With the recent news of AOL buying Huffington Post, a frequent and whiny complaint has reared its ugly head. Can you guess what it is? When you think of Huffington Post you think of…. what?
HORDES OF UNPAID BLOGGERS OF COURSE!
Now, you might think that this angle would be raised by said unpaid bloggers, some of whom are understandably disgruntled. But no, Dan Gillmor, one of the major talking heads of the media and journalism commentariat wrote about it just today. Perhaps it was all a cleverly designed scheme to make all bloggers everywhere fall in love with him and buy his book. It’s difficult to tell. What isn’t difficult to tell is that no one is forced to write for free and we’re doing a disservice to our profession if we pretend otherwise.
Let’s examine Dan’s central point:
Although some actual paid journalists work for the organization, her [Huffington’s] blogger network is an amazing achievement; she’s persuaded untold numbers of people to write for nothing, to have their names on the page as compensation for their labor.
First of all, I’m not sure why he seems to throw it in there as an aside that actual paid journalists work for the organization. In point of fact, and according to someone who works there, upwards of 200 people are employed by HuffPo in a strictly journalistic capacity. That, of course, is not the complete staff complement as surely there are people engaged in other types of work like marketing, sales, etc.
To put this into perspective, Time Out Chicago, where I work recently worked, employs roughly 30 people in writing/editing capacities and we manage to put out a weekly magazine, a daily website and blog, a bi-monthly kids magazine and now a daily kids website.
Chicago Reporter, a monthly publication about poverty and race runs on 5-6 staffers as well as freelancers and interns. They also do a blog and a radio show.
Chicago News Co-op, which produces news for the Chicago edition of the New York Times as well as their own website, has under 20 staffers and fewer than that do regular reporting.
What I’m trying to get at here is that 200 reporters is a lot. And while it’s not exactly the New York Times newsroom or even the Chicago Tribune newsroom most likely, it’s a lot more than “some” suggests. I don’t know about you but when I read “some actual paid journalists,” I imagine about 50 people, probably less. But maybe that’s just me.
Let’s move on now and talk about the apparently hypnotic powers of persuasion that Arianna Huffington possesses, according to Dan Gillmor. So strong are her wiles that people who otherwise would have demanded payment for their work are powerless to resist her! They are just rendered completely undone before her enchantments!
No, the reality as we all know is that people chose to write on Huffington Post for free. They chose to do it because HuffPo gave them a platform where a lot of eyeballs would potentially see what they wrote. Most people can’t get that kind of visibility on their own blog. Maybe Dan Gillmor can, but I can’t. So if I decide to write on HuffPo for nothing more than attention, then I’m getting paid in a sense, just not in dollars. How is this different than a business buying a billboard on a busy expressway? They could put up the same ad in their storefront, but not many people would see it there. They put the exact same ad on the billboard and suddenly thousands of people see it. So here they’ve gone and actually paid for the privilege of putting their message before lots of eyes. At least HuffPo doesn’t ask you to pay
You may be sputtering and fuming now, thinking this is ridiculous, but I don’t think it’s so crazy. Think about it. The aforementioned business has to spend money to get attention, but then it will presumably pay off in people calling them or coming to their store and paying for their goods or services. A writer writing for free should be thinking of their work as an advertisement as well. It is an ad for what they are capable of. They can (and should) use the attention they garner to attract buyers. When people call the business with the ad on the expressway, they don’t give their goods away for free. They ask to be paid.
That is, of course, if becoming a paid writer is your goal. I’m 100% sure that not every unpaid blogger on HuffPo is seeking this as a goal. I know for a fact that many don’t care about being paid, because they’re fairly successful and aren’t exactly hard up for cash. All the rest should be realistic. If you’re going to write there (or anywhere) for free, do it for some larger purpose. Do it to promote your book. Do it to promote yourself. Do it to demonstrate proficiency in and grasp of a topic. Bottom line: do it to get paid work of some sort elsewhere.
UPDATE 2-08-2011 As I might have expected, not everyone is enthused about these harsh realities of our trade.
UPDATE 2-11-2011 I couldn’t have said it better myself.
UPDATE 2-14-2011 My friend Michele McLellan wrote something smart about this. Check it out.
UPDATE 2-16-2011 Am adding the link to a GigaOm piece on this. They linked to me, so it seems only fair I do the same.