Super-exploitation at the Huffington Post

Mike Elk, a journalist recently ‘fired’ by the Huffington Post for annoying a fraction of the nabob set, wrote:

Last week was a milestone in journalism, as the Huffington Post exceeded the New York Times in Web traffic and cemented its role as a main rival to the Gray Lady. It was also noted that the combined AOL-Huffington Post newsroom staff of 1,300 people is now bigger than the Times‘ 1,200 person newsroom staff. While much of the debate about the rivarly [sic] has focused on Huffington Post’s adoption of savvy Internet tactics versus the much more old-school New York Times, very little of the discussion has focused on where the two newsroom differ the most: their labor practices.

The Times’ newsroom staff is entirely unionized, while the AOL-Huffington Post staff is entirely nonunionized. Also unlike the Times, which insists on paying every professional writer (even op-ed contributors), the Huffington Post has relied on a network of over 8,000 unpaid bloggers to establish itself and drive traffic to its site. In a Forbes magazine article, AOL executives were quoted as saying that AOL CEO Tim Armstrong “talked a lot about the importance of recruiting hordes of free bloggers…. “It was always, ‘Arianna does it. That’s what she’s built her business on. Why don’t we do it, too?'” says a former AOL editor-in-chief.”

Labor leaders claim that with 11,000 journalists having lost their jobs due to newsrooms cutbacks in the last three years, AOL-Huffington Post has risen to its stature by exploiting journalists desperate to establish names for themselves as writers, and thus willing to work for free in the hopes that they may someday find paid work. They say that the fact the Huffington Post doesn’t pay its writers is an unfair business advantage that is sure to lower the standards of journalists.

Unpaid labor! Ms Moneybags should be so lucky.

In response to what labor leaders see as an exploitative situation, on March 17th, the Newspaper Guild and the National Writers Union both called for bloggers to refuse to blog at the Huffington Post and join an electronic picket line against the Huffington Post.

The unions are demanding that a pay schedule be established for compensation of all unpaid Huffington Post bloggers and that unpaid bloggers at the Huffington Post be given greater editorial control over how their works at the Huffington Post are used.

The unions requested a meeting with Arianna Huffington to describe labor practices at the Huffington Post. So far, Arianna Huffington has not granted their request for a meeting, but union officials are in discussion with people close to the Huffington Post hoping to secure one.

The upshot: I support and advocate supporting the unionization of Huffington Post.

Chris Hedges discusses the Huffington Post

Journalist Chris Hedges’ latest piece is an obvious and understandable lament for the kind of investigative and critical journalism he practices and prefers. He also provides a somewhat restrained critique of those entities and practices that make journalism of that kind difficult. Hedges writes:

[My] encounters [with citizen journalists requesting interviews], which are frequent at public events, break my heart. I see myself in the older bloggers, many of whom worked for newspapers until they took buyouts or were laid off, as well as in the aspiring reporters. These men and women love the trade. They want to make a difference. They have the integrity not to sell themselves to public relations firms or corporate-funded propaganda outlets. And they keep at it, the way true artists, musicians or actors do, although there are dimmer and dimmer hopes of compensation. They are victims of a dying culture, one that no longer values the talents that would keep it healthy and humane. The corporate state remunerates corporate management and public relations. It lavishes money on the celebrities who provide the fodder for our national mini-dramas. But those who deal with the bedrock virtues of truth, justice and beauty, who seek not to entertain but to transform, are discarded. They must struggle on their own.

The sale of The Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million, and the tidy profit of reportedly at least several million dollars made by principal owner and founder Arianna Huffington, who was already rich, is emblematic of this new paradigm of American journalism. The Huffington Post, as Stephen Colbert pointed out when he stole the entire content of The Huffington Post and rechristened it The Colbuffington Re-post, produces little itself. The highly successful site, like most Internet sites, is largely pirated from other sources, especially traditional news organizations, or is the product of unpaid writers who are rechristened “citizen journalists.” It is driven by the celebrity gossip that dominates cheap tabloids, with one or two stories that come from The New York Times or one of the wire services to give it a veneer of journalistic integrity. Hollywood celebrities, or at least their publicists, write windy and vapid commentaries. And this, I fear, is what news is going to look like in the future. The daily reporting and monitoring of city halls, courts, neighborhoods and government, along with investigations into corporate fraud and abuse, will be replaced by sensational garbage and Web packages that are made to look like news but contain little real news.

Although I agree with Hedges’ complaints about journalism as it is mostly practiced today and especially with his remarks addressing the faults specific to the Huffington Post and to Arianna Huffington’s gross profiteering, I also believe that Hedges misses out on the greater significance the internet has had with respect to the practice of journalism today. What he misses is the fact that the internet provides to everyone who has access to it a low and therefore scalable entry barrier. Internet publishing is as inexpensive as an internet connection. Seed money is no longer a problem. And it is because this barrier is so low that common citizens — Alan Simpson’s “lesser people” — can now report the news they witness, analyze what they have reported and participate in a public debate about the meaning of the events that affect their lives.

More importantly, these common citizens can create self-funding public entities that are nothing but the presence of an enduring counter-public sphere, one able to defend its autonomy by refusing to adopt a for-profit economic model or by refusing to ally itself with the capital-intensive media, as Huffington did when she opted to join AOL. Journalism thus practiced has more in common with the famous little magazines which once made New York City the intellectual core of American politics and culture than it has with the New York Times and the Washington Post, with ABC and Fox News. Today, thanks to the internet, America’s alienated public intellectuals, its citizen journalists and its nearly voiceless citizens need not live near to each other in order to form a cohesive public. They can form a viable public simply because the internet provides the technical means for widely and almost costlessly distributing the news they report and the analysis they feel compelled to make.

It is for these reasons that I consider the internet as having deepened and intensified the civil features of what we call civilization. Opportunists like Arianna Huffington only sully this advance in civility. They cannot destroy it. Citizen journalists will survive their defections. They will survive because they truly are citizens and depend only on their own capabilities and on the rights needed to participate in the larger and inclusive public sphere.

Cross-posted at Fire Dog Lake