Originally founded by undergraduates, these sites rely on students to produce localized content for free, in exchange for training and experience. Groups provide a community environment for students, with weekly meetings and social events similar to campus clubs, but members have article quotas—typically one a week—and work to increase the page views and engagement that help their for-profit parent companies succeed.
The companies, which don’t disclose financial information, have attracted millions of dollars in funding for their ability to cheaply generate large amounts of content and traffic. Spoon, until recently backed by venture capital, was purchased in May for an undisclosed amount by Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., the owner of HGTV and part owner of Cooking Channel and Food Network.
As more traditional media companies move to ramp up digital revenue and cover costs as print advertising declines, these student-based sites have a lower-cost model to produce articles and make revenue from advertising and sponsored posts. The startups run franchise-like microsites, with local chapters led, written and edited by students and overseen by a small group of paid employees. Spoon has 200 chapters, Her Campus has 340 and Odyssey has 1,200.
Ms. Dearinger, who juggled her work at Spoon with a restaurant job and journalism classes, says the unpaid experience was more relevant than the student newspaper for becoming a professional food writer.
Academics, labor lawyers and activists have criticized unpaid internships, saying they aren’t financially doable for students from poorer backgrounds. Some major companies have ended their unpaid internship programs and struck million-dollar settlements with groups of interns who alleged they were doing the work of employees and therefore should be paid like it.
Juno Turner, a partner at Outten & Golden LLP who has reached unpaid-interns settlements with media companies, said a business model built on unpaid work “seems like a pretty flagrant violation of the law.”
The chapter-based media companies said they legally vetted their business models and their writers aren’t interns, contractors or employees, but more akin to users who choose to participate on social-media platforms.
Writers at these sites—who call themselves everything from contributors to editorial staff to chapter correspondents—say they appreciate the community and the broader reach they provide compared with student publications.
Having content on a well-known site “can be invaluable for the journalists,” said Lynn Walsh, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “But at the same time, the company is benefiting from that. We would hope that monetary value is passed along to the people doing the work.”
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