Yesterday Arianna Huffington tweeted a ridiculously cloying aphorism. Being in a bad mood, I responded thusly:
Because, you see, Arianna Huffington built a media empire on the unpaid labor of a huge percentage of her content producers, and you know what? Wealthy, influential “Progressives” who build any part of their wealth on unpaid labor make me very, very angry. Because it’s wrong.
(Full-disclosure: My work has appeared on The Huffington Post, and I knew ahead of time that I would not be compensated. I agreed to those terms because the content was old and my reach is small, and I am beaten down enough to just be glad that it would get a broader audience).
My tweet got a bunch of RTs (for whatever that’s worth) and one person (only one) replied to tell me that I should Google HuffPo’s business practices going back nine years — that HuffPo employs paid journalists, and bloggers post “without expectation of being paid.” All of which is true. And yet. Aside from the fact that the dividing line between “journalist” and “blogger” isn’t actually a line (I’m a journalist who writes for blogs. What does that make me?), here’s how that whole “bloggers post without expectation of being paid” thing happened:
The world of print media was in the throes of a long, drawn-out wasting illness when it collapsed spectacularly in the spring and summer of 2008. This wrecked futures and ruined lives. People who had made their livings and used their hard-won skills to build careers slowly and carefully watched all of it crumble and fall, through no fault of their own.
People like Arianna Huffington (and there are a lot of them) recognized a depressed market, and, savvy business people that they are, understood that they could profit from the chaos. In Huffington’s case, she understood that she could profit financially and extend her cultural and political influence by exploiting the labor of people who had literally lost their means to make a living. Get lots and lots of hungry writers to agree to give you their skills, experience, and time in exchange for “exposure,” and your news outlet (and the full time journalists who you do pay) will have the constant churn of content required to keep it relevant and competitive in a market that demands constant churn.
This situation is now industry-wide, and I hate it no matter where I see it, because it is wrong.
It is wrong. It is wrong. Let me repeat myself: IT IS WRONG. It is wrong to make a profit off of someone else’s unpaid labor. IT. IS. WRONG.
But, as I say, the entire industry looks like this now, so it’s very hard to combat. Everyone publishing anything is doing so with on a very slim budget, and if you want to be able to compete, there’s only so far you can go in trying to stand up for what’s right. So of course there’s a sliding scale: Is your site largely an advocacy site and your writers are doing their work as a contribution to the cause and even the people making salaries aren’t getting rich? Well, ok. Is your site a small for-profit site, and you at least make a good-faith effort to pay folks a little something out of respect for their time and effort? Well, ok. (And I should note that I hold no anger, grudge, resentment, or even judgement toward the people actually employed by these organizations — they are not the problem).
But HuffPo (and the many other sites and online presences of dead-tree publications with similar business models, the names of which I won’t try to list now) fits in neither of those categories. HuffPo, with Arianna Huffington at its head, became a large, money-making venture with genuine sway over American culture, its uber-wealthy founder a player in national politics. So, a) it’s wrong; b) it’s a very bad look for an influential Democrat; and c) what this ultimately means is that HuffPo and its ilk are the Walmarts of publishing.
We lefties sure like to take Walmart to task for keeping wages down across the entire economy by virtue of it being the single largest employer in the country and paying its hungry-for-any-job employees terribly. What Walmart does literally affects mid-to-low-paying jobs everywhere, because it sets the bottom-line standards against which every other employer has to compete.
Which is precisely what HuffPo, et al, do when they continue the “bloggers who don’t expect to be paid” model. They perpetuate and deepen a terrible, unethical industry standard that writers (and photographers and artists and so on) should not simply expect to be paid for their work — that on the contrary, merely having one’s work used for someone else’s profit should be seen as recompense enough.
So yeah. If you’re a creative, ask yourself: Are you living your dream or are you living somebody else’s dream? Because unless you’re one of the relative few who’ve managed to get a decently paid full-time gig out of this (and confidential to my young writer friends: If you have a full time, professional job and still have to live with roommates — you’re not paid enough), then you’re living Arianna Huffington’s dream.
UPDATE: Please note Brian Spears’s comment below re: Huffington’s celebrity buddies, because that is absolutely part of the problem.
*correction: Thanks to my girl Minna’s eagle eye, I’ve corrected the spelling of Huffington’s first name throughout (this is what happens when you can’t afford a copy editor, amirite?)
** Please also note: It occurs to me that in my white-hot fury, I forgot to note that The Huffington Post was bought by AOL for an obscene amount of money a couple-three years ago. Which doesn’t change the basic point — AH made literally millions and millions of dollars off of that sale — but she’s not the one CURRENTLY exploiting unpaid labor. Just her name is.