(Note – this post was originally published on March 21, but has been re-posted given the news of a class-action lawsuit brought against Aol, Huffington Post and Arianna Huffington)
What have I missed in the recent hullabaloo over the Huffington Post bloggers who write for free? As I understand it, last week, the Newspaper Guild and its 26,000-member union called for all unpaid Huffington Post contributors to withhold their work in support of a “strike” launched earlier this year by another organization. OK, fair enough: a newspaper guild rightly wants writers to get paid. In these tough times for the industry, it’s important to have those vigorous advocates, and anyone who has qualms about writing for free, either morally or practically, should refrain from so doing. Writing is not just an art – for many, it is also their only source of income.
But why the public cry for a strike now? What happened last week? Did Huffington Post suddenly change its model as a result of its sale to Aol? Are they now refusing to pay bloggers and editors they had been paying for years? Has the merger led them to change the pay scale for their writers? Unless there was a major development I missed, isn’t this exactly what they have been doing since they launched in 2005? So why now?
Maybe, in the words of the Newspaper Guild, because the outcry comes “in the wake of its $315 million merger with AOL.” Ah. So it’s the fact that Huffington Post now has a distinct and clear numerical value? In the wake of an apocalypse for newspapers, some writers who blogged to have their voices heard (and often promoted by the Huffington Post P.R. team), with no suggestion that they would, or even might, get paid, appear to be suffering from a form of envious sticker shock.
The Guild press release quotes Cherie Turner, a former Huffington Post writer, saying, “Certainly, we all have written for free for the great exposure the Huffington Post can give us, but what’s the cost? Those of us on strike feel it undermines the value of our profession and is unethical, especially in light of great profits by those at the top. We are only asking for a fair share of what we are helping to create.”
Wait, it is suddenly unethical because the company succeeded? And what exactly might be a “fair share?” The primary source of Huffington Post’s success is not the bloggers who write for free and generate comparatively little traffic (and therefore revenue) for the site. Rather, it’s the fact that Huffington Post simply became the best aggregator in the business (they are now doing far more than that, but it’s clear that is where they truly outwitted the competition). Whatever one thinks of aggregation, it has little to do with whether they pay bloggers, who usually write in a separate section of the site. Their paid editors have become trusted sources for identifying and packaging the most interesting, compelling and important stories to their readers in a variety of areas.
Of course it’s also true that aggregation has had a disastrous effect on newspapers and I believe journalism as a whole. But is that what this call for a boycott is about? I thought this was about writing for free? The sad plight of newspapers (and journalism) is not to be minimized, but with or without Huffington Post, newspapers would be suffering the precise fate they are today.
More important, they are only demanding a “fair share” after the sale even though there was never an expectation of compensation? Using that logic, why shouldn’t every unpaid expert who appeared on NBC, CNBC or MSNBC to explain a complex issue that he or she has studied for years be entitled to a fair share of the GE sale of NBC to Comcast? What about other experts quoted in articles who have worked all their lives, often for very little pay, to reach this point in their careers? Are they entitled to a “fair share” of the value of the media entity in which they are quoted (sometimes quotes they took hours to craft)? What about the thoughtful, and often prolific, Huffington Post commenters?
Cherie Turner’s quote in the Guild release continues: “We are also speaking out against real journalism being run side-by-side with advertorial.“ Oh, so wait: now it’s not just that they/she want a payout for what was clearly understood as a promotional opportunity. No, now a new bogeyman emerges: the “advertorial.” So on the one hand they want a piece of the financial windfall, while on the other they want HuffPo to stop doing something that has helped lead to that payday? The debate over advertorials and how far they can/should go is an important one but the “picketers” have to pick and choose their battles. This begins to feel like a hodgepodge of complaints that have less to do with blogging for free and more to do with content businesses on the Internet.
With that said, even though I own a digital media company, I post a few of my own stories on Huffington Post after they appear on Mediaite, in the hope that they/we will be able to reach as broad an audience as possible. This, despite the fact that Huffington Post is in some ways a competitor (although our 10 million unique monthly visitors are dwarfed by their 45). There is a value, for a writer or a growing digital media business (which can be pricey), in having a story promoted and read on Huffington Post.
Look, the sale of Huffington to Aol is a perfect time to revitalize an all-important discussion/debate over the future of journalism. What can be done to ensure that quality investigative reporting continues? How do we keep foreign bureaus afloat? Who will fund it? But the solution is not to ask for tiny payouts for various bloggers who wrote for Huffington Post. Nor is it necessarily wise for individuals looking for work to stop publishing pieces that they cannot sell elsewhere. But that is their decision. They can determine whether publishing on Huffington Post, or anywhere else without payment, is worth it. In the meantime, don’t hate the player, hate the game—the Internet, it has changed the rules for everyone, Huffington Post just figured out how to play it before everyone else.
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