One of the UK’s leading pro-Corbyn websites is paying freelance journalists just £10 per article along with a slice of the article’s digital ad revenue, which in some cases has amounted to as little as £11, according to leaked internal documents seen by BuzzFeed News.
Since 2015, Evolve Politics has become one of the most recognisable websites in the so-called alt-left or new left media — an ecosystem of hyperpartisan news outlets which came to prominence alongside the rise of viral Facebook websites and the Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
But now, the site’s owner Tom Rogers and his business partner Jessica Miller have told contributors it's cutting the amount it pays journalists to write for it, raising questions about the sustainability of the country’s once-burgeoning left-wing online media scene.
One contributor to the site, who asked not to be named, told BuzzFeed News it was “hypocritical” for it to attack the mainstream media while paying freelancers so little.
In a Facebook message seen by BuzzFeed News, Rogers and Miller said the growth of Evolve’s subscriber base had “plateaued”.
“We have decided to set a standard article fee of £10 plus 50% of ad revenue as a proportion of the traffic each piece generates,” the message read. “This is based on our two new News Reporters producing 15-25 short 400-500-word news articles each month.”
Leaked spreadsheets seen by BuzzFeed News that lay out Evolve Politics’ finances reveal just how little money goes to writers on top of the £10 standard fee under its “pay-per-click” model.
The spreadsheets show Evolve paid £18 in digital ad revenue to one journalist who wrote a story that got 6,700 pageviews. Another whose story got 11,300 views received £23. They also state the site has an annual turnover of £24,000, and makes a stated £19,000 profit — but according to Rogers, most of this is paid to him and Miller as wages.
For stories with lower traffic, it’s even more stark. A journalist whose story got 1,300 views was paid £11 of digital ad revenue on top of their £10 fee.
The January spreadsheet also reveals that Rogers — who wrote 31 stories that month, averaging 8,800 views per story — was paid 90% of the website’s monthly digital ad revenue of £734. It's the amount calculated under the same formula used to pay other writers.
In the run-up to the 2017 general election, Evolve Politics and others such as the Canary, Skwawkbox, and Another Angry Voice were pumping out pro-Corbyn viral news articles that often reached many more people than stories from established news outlets. A BuzzFeed News analysis at the time showed Evolve Politics’ stories were averaging more than 7,500 shares on Facebook per article in the first week of the election.
Months later, Evolve Politics joined other pro-Corbyn websites in signing up to the new press regulator Impress.
Its success even led to the site becoming the first of the stable to get a prized Lobby pass, giving its then-editor Matt Turner access to Downing Street press briefings and the backrooms of Parliament.
Turner later became a media adviser to MP Fiona Onasanya — the parliamentarian who was expelled from Labour after being convicted for lying over a speeding offence. He told BuzzFeed News he had recently quit Onasanya's office.
But then came Facebook’s changes to the News Feed in 2018, which saw referral traffic to news websites crash across the media. Digital news websites which had previously benefitted from huge amount of Facebook traffic, including BuzzFeed News, contracted.
To try to soften the blow, Evolve Politics and nine other websites pivoted to Facebook groups, with the creation of “Independent Media UK” — a group which would make sure die-hard pro-Corbyn fans could be reached with each website’s news stories.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Rogers said the website was "more than happy to be transparent about all aspects of our operation".
"Myself and Jess are a couple, and like most other human beings living under our current extremely unfair socioeconomic system, we require money to remain alive (as we currently wish to be)," Rogers said. "Therefore, we now take a flat rate of £700 each to live on each month.
"This does not increase of decrease based on how much we write, or how successful our articles are, and this is the bare minimum we need to pay our bills."
He added that the £19,000 labelled "profit" on the spreadsheet actually included the amount the couple paid themselves in wages.
"Previously, whilst we were building Evolve up, we lived off of our savings for over a year in order to grow the site. Unfortunately, this basic wage — which is now entirely necessary in order for us to pay our rent and eat — now constitutes the vast majority of Evolve's monthly income, and due to our depleted personal savings, we have had to make decisions that reflect this.
"We are more than happy for you to report any and all details of our financial status. However, your theory that we made £19,000 “profit” is not true — the majority of that will consist of wages (£16,800 from March to February) for myself and Jess to afford to live."
In the message seen by BuzzFeed News, Rogers wrote: “Myself and Jess currently take a salary of £700 each a month to live on, and also feel the best way to build Evolve sustainably is by setting a baseline standard fee for all articles so we don’t have to be so picky about what stories we run.
“We have not taken this decision lightly, but our subscriber base has essentially plateaued over the last few months, meaning we have a stable £800 coming in from paid subscribers each month — plus a particularly inconsistent amount of ad revenue — meaning we need to ensure consistent growth whilst ensuring we have enough to pay our bills.”
Evolve Politics is not the first in the network of left-wing websites with this type of payment model. According to a disclaimer on its website, the Canary continues to pay journalists on a per-click basis.
Heather Brooke, professor of journalism at City University, said Evolve Politics' payment of contributors showed the shortsightedness of paying journalists and freelancers according to clicks.
"Unfortunately, too many news organisations are run by people who have little love or respect for journalism, and even less understanding about its vital role in ensuring a healthy democracy," Brooke told BuzzFeed News.
"Quality news takes time and skill. Facts must be verified. Rumours checked out. A professional journalist needs time to build up quality sources and institutional knowledge, then they turn all that knowledge into compelling copy that breaks down complex issues into digestible and meaningful stories. No professional can do that on £21 per article.
"A business model that incentivizes clicks will inevitably lead to content focused on grabbing attention by whatever means necessary. That’s not been to the benefit of readers or society."
One Evolve Politics contributor, who asked not to be named, told BuzzFeed News the website was “hypocritical” for the way it attacked the mainstream media, while paying freelancers so little.
“I find it odious that they attack mainstream outlets for their pay structure but, can't even apply the National Union of Journalists minimum fees for freelancers themselves,” the contributor said.
“This isn't about independent versus mainstream, it's about paying a fair wage to those who provide them with materials," the contributor said.
“It's frankly hypocritical.”
Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Mark Di Stefano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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