The Street Team’s Real World: Paychecks Late Again

A year ago, I was hired to report on the election for MTV News as part of their Street Team ’08. I was thrilled – and so stoked that the Knight Foundation provided MTV with about $700,000 to run the program. With my gifted gear, I was ready to reach out to my peers, get some formal clips and gather lessons about life, journalism and the shape of our nation.

Did I ever.

Today Gawker broke the story about how MTV has been continually late on paying the Street Team. My heart just about dropped as one of my Street Team colleagues sent it to me. (I was the Washington, DC Rep for the program.) “Wow,” I thought. “This shit is finally out.”

Here is the story of how 51 totally connected, mobile, ambitious, do-good nerds…were recruited, called Street Team ’08, and taught a very personal – and public lesson about the world we live in.   

Back in the summer, we received the first indication that MTV was not able to meet parts of their contract. Our paychecks were late. The official line from the company was “This is not just happening to you,” and that all other freelancers at the company were also not being paid on time. On the private Street Team list serve, the conversation raged. Admittingly, I listened more than I participated as I didn’t always notice how late they were. I, very fortunately, had another job that was more than understanding of my late hours and commitment to the network. What I didn’t have was more than four hours of sleep a night. But when you want something enough you make it work.

On the list serve, the team began to commiserate about not being able to pay bills on time. This is when I realized it was serious. We were under tremendous stress to meet deadlines and produce quality, Emmy-award winning work. (The program won an Emmy last month.) One of our colleagues lost his job because he updated a MTV post at his office. Another quit (well, many quit), because the time requirements were so enormous and the pay was hardly enough to cover expenses. Soon, the resignations began to pour in.

Each time a Street Teamer resigned, he or she was replaced and an email from our Producers would follow. To be honest, I did not blame any of them. It was a grueling 11 months, one that required us to hold down other jobs, work late into the night and wearily try to use the MTV Brand to land unbelievable interviews and opportunities.

But one thing happened that I never expected. The lesson now, has become so relevant to the news we were covering – and our experience with MTV at the intersection of our nation’s financial crisis, the meltdown of traditional news media – and how the innocent idealism of youth that helped change a nation’s course – was exploited. What happened would wake us all up – on the Street Team, to the Real World.

 

** This was difficult for me to write because despite the issues, I learned a tremendous amount about life, new media and the path I want to take in journalism from the Street Team experience. More than anything, this is not a personal attack towards any individuals who communicated the bad news to the team. Without them I would not have gained so much out of the program.

15 thoughts on “The Street Team’s Real World: Paychecks Late Again

  1. Nadir

    You’re absolutely on point, Erica.

    I was the Michigan correspondent, and I vouch for everything you said.

    It’s so disappointing that such a great project could end on a sour note like this. I have been nothing but grateful for the tremendous opportunities I’ve received from this project, but we worked our a$$es off!! We won MTV an Emmy, and we can’t even get an invite to the party? We can’t get the money we’re owed??

    It’s extremely frustrating.

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  2. Sara Benincasa

    Right on, Erica. Thank you for writing this. MTV shits all over its freelancers/contractors, but I thought since we were their marquis “do-gooder” project for the year, they’d be smart enough to pay us. Wrong.

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  3. Dustin Degree

    Ironic.

    The checks were just starting to lag when I left in May. I would have never expected such a melt down. I am however, really disapointed in the choices they made throughout my involvment… the bias, the cut throat deadlines and the lack of communication is what led me to look else where… They hand picked an all-star team and treated us like a minor leaguers, while still trying to sell us on the “MTV Dream.”

    Oh and they got an emmy out of it.

    Give your self a pat on the back MTV, taking credit for the hard work of others.

    Classy…

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  4. Ken

    Well written. Sorry to hear it. What is also striking is that a dysfunctional work environment pretty much functions (or rather dysfunctions) in the same way, no matter what the industry. Grueling hours, not nearly enough compensatory pay, an authority hierarchy/structure that demands excellence, garners praise for the quality of work produced, and is oblivious and seemingly uncaring towards what the people who are doing the actual work have go through to produce that quality and/or towards the ramifications of the company’s own inadequacies. And the people in the trenches get hit the hardest. The happier, other side of the coin is that you and others will land on your talented feet.

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  5. Jaime McLeod

    Great post, Erica! Way to speak truth to power. Looks like Christmas will be coming a bit late to Maine this year, thanks to MTV.

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  6. Brian Rich

    I was the Idaho Correspondent and will also second every word in this post. It was a disastrous experience from an operational point of view. The work was rewarding and challenging but the administrative half of the job was an insult to the Street Team and to the quality of work we provided MTV (with little to no recognition to us, in many cases).

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  7. nycgurrrl

    viacom has a long history of taking advantage of freelance workers, paying them peanuts, and treating them badly. i worked there in the late nineties. kudos to the whistleblowers for unveiling these issues to the world…unfortunately, having spent 15 years working as a full time and freelance creative for viacom and at least a dozen other “name brand” corporations in nyc, the companies always take advantage of talented, hard working people. do yourself a favor and get into the producing, law or business side of the industry early on. you will work 9-5 and have a life outside of work to pursue true creative projects.

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  8. Sara Benincasa

    I also think it’s noteworthy that your starred addendum expresses what so many of us feel: it’s not about the folks who worked directly with us. For the most part, they were awesome. And overall the experience was amazing and life-changing. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But it’s never the people with whom you work directly who cause the problem. They just have to carry the message, and that sucks.

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  9. Leege

    From a former newspaper freelancer, I’d say the only thing for it is to stand up for your rights – report these guys to the Labor Department. If they’re not going to pay you, and you can do the same thing on your Web site that you did for MTV, what are you going to lose?

    Keep your head up – there are so many opportunities for journalists to get the word out, and I know you’ll take advantage of them. Best wishes to you.

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  10. Mary Beth

    Erica,
    As always, well written and thoughtful piece.
    The only thing that is lucky in this is the fact it is media. Therefore, you gain attention. That helps a great deal in righting a wrong.
    This is standard practice for most corporations in the US today. Not necessarily late pay, but unfair, illegal, immoral practices with employees the work their asses off. We live in a country where corporations and greed run the government. Most of us working stiffs are treated unfairly. They get away with it because they can. To fight it costs money, if the wrong is not as obvious or as easily proved as late pay, you take the chance of losing your income, and with jobs so scarce, most, like myself, continue to be beat down without any help or hope of being treated fairly.
    This is one area that I believe (hope) Obama will come through. Unlike human rights or the war in Iraq.
    Good for you for taking the stand!!
    Mary Beth

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  11. Mary Beth

    In reply to Bart:
    When originally paid on time, when you need the job and enjoy it, when checks do then come and when you expect corporations do the right thing, not fulfilling your end of the contract is not a first thought or necessarily the best course of action.
    With all due respect, “You can’t be exploited without consent” is right up there with, “she deserved to be raped because she dressed provocatively.”

    Reply

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