Pyramid Scheme Journalism is (Surprise!) Ripping Off College Students

Maddie O’Connell | Contributing Editor

Disclosure: This author previously had articles published for Her Campus Pitt in 2013. The author has not been affiliated with the organization since that time.

Multimedia “journalism” platforms like Odyssey and Her Campus celebrate young birthdays this year — Odyssey is just two years old; Her Campus is turning a mature seven. In less than a decade, they have dominated your Facebook feed and recruited thousands of college writers to produce the bulk of their shareable content – yet the very structure of these sites traps writers at the bottom of their business pyramid.

In order to evade conventional standards for paying their staff, these millennial platforms take steps to differentiate themselves from traditional journalism outlets, brand language included. Consider this: What do you call someone who regularly writes articles or posts — which will be read and shared for maximum viewership and the spread of ideas and information — for a professional, online publication? At The Fourth Wave, we call that a writer*. The Pitt News and The Pittiful News, two popular student-run publications on campus, would agree.

Odyssey, for example, does not refer to its writers as “writers.” They are listed as “content creators,” and Odyssey currently boasts over 15,000 of them. Odyssey content creators write short-form and long-form articles as well as listicles and gif-heavy reaction pieces, so perhaps the inclusivity of the “content creator” title is fair, to the dismay of conventional journalists. Whether the substance of each article, listicle, or video feature is comparably “journalistic” to a feature in, say, The New York Times is up for you to decide. Regardless, the unconventional, millennial-driven language is a tool Odyssey uses to distract from the fact that its “content creators” are college students who are essential staff writers unpaid for the content they submit.

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“13 Thoughts We’ve All Had While Living In A Dorm” by Anna Jordan from Baylor University, an article featured on the front page of Odyssey on October 30, 2016.  Note the various opportunities to share the article via popular social media platforms.

 

 

Correction: The most-shared article each week in every Odyssey “community,” or chapter, earns $20. At Pitt, where there are currently 20 Odyssey creators, the chances of winning that paycheck might not be as slim. But for 15,000 creators who publish something every week from over 1,200 communities, that’s a pretty significant deficit of writers whom Odyssey fails to pay at all. For comparison, salaries for mid-level staff at Olympia Media Group (Odyssey’s host company) approach up to $60,000 yearly, according to user-submitted data on the job review site Glassdoor. Odyssey self-identifies not as a publication but a social media and tech platform, which impresses tech investors and has helped them earn advertising deals with giant corporations like Verizon Wireless and State Farm. (Her Campus partners with big names like Seventeen Magazine and companies like Rent the Runway; their partners distribute free “survival kits” to each Her Campus chapter a few times per year.) Odyssey was recently valued at $25 million dollars, none of which the writers see. Sorry, except for the $20 each week’s “winning” article earns.

Odyssey — and similar college journalism sites like Her Campus or The Tab — crowdsource their online content for mass-production and mass-consumption. The responsibility of payment is impressed upon the creators, who are led to believe that the article that deserves payment is the one which accumulates the most clicks. This explains why you see so many Odyssey articles circulating your newsfeed and random Facebook groups – the writer is surely proud of their article enough to share it with the student body, but they are also competing with other creators for the coveted Jackson.

Of course, this mindset only benefits the executive board of each site. That’s what separates traditional news sources and magazines from pyramid schemes like Odyssey, The Tab, and Her Campus. As a student-run publication on a university campus, The Fourth Wave (unfortunately) do not pay any of our members, editors or writers. Odyssey, The Tab, and Her Campus pay their executive boards and office staff at their urban headquarters, yet conveniently withhold wages from the writers for the content upon which the success of their business model relies.

It’s a classic pyramid scheme, and wealth exploitation is no better illustrated than executive chiefs who earn a wage versus content creators on these platforms who do not. These sites operate via a national corporate office with multiple college chapters across the nation, a structure that ultimately separates the campus writers from the paid higher-ups. Her Campus Pitt operates like any other student organization on campus: They lead weekly meetings, hold fundraisers and use social media to build a visible presence on campus. The Pitt chapter of Odyssey has its own editor-in-chief, and so does every other college Odyssey chapter.

Writers involved with sites like these gain editorial and writing experience, have an outlet to share ideas and jokes, and even bond with other writers in their chapter. The issue isn’t that writers are volunteering their ideas for free, because many authors celebrate the chance to use a platform that makes their voices heard. The underlying yet obvious issue is that college students from each university chapter do almost all of the work that makes Odyssey and Her Campus functioning businesses in the first place, and other people profit from their labor. Unpaid college students essentially curate the entire website, in addition to advertising to their own networks and coming up with new and innovative ways to use the platform. Writers, or creators, or contributors, or whatever you want to call them, are college students who are employed staff writers at an organization where a corporate staff earns money from their labor. College students who already drown in loan debt do not have time to do unpaid internships, work minimum wage jobs, and watch as Her Campus’ executives earn money off of their work.

Writers for these sites may or may not know the site’s creators are exploiting them. You might reconsider clicking through a bait-y Odyssey headline that leads to a site where corporate employees cheat your friends out of payment for their work. Your fellow students deserve guaranteed per-article compensation rather than the chance of maybe, possibly, hopefully snagging that $20. And by the way, there are opportunities right here at Pitt to write and earn some money for it — enjoy the irony of money-making suggestions from Her Campus in the meantime.

*We have a handful of “staff writers” who have regularly submitted articles to our publication for more than one semester. Our writers who submit irregularly, or have been involved for less than a semester, are called “contributors.”

One thought on “Pyramid Scheme Journalism is (Surprise!) Ripping Off College Students

  1. You are right; the way Odyssey splits up its money does mean that a lot of creators don’t get paid. I write for them however, for two reasons: 1) I’m an international student, so I wouldn’t actually be able to write for a publication that pays per article. It gives me a decent opportunity to get my stuff out there that I wouldn’t otherwise have. 2) I can put it on my resume when I apply somewhere else that I *can* get paid, I’ll have a decent sized portfolio with which to do so, and I’ll already have experience writing to a deadline and editing content.

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