Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Huffingtonpost and writing for free

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?


seana graham said...

Well, though I tend to agree, and I know our friend Adrian would definitely enjoy the Huffington hate, I think there's a case to be made for the Huffington Post and other such sites being platforms for authors seeking a wider audience. Our local author Geoff Dunn hit it big there writing on a leftie platform and now he has a big book coming out called The Lies of Sarah Palin.

I think the whole notion of paying for content is shifting, and therefore confusing. It sounds like the Huffington Post has been both greedy and cynical in selling the enterprise, and something worse in the journalist firing. But up to that point, was she really in the wrong?

Girish Shahane said...

Seana, I believe the lawsuit is foolish; these were adults agreeing to write gratis for an enterprise they knew to be for-profit.
And the whole corollary benefits thing does work out in many cases, as you point out. There are actors who work almost for free for big producers, but it pays off because that role leads to bigger assignments.
So I agree with you, it's complicated; and Arianna was / is not 'wrong', in the sense that she acted the way heads of for-profit firms act: to maximise profit. It's hypocritical, though, that every other CEO who has taken the same decision is tagged by HuffPo as part of the problem, while Arianna has pushed herself as part of the solution.

web development said...

Good point Girish

This country really love legal fights. Do anyone think HuffPo will cash out? Might need some agreement rundown I think.

seana graham said...

I have to admit that I have never delved deeply enough into the career of Ms. Huffington to really understand how she came to switch positions in such an extreme way in the first place.

I suppose the lawsuit is just an expression of outraged idealism.

Atlanta Roofing said...

Yes, I think under that circumstance the bloggers should definitely be paid for their work. As a writer I can identify with writing for free for publications that aren’t making any money yet in order to gain experience and exposure. But once a large compnay like AOL aquires the publication it’s like come on…you can pay them now. I think it is unfair that the owner reaps all of the benefits of the bloggers work. It’s selfish.

Iain Ball said...

"How I am going to make a living at all?"

Do you truly need the money? does your writing really pay for your home and lifestyle? if not, you know very little about the reality of work.

Girish Shahane said...

Iain, I'm not sure what you are driving at. I certainly need the money I earn. I guess I could get by on less, as could you and everybody reading this, but my lifestyle is hardly lavish. Writing isn't my sole means of self-support, but it's a very important one.