The other day, a friend of mine dropped a link that looked interesting on Twitter, but I noted that it went to the Huffington Post, so I asked if she had a non-HuffPo link to the same general story. She seemed confused, but kindly went to search for something I could read, and I did, and it was very interesting, and I was glad I’d read it. This seems to be happening more and more lately, though, and so apparently it’s time to have another talk about the Huffington Post.
At the time it was founded, the website really was revolutionary: It was the first big content mill, relying on unpaid writers, bloggers, and syndications for its content while paying a skeleton crew of in-house editors. The model worked so well that the HuffPo became wildly successful, and it inspired numerous other followers. In a way, it was the moment when online media really did change forever, and the moment in which journalism started to have some serious problems.
As more and more sites adopted their model, the assumption that people would be happy to work for free — oh, sorry, for ‘exposure’ — became more and more widespread. Compensation for work dropped, except at a few publications that took their missions, and their writers, seriously. Now, sites across the web are propped up by free content, whether via syndications, link exchanges, or simply solicited for free. Some of those sites might surprise you — they include, for example, major feminist publications that I refuse to write for because of the way they treat writers.
This bothers me. It bothers me as a journalist, because I can thank the HuffPo for a climate in which I have to constantly hustle for work because pay is generally so low that I can’t support myself by writing a few thoughtful, in-depth, well-investigated pieces a month. Instead, I’m writing thousands and thousands of words a week to keep up. Freelancing is ubiquitous in journalism, with few staff writer positions available and most of them hotly contested (I know, I spend a lot of time job searching).
It also bothers me as a person. People deserve to be compensated for their work. Writing is labourious. Whether you’re dashing off a quick op-ed or doing a serious investigation, it takes time, research skills, patience, and, yes, actual writing ability. All of these things are specific talents that should be compensated. Just as I pay my window washers for coming to my house and spending several hours cleaning windows with their equipment, window-cleaning solution, labour, and skills, I expect to be paid for my writing, or any other work I do. People should never work for free. It is unjust.
Especially since the HuffPo makes a lot of money off that writing. They might not pay you, but they are getting paid for your content. That includes via advertising, which is splattered all over their pages, as well as sponsored content, and various branded material. We’re not talking pocket change and server fees: The highers-up are making a great deal of money off their model.
They’re making enough to pay that skeleton crew, which says it’s ‘proud‘ of not paying writers, or makes patronising comments on social media about how people whining about not getting paid don’t understand how much work it is to come into an office and hold editorial meetings and edit things. You know, actual ‘work,’ as opposed to what writers do, which is apparently not work.
I avoid linking to and supporting sites that don’t pay their writers because it’s wrong, and because I don’t want to give them more traffic to justify their model. Since most are aggregate sites, it’s rare that a piece of news can’t be found anywhere else. If it’s commentary, well, that’s too bad. I’m still not reading it. Because that person should have been paid for it.
The HuffPo in particular bothers me, though, because it’s been called on the carpet multiple times (and even sued) over this, and it’s so smug about it. It seems almost gleeful that it exploits writers, and wants to perpetuate the notion of a tiered media system, in which some people (extra-special editors doing real work) get paid, and others (writers) do not. One of the great things about the media revolution, though, has been the rupturing of traditional metrics of journalism, and the rise of writers and commentators who wouldn’t have had a chance under previous frameworks. Those people deserve to be paid.
It’s not a coincidence that the people who are struggling to make a living in media are often from marginalised groups, fighting for recognition. It’s telling that people think their labour isn’t worth of compensation, whether explicitly (by refusing to pay them) or tacitly (by linking to their work when it’s on websites that don’t pay people).
The HuffPo’s business model would change, rapidly, if people could collectively decide to stop reading it until it pays writers. The same holds true of other sites that don’t pay, or that pay selectively, offering some writers compensation while not paying others, using a metric of fame, personality, and following to decide when people meet the threshold of acceptability. Those who purport to care about our socioeconomic structure need to stop supporting exploitative labour systems. Find your news elsewhere. Find your favourite commentators on other sites that do pay them, or on their personal websites. Don’t let sites like the HuffPo dictate the future of media.
Image: today’s news, Nicolas Alejandro, Flickr