I've never trusted Arianna Huffington. The founder of The Huffingtonpost has changed her ideological spots too often for her political beliefs to seem anything but cynical and self-serving. I wasn't surprised, therefore, when, after banging on about US unemployment for months; after bashing President Obama for supposedly doing too little to spur job growth; and after running hundreds of columns against corporate greed; she sold her website to AOL for $315 million, and sacked over 200 journalists from the two organisations.
HuffPo, as the site is known for short, was built around two controversial strategies: cannibalising (or 'aggregating') content from online editions of newspapers; and persuading hundreds of bloggers to write for free. Many of these bloggers were celebrities or politicians -- the likes of Alec Baldwin, Robert Reich, Gary Hart and Deepak Chopra -- for whom any payment would seem like a pittance. There were hundreds of others, however, who could have used a bit of cash, but agreed to contribute gratis, tempted by the site's wide readership.
The business model angered journalists as well as newspaper owners, but there was little they could do about being undercut by content aggregators like HuffPo. Everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Bill Keller of the New York Times took issue with Arianna, but her admirers interpreted the criticism as sour grapes. HuffPo groupies saw it not as a parasite but as an alternative to mainstream media. The AOL-HuffPo deal has left those naive souls disillusioned. It's worse than Ben & Jerry selling out to Unilever.
Now a class action suit has been filed on behalf of all who contributed without payment to help HuffPo become a dominant online force. It's interesting to discover how many bloggers were taken in by the idea that they'd benefit by giving away content to Arianna Huffington.
I'm used to this sort of thing happening in India. Years ago, I was asked to write an art column for the Bombay Times. Shocked at the payment offered by the most profitable newspaper in India, I turned down the proposal immediately. The journalist who made the offer thought he was doing me a huge favour, and couldn't understand my refusal; after all, many better known people were writing columns for the same amount. Two friends I spoke to about it also said I'd been wrong to refuse. As a career move, having a picture every week in the Bombay Times would be a great boost (I should clarify this was a decade ago when the supplement was at its peak).
I have a narrow moral view of these matters, though: if somebody can afford to pay, they should do so, instead of pushing for cut-price rates promising corollary benefits. I've done my share of pro bono writing and lecturing for non-commercial ventures. If I also offer discounts (from a low starting sticker price) to billionaires, how am I going to make a living at all?