If you're the head of a struggling newspaper, The Huffington Post has an enviable business model. While content production is almost always the greatest cost in running a publishing/media business, it largely relies on the writing of an unpaid army of contributors. The value proposition the HuffPo offers them: exposure to a very large audience.

It's a model that has been the source of controversy. After all, the HuffPo is a for-profit business, yet it doesn't pay the vast majority of the individuals who labor for it. That's an especially interesting thing for a company founded by a person who wrote a book entitled "Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption Are Undermining America."

Whether or not it's fair to call HuffPo founder Arianna Huffington a "new media slave driver", one can't argue that Huffington's model has been somewhat successful. The HuffPo has become is one of the most popular 'blogs' on the internet and shows no signs of slowing down. But can it last? Will The HuffPo be able to maintain its army of unpaid contributors over the long haul? The 'resignation' of one of them suggests that some contributors may be asking themselves whether it makes sense to work for free.

Mayhill Fowler broke one of the biggest stories in the 2008 United States presidential campaign as a citizen journalist for The HuffPo. In return, The HuffPo covered her expenses during the rest of the campaign. But they've never actually compensated her for her work.

After contributing to The HuffPo enough to feel that she had paid her dues and was worth supporting with more than a pat on the back, she finally asked to be paid. Fowler explained on her blog:

I want to be paid for my time and effort—or at a minimum, to get a little remuneration in return for the money I spend myself in order to do original reportage. I would not expect to be paid for punditry.  The Huffington Post business model is to provide a platform for 6,000 opinionators to hold forth. Point of view is cheap. I would never expect to be paid there when the other 5,999 are not. However, the journalism pieces I have done in the past year seem to me as good as anything HuffPost’s paid reporters Sam Stein and Ryan Grim produce. Why do they get money, and I do not?

The HuffPo's response: best of luck.

Fowler, who is admittedly somewhat bitter about the situation, posted her email conversation with HuffPo editor Roy Sekoff. That apparently touched a nerve, sparking this statement from The HuffPo:

Mayhill Fowler says that she is "resigning" from the Huffington Post. How do you resign from a job you never had?

It ends:

One recommendation: in the future, she should refrain from publishing private emails with her editors without their permission. This happens to be both an old media and a new media ground rule.

Fowler was never promised pay; she willingly contributed to The HuffPo knowing full well that The HuffPo doesn't pay the vast majority of the people who 'work for it.' That may not have been a decision she's happy with in retrospect, and it may have been a poor decision, but it was her decision. She can't blame the HuffPo for it.

At the same time, Fowler's unwillingness to continue working for free demonstrates the risks The HuffPo is taking with its model. While it may never run out of contributors willing to write without remuneration, it may find it difficult to retain some of its best contributors if it doesn't eventually make it financially viable for them to continue writing.

Certainly, The HuffPo can't afford to hire thousands of people, but the apparent unwillingness to give talented contributors a pathway to real compensation sends the message that it is more interested in free labor than it is in building a real company that pays the people who work for it.

In most industries, companies want to make their best, brightest and most productive employees feel valued. Compensation is almost always a big part of how that's accomplished. And for good reason: what's good for the employee is good for the employer. As Adam Smith noted in Wealth of Nations, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." That's of course true for both parties in employer-employee relationships.

Not only is The HuffPo's position on pay questionable from a long-term strategy standpoint, it's somewhat problematic given Arianna Huffington's aforementioned crusade against 'corporate greed.' On one hand, she rails against billionaire bankers, but on the other she has built a corporation that pays almost nothing for the labor that enables it to exist.

Some might dare call The HuffPo's model hypocritical in light of that. And to be frank, hypocritical is what I'd call The HuffPo's response to Fowler. If The HuffPo wants to point out that Fowler can't resign from a job she never had, it certainly shouldn't expect her to "refrain from publishing private emails with her editors" on the basis that it's a professional rule. After all, if Fowler is not an employee of The HuffPo, it's kind of hard to expect that she adhere to industry 'ground rules' when it comes to her interactions with her 'bosses'. In other words, The HuffPo shouldn't expect its contributors to respect it in the way they would an employer if they're not employees. That the HuffPo does so reeks of arrogance.

The lesson for The HuffPo and other companies looking to take advantage of volunteer labor: you get what you pay for. And when you don't pay, you can't ask for much.

Patricio Robles

Published 29 September, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (1)


Simon Gornick

Excellent piece, Patricio, in every respect. Your skewering of Arianna is particularly priceless. But as to the ultimate cannibalism of the HuffPo model, while I hope with all my heart that you are right, the conveyor belt of people looking for exposure may just be never-ending. After all, in the past we all had things called careers. Now we have to make do with the Internet's only real invention; micro-celebrity, a veritable cottage industry of Twitter, Facebook and HuffPo amongs others.

almost 8 years ago

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