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Amazing Disgrace: The ‘Pride’ of The Huffington Post

Image - iStockphoto: Toth Gabor Gyula
Image – iStockphoto: Toth Gabor Gyula

‘But What Can We Do?’

It’s one of the longest-running shrugs in contemporary writing life, the vexing issue of The Huffington Post [1] not paying a reputed 100,000 bloggers who write for it.

The matter was blown open again two days ago when Steve Hewlett on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show [2] (audio) interviewed Huffington Post UK’s [3]editor-in-chief Stephen Hull [4].

The handle for the appearance on the show was the “guest-editing” stint [5] done by HRH Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge [6], at the Post for the launch of a “Young Minds Matter” series of articles addressing children’s mental health. Let’s be clear that the controversy here is not about the humanitarian intent of that effort.

Stephen Hull
Stephen Hull

During the course of the Hewlett conversation with Huffington Post UK’s Hull, Hewlett brings up the question of unpaid labor on the glowing pages of the big medium. Hull puts on his game voice and toughs it out this way, as quoted by Brendan James at the International Business Times (IBT) in Unpaid Huffington Post Bloggers Actually Do Want To Get Paid [7]:

If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.

Parsing the three key points here, then, Hull is proposing that:

A brief update here: In responding to many of the comments on this piece, I think it’s worth clarifying that The Huffington Post does hire and pay editorial staffers, Stephen Hull being one of them. The issue here has to do with its use of unpaid blog work. For the record, the Post has the right to set and maintain its policies, just as others have the right to disagree or agree with them.

Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig

The real currency of debate here is this latest characterization of the rationale for the Post’s policy, built around what’s “authentic,” what writers “want to write,” and “something to be proud of.” That triply explosive comment has set off responses up and down the writerly drum line, perhaps most eloquently and energetically from author [8] and avid commentator Chuck Wendig [9] in Scream It at Them Until Their Ears Bleed: Pay the Fucking Writers [10].

I’ll give you just a bit of length here on Wendig’s Munch-esque scream:

Hull is, to repeat, proud that they do not pay writers. HuffPo is owned by AOL who is actually Verizon. Not small companies. The audio link notes from Hull that they are a profitable business.

And yet, they do not pay the writers.

And yet, they are proud not to pay the writers.

PROUD.

Because it isn’t “authentic.” To pay writers…

Let us expose this hot nonsense for what it is: a lie meant to exploit writers and to puff up that old persistent myth about the value of exposure or the joy of the starving artist or the mounting power of unpaid citizen journalism.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

Huffing and Puffing at HuffPo

In 2011, there was a failed effort to sue The Huffington Post on this issue.

The case was thrown out (and here is Reuters on it [11]), as James’ adept IBT article reminds us, when the judge ruled that no one had forced writers to work free of charge for the site that Jonah Peretti, Andrew Breitbart, Arianna Huffington, Kenneth Lerer founded in 2005. That was certainly a logical legal determination: bloggers provide their material there by choice.

And there’s the crux of my Provocation in Publishing [12] for you today:

  1. Since no one is forced to write free for The Huffington Post, then they are making the choice to do so voluntarily. We can do no less than hold our writing colleagues responsible for enabling The Huffington Post to use their work free of charge. If they stopped giving the medium their work, it could no longer take advantage of their work “for the exposure.”
  2. If we read unpaid writers at The Huffington Post, and if we tweet their unpaid work and quote their unpaid work and otherwise support their unpaid work there, then we, too, are complicit in the “pride” of The Huffington Post in not paying our good colleagues and our friends.

In short, I and others may strongly regret this use of unpaid writerly labor (and you may disagree, that’s fine); what we’re considering here today is how much thought writers put into agreeing to be unpaid by the Post and other media.

During the 2011 affair, a journalist friend of mine and I agreed that we didn’t feel we could, as a rule, engage with The Huffington Post’s output because it doesn’t pay writers. This was when the issue came into focus for me. We both had been at CNN for many years, a company owned by Time Warner, which was for a time owned by AOL, which owns HuffPo and the parent of which is Verizon. So we were watching closely. (“AOL Time Warner” came about in what is considered by some to be among the biggest merger blunders in US business history. Not enough Campari in the world to fully grasp that one.)

My decision about how I handle—or decline to handle—Huffington Post material has occasionally been challenged, of course, by my need to report on something, this happens in my business. You take it case by case.

More frequently, however, that decision has been challenged by my wish that I could in good conscience tweet and otherwise support the writings there of blogging colleagues whom I respect and like. There’s a fine marketing specialist, for example, who works hard on her or his column there, for which she is unpaid and for which I feel that I cannot indulge him or her the support of my social media work, not in good faith. And that makes me feel bad at times.

But if you write without pay for The Huffington Post, you have willingly deprived not only yourself of the payment you should have, but you have also helped to deprive others: You have perpetuated this cult-of-free-work among writers and, worse, among the employers and consumers of writers’ labor.

The Post is different from a blog site like Writer Unboxed or an author’s site or a non-profit organization’s site. It’s a commercial site. It has the money to pay. And its policy of using unpaid writers helps to impoverish the art and business of writing. Here’s Wendig again:

The lie is this: writing is not work, it is not fundamental, it is a freedom in which you would partake anyway, and here some chucklefuck would say, haw haw haw, you blog at your blog and nobody pays you, you post updates on Twitter and nobody pays you, you speak words into the mighty air and you do it for free, free, free. And Huffington Post floats overhead in their bloated dirigible and they yell down at you, WE BROADCAST TO MILLIONS and DON’T YOU WANT TO REACH MILLIONS WITH YOUR MEAGER VOICE and THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU. But it is an opportunity for them, not for you.

Chuckie’s in love. A good fight. And he’s right.

The Post is not alone in using unpaid writers, of course. But it has made itself the mothership of this trend, the icon if an what many see as an awful practice. And Stephen Hull may have just offered a strained enough enunciation of this issue that we can stop for a moment and think through it.

Amazing Disgrace

It’s a lovely and curiously outdated word. We speak little of grace these days, let alone disgrace. Funny when so colloquial a term seems to be precisely on target. Dis-grace is a giving up of grace, a falling from grace, Merriam-Webster [13] tells us, “usually through some indecorous, dishonest, or immoral action.” If you believe that writers deserve to be paid for their work as do any other laborers in our economy, then you may see so rich a medium handling writers in so vulgar a way under so dubious a pretense of pride as a disgrace.

As a quick aside, I can tell you that I feel for Stephen Hull. He’s in the bad position of having to defend an indefensible thing. I don’t hold this against him. He’s as caught in the corporate crush as any of us has been at one time or another.

And The Huffington Post may be more interested at this point in ill will than it has been. IBT’s Brendan James also reported last October [14] that, “The Huffington Post has seen a major decline in its monthly traffic coming from within the U.S. over the past year, while competitors such as BuzzFeed and Vice Media continue to grow, according to data provided by comScore to International Business Times. In September of last year, HuffPost pulled in around 113 million unique visitors and hit 126 million last November, but then steadily bled visitors into 2015 and throughout the year. Last month, it was down to 86 million.”

But what’s needed here is less related to the Post’s eyeball ratings than to your perception of it. What’s needed is that you take a moment to review this issue quietly, privately, for yourself. You have a right to a personal understanding of this issue and to act on it, or not, as you see fit. Agreement with me or someone else is not at issue. The key is to think about it for yourself, to make a conscious determination of your own stance, rather than brushing past.

I invite you today to consider how you feel about supporting The Huffington Post. However you feel, I recommend that you suggest that others think about it. I also recommend that you be in touch with people you care about who write free for The Huffington Post to explain. I will do this with the marketing ace I respect, and I wish I’d talked with her or him about this earlier.

No one needs to be demonized. The problem is the policy, not the people. Everyone has needs. We can all respect that.

“But what can we do” about The Huffington Post if we feel we need to honor the needs of writers overall to be compensated correctly for their work?—we can stop clicking.

What’s your take on this?

About Porter Anderson [15]

@Porter_Anderson [16] is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [17], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He and Jane Friedman co-own and produce @The Hot Sheet [18], the essential industry newsletter for authors. Anderson previously was The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook [19] in London. Formerly with CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media–he has also been a featured writer with #MusicForWriters [20] series. More on his consultancy: PorterAndersonMedia.com [21] | Google+ [22]