Snopes turns to readers to avoid shutting down: 'we need your help'
Editor's note: This article has been updated with information from Snopes' GoFundMe page, comments from Snopes founder David Mikkelson and Karl Kronenberger, Proper Media's attorney.
It seems that the ongoing legal battle between Snopes and one of its former contractors is beginning to take a toll.
The popular debunking site published a plea to its readers Monday requesting they donate money to help keep its doors open amid a legal fight against Proper Media, a small digital services company that owns, operates and represents web properties.
Snopes' parent company, Bardav, Inc. and Proper Media both filed complaints against each other earlier this summer following the contentious termination of a contract between the two.
"Dear readers," begins the plea. "Snopes.com, which began as a small one-person effort in 1994 and has since become one of the Internet’s oldest and most popular fact-checking sites, is in danger of closing its doors. So, for the first time in our history, we are turning to you, our readership, for help."
Snopes is requesting readers donate $10 or more, either through GoFundMe.com or other means. According to Snopes' GoFundMe page, 845 people raised more than $20,000 of the $500,000 fundraising goal in just three hours, as of publication.
Mikkelson told Poynter in an email that the goal amount is "intended to help us get through the next several months in the hopes that the legal issues will be largely resolved by then."
"... we've received no revenue whatsoever for several months now, and we obviously cannot operate indefinitely with no income (especially with mounting legal fees on top of our usual operating expenses)," he said.
The call for support is the latest development in a back-and-forth that goes back to fall 2015, when Bardav entered into a deal with Proper Media to manage Snopes' content and advertising accounts in exchange for a share of the site's revenue. However, Bardav terminated that contract in spring 2017 because "it was highly disadvantageous to us," Mikkelson previously told Poynter in an email.
Now, Snopes alleges Proper Media is holding its website hostage.
"Although we maintain editorial control (for now), the vendor will not relinquish the site’s hosting to our control, so we cannot modify the site, develop it, or — most crucially — place advertising on it," reads the letter Snopes published Monday. "The vendor continues to insert their own ads and has been withholding the advertising revenue from us."
In its complaint, Proper Media alleges that it still has a valid agreement with Bardav and that the company breached the contract by terminating it. Bardav claims in its cross-complaint that Proper Media "failed to perform its contractual and legal obligations" and is "wrongfully withholding money owed to Bardav and effectively holding the Snopes.com website hostage," according to the document.
In a statement to Poynter Monday, Proper Media attorney Karl Kronenberger disputed some details in Snopes' fundaraising plea:
Proper Media suggests that the media conduct its own fact-check of the fundraising plea posted today on Snopes.com.
First, Proper Media is far more than an “outside vendor” to Bardav, Inc., the company that owns Snopes. In fact, it is a 50% co-owner of Bardav.
Second, in a pending lawsuit, Proper Media has alleged Bardav’s other co-owner, David Mikkelson has engaged in gross financial, technical, and corporate mismanagement, which is reflected in court documents and multiple independent media reports.
Third, as alleged in the lawsuit, Mr. Mikkelson locked out Proper Media from management and control of the company, giving Mr. Mikkelson unfettered access to Bardav’s bank accounts.
Fourth, it is the height of irony that in today’s post, Mr. Mikkelson attempts to rewrite history by saying Snopes “began as a small one-person effort in 1994”—erasing his co-founder, former partner, and wife of many years, Barbara Mikkelson, who owned 50% of Bardav before selling her interest to Proper Media in 2016.
In summary, today’s post only confirms Proper Media’s allegations that Mr. Mikkelson has drained the company’s bank accounts and is unable to operate Snopes profitably without Proper Media’s expertise and management.
The complaints were both filed in the Superior Court of California in San Diego County, with Proper Media filing in early May and Bardav in early June. Proper Media has requested a jury trial, but if the legal struggle doesn't resolve soon, Snopes says it faces substantial financial trouble.
"Our legal team is fighting hard for us, but, having been cut off from all revenue, we are facing the prospect of having no financial means to continue operating the site and paying our staff (not to mention covering our legal fees) in the meanwhile," Monday's letter reads.
Here's Snopes' full letter:
Snopes.com, which began as a small one-person effort in 1994 and has since become one of the Internet’s oldest and most popular fact-checking sites, is in danger of closing its doors. So, for the first time in our history, we are turning to you, our readership, for help.
Since our inception, we have always been a self-sustaining site that provides a free service to the online world: we’ve had no sponsors, no outside investors or funding, and no source of revenue other than that provided by online advertising. Unfortunately, we have been cut off from our historic source of advertising income.
We had previously contracted with an outside vendor to provide certain services for Snopes.com. That contractual relationship ended earlier this year, but the vendor will not acknowledge the change in contractual status and continues to essentially hold the Snopes.com web site hostage. Although we maintain editorial control (for now), the vendor will not relinquish the site’s hosting to our control, so we cannot modify the site, develop it, or — most crucially — place advertising on it. The vendor continues to insert their own ads and has been withholding the advertising revenue from us.
Our legal team is fighting hard for us, but, having been cut off from all revenue, we are facing the prospect of having no financial means to continue operating the site and paying our staff (not to mention covering our legal fees) in the meanwhile.
As misinformation has increasingly threatened democracies around the world (including our own), Snopes.com has stood in the forefront of fighting for truth and dispelling misinformation online. It is vital that these efforts continue, so we are asking the Snopes.com community to donate what they can. (Our suggested donation is $10, but if you can give more please consider doing so — every little bit helps.)
We need our community now more than ever, as it is only through your support that Snopes.com can remain the community and resource we all know and love.