The Huffpo Paradox

"None but a blockhead writes for a living." - Mark Twain

There has not been a moment since it launched when I have not wondered about Huffington Post and its impact on journalism. I was one of Arianna's early adopters. My second book had been released and she was creating a community that was likely to attract readers. There was no money involved but, if things went well, there were likely to be people getting exposure to what I thought and wrote. And that draws writers almost as much as money. I have been writing since I was in high school but I have never been read as widely as I have from the moment I began putting pieces up on Huffington Post, and that includes having a New York Times best-selling book. But I am still uncomfortable about the relationship and what I am doing with my work.

I became even more confounded when I read about the sale of Huffington Post to AOL. First, much of the original appeal, for me, of Huffpo was its renegade nature. The blog was about writers, thinkers, and other smart people coming together and going directly to the audience without corporate influence. The goal was to draw readers, I assumed, and then to create revenue through ads and syndication. Money was always one of the essential motivators but does it become the prime mover with AOL corporate ownership? Arianna is issuing assurances to everyone that things are the same and there's just more of it. Still, skepticism abounds.

The second reason I struggle with Huffington Post is because of my friends working in journalism. Their work is their currency, how they pay the bills. And much of Arianna's model is built around the concept of getting people to work for free. Free does not keep the lights on or gas in the tank. I write for free for Huffington Post. I have never been paid, which means, in some regards, I am working for free in front of a big audience and competing with my friends who get paid by newspapers to reach a smaller crowd. If enough people act like me, my friends will not have jobs very long. (And yes, I know there are other economic issues for newspapers but that is not what I am discussing just now.) If I write for free, they are not in a fair fight for survival.

I guess this all means that a combination of my stupidity and Arianna's ingenuity have created a $315 million business. There are numerous professionals that write for her without compensation because she owns a packed auditorium of readers. But if I give away my work for free isn't that its true value in the marketplace? How, exactly, do young reporters sell their skills when guys who have accumulated my years and beers are saying, "Here, take this; it's yours. I hope somebody reads it." I read in the announcement of the sale that Huffpo employs about 200 people and many of them, like Howard Fineman and Roy Sekoff, among many others, are quite talented. My sense, however, is that the majority of the content on the site is generated by bloggers like me who want to insert ourselves into the national discourse and post our material free for the taking.

I do get something out of my work product on Huffpo. As I mentioned, people around the globe read my writing. The emails and comments that are a consequence of that are an indication that the site has significant influence on editorial decisions around the world. As an example, an editor in London read a piece I had posted and then called to offer a commission on a related topic. My work, I am pleased to say, tends to be posted on the front page of Huffpo and, as a consequence, enjoys wide circulation. Cable news and talk show producers often read my blogs and call to ask me to come on their programs. That does not, however, turn into monetization. Expecting people to see the title of your book under your name on the screen, and then go buy your book online or elsewhere, is expressing faith in a series of acts that increase in improbability with each step. Huffpo simply becomes a platform to build a reputation. Monetizing that is the legerdemain.

The publicity of the sale to AOL, however, struck me as a bit unseemly. I guess it ought to be assumed there is a nice profit margin when your work force is largely unpaid. In an email she sent to bloggers on her site, Arianna announced that "nothing will change except for the fact that you will have more readers." Well, yeah, I was not running out to the mailbox to look for my dividend check. However, I would like to suggest in the spirit of the progressivism Huffpo promotes, Arianna might want to share a bit of the wealth and begin paying a little to writers who are not on staff.

I am ready to begin negotiations.