No one is forced to write for free

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.

200 people.

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.

15 Comments

  1. Reply
    Anonymous February 8, 2011

    We may not have gotten a $300+ million buy out, but blogging as an industry has benefited a lot today from the discussion about compensation. It is interesting that so many people whose common interest lies in crafting words have been tossing about words & phrases like “for free” “unpaid” “value” “paid journalists” “bloggers” “for a living” “money” and “compensation” as if they were all interchangeable at will.
    You have made an excellent argument against that abuse.
    Unless the Internet has suddenly become populated with a bunch of altruistic billionaires with nothing to do but blog, all of us find some sort of value in taking the time to write. Whether it’s something as simple as the value I derive from taking a lot longer to say “Yeah! What she said… oh and plus…” here in your comments – or whether it’s because someone is paying me to do so depends entirely on both my need and the opportunity.

    Clearly what a lot of those unpaid writers on HuffPo got was the time, effort, skills and experience that enabled Ms. Huffington and company to create a site that -did- get so many readers. If those were skills so easily come by? AOL would’ve been writing checks to a lot more independent bloggers.

  2. Reply
    Anna Tarkov February 8, 2011

    Of course the discussion has been going on a lot longer than today, but yeah, it’s good to revisit these topics now and again.

    What I didn’t put into this post is that I’ve been there. I used to be an unpaid blogger who dreamed of getting paid for what I did. But the reality is that the market wouldn’t bear that, at least not right then. Maybe 20 years later it will, after I’ve had a long (I hope!) career. But one has to be realistic. No one is entitled to a paycheck, sadly not even if you really deserve it. There are so many other factors at play besides merit, not the least of which being the huge supply of writing nowadays. Since publishing is so easy and accessible now, it’s not enough to be a good writer anymore. Frankly, only a few of the people who I consider to be excellent writers actually get paid to write. Most just do it because they enjoy it or for various other reasons. The people who actually get paid? A lot of mediocrity there.

  3. Reply
    Anna Tarkov February 8, 2011

    …Let me add to that that the reason is probably the fact that people don’t often get paid to do the writing they want to do. Only a small percentage can consider themselves that lucky. And when your heart’s not in it, it shows.

  4. Reply
    Anonymous February 8, 2011

    On the same page with you here.
    It’s somewhat amazing how much emphasis the writing aspect gets over the community building and publicizing aspects of of blogging. When it comes to the ‘advertising & editorial’ overlap of blogging as one-person publications? People point out the multiple hats that bloggers wear. But when it comes to describing it as a professional goal? The writing aspect seems to get highlighted. Meanwhile it’s really the *publishing* aspect that has changed. Blogging platforms & internet access have made publishing accessible to anyone.
    It’s really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the sites which have gone from personal blogs to ‘blogging megasites’ that are being acquired like HuffPo and TechCrunch – or making a profitable go of group blogging like Mashable or Gawker – are those which are created by people with a knack for publishing and now have a reasonable way to enter the profession without massive cash outlay.
    Oh, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to say that for months. Thanks for proving the catalyst on that by the way. Good writing and a good thought catalyst. I personally value that more.

  5. Reply
    Anna Tarkov February 8, 2011

    Another great point. Bloggers are skilled in many areas besides writing. They could be selling those services in order to subsidize their writing until and if they one day manage to get paid to write. In my job, I do some writing but I spend most of my time doing non-writing activities which all have to do with digital skills I learned while blogging.

  6. Reply
    Anonymous February 8, 2011

    Totally agree with you on this post. I write for HuffPost, as a travel blogger. It is a great opportunity for me. I get to new eyeballs. I get great links with high PR back to my page. I get great exposure. The old format of “pay to write” is dying. If you are a writer now, you need to get used to (and embrace) the concept that YOU are the distribution source. It is a great, new world to be writing in these days. It has opened up for everyone, without the old gatekeepers to keep people out.

  7. Reply
    Anna Tarkov February 8, 2011

    Thanks so much for the comment Michael! I especially like what you said about it being a brave new world now with fewer to no gatekeepers. While that certainly brings with it some pitfalls, it also opens up lots of opportunities.

  8. Reply
    Anonymous February 9, 2011

    Excellent points! We were discussing this on my Facebook page and someone linked to this because you agreed with my perspective. Fun to read Lucretia here too as I agree with you both! ;)

    I am an accidental tourist to the writing field, yet find myself considered a top “influencer” in my niche of travel and was recently interviewed by the BBC about how social media is changing travel.

    It’s mind boggling how the publication world has changed in the last 5 years and writers need to pay more attention to the REALITY of writing today. Some unknown writers have done REALLY well by writing for “free” on Huffpo. One of the things special about it is the community and the social media aspect in the comments. Smart writers ( including many from the old school as well as newbies) are using Huffpo to their advantage in a win/win way that works for all.

    Writers need to think about more than pretty writing and pub writing fees, but also things like video, photos, SEO, their own platform, information products, PR, social media, connections etc.. There are many ways to gain value besides “payment”.

    I love the freedom that writing for Huffpo gives me, I can write as little or as often as I want and control what content I want to add there. I decide if I want to re-post one of my own evergreen blog posts there ( in total or part) and when. I’ve been writing in the lifestyle/travel section since Jan 2010, but since we traveling the world non-stop, I don’t use it that much just because of my time. ( I happened to break and paralyze my dominant right arm for a year during that time, so not great for my writing) That said, just being a Huffpo writer is beneficial and opens doors.

    I’ve known Arianna for over 30 years, so I am prejudiced, but I think she has done an amazing job ( and yes if it was so easy, everyone would have done it). Kudos to her for building it and for selling it at this moment in time.

  9. Reply
    Anna Tarkov February 9, 2011

    Whoa, you personally know Arianna? Do tell :-)

  10. Reply
    Lucretia Pruitt February 10, 2011

    I love that Jeanne showed up over here too! Didn’t realize you were writing for HuffPo too Jeanne – but it makes sense both from your point of view and from theirs – your nomadic lifestyle writing makes the rest of us wish we could just break free and join you!
    Didn’t know you knew Arianna. Is it weird that you saying that gives *her* more positive credit with me than the other way round? ;)

  11. Reply
    Anonymous February 10, 2011

    Yes, Anna, I was neighbors with Arianna in NYC long ago so know her, her sister, knew her mother and have met her kids later. We are not best friends or anything, but I know her heart well enough to respect her very much. It’s really an amazing and impressive family. Despite what the press assumes about her, she has a really good heart.

    Actually, that does makes sense to me, Lucretia, because you “know” me and how I think, so I can see that validating my experience of Arianna. I am quite ordinary so I think it shows that Arianna is also like the rest of us…just an ordinary person. I am a heart focused person and Arianna has an amazing hear…. not to mention ALWAYS an extraordinary ability to influence people. & focus on what she wants. I’m an extreme introvert in many ways, so I would die with her life, but I’m glad that she does it.

    I actually know her sister better as we were both actresses at the time we met, so had more in common. Their mother was one of the most interesting and loving people that I have ever met. I can not go to Greece without thinking about them all because they all taught me a lot about the warmth of that culture & made me addicted to those home made wine leaf wrapped goodies. ;)

    I haven’t written much for Huffpo yet, mainly just because I do not have the time between constant travel, raising a fluent trilingual ( as monolinguals), 2 deaths this year of fathers/grandfathers, and my paralyzed arm for a year injury….my plate is full.. BUT I do see the extraordinary opportunity that it is ( IF one puts the work and effort into it) so hope to do more.

    BUT I also do not have to write to live, so that certainly gives me more leeway than many writers.

  12. Reply
    Anna Tarkov February 10, 2011

    Wow, Jeanne, that’s amazing (and I’m super jealous of your Greek travels! I can’t wait to go there one day). I find the same is usually true of many high-profile people. They’re seen in a certain light, but then you get a completely different story from those that actually know them on a personal level.

  13. Reply
    Anonymous February 11, 2011

    I started writing about soccer for a website for free because I had a full-time job that paid me well enough to do so. I chose to write for free because I simply wanted to build a body of work. Has it led to paid opportunities, sure. Has it led to enough to make it solely on writing, no.

    We all have a choice in this. If we don’t want to write for free, we don’t have to. Writing for free isn’t necessarily a bad thing but one must understand why they are writing for free and if it is worth their time or resources to do so.

  14. Reply
    Anonymous March 18, 2011

    I didn’t know HuffPo had sooo many unpaid contributors especially after the revenue and valuation of the company. Tells you how ignorant I am.

  15. Reply
    Anna Tarkov March 18, 2011

    Yep, it’s a ton of people that write for them for free for various reasons. However, it seems that most of the time the free stuff isn’t as valuable: http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/12/the-economics-of-blogging-and-the-huffington-post/?partner=rss&emc=rss Not surprising of course since, like with many things, you get what you pay for.

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