The editor-in-chief of Huffington Post UK caused a mini Twitter storm last week when he told Radio 4 that unpaid journalism is more authentic, more real than a paid column.
This ignited pretty much the same debate that raged when HuffPo was sold to AOL in 2011. Many unpaid bloggers suddenly felt aggrieved that their work had lined Arianna’s pockets.
But in 2016, this gaffe is more a lesson in PR than it is a chance to re-examine the economics of publishing.
There is no difference between paid and unpaid journalism
Here’s that Stephen Hull quote in full:
If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy.
When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.
What’s most disingenous about this quote is not the schmaltzy second line, but the faux-streetsmart first line.
To claim that securing advertising dollars is solely the (indirect) job of paid journos is incorrect.
Display advertising is a newspaper-wide proposition. That means unpaid bloggers contribute, too.
From a reader’s and therefore an advertiser’s point of view, there is no difference between paid and unpaid journalism, providing both are done well.
I don’t think this is an argument for paying all bloggers, it’s merely a reality which Hull has denied, a surefire way to enrage those bloggers who have put their heart and soul into their work.
Many contributors don’t want paying, they simply want frank appreciation.
The comparison between HuffPo and social blogging is valid
Here’s Arianna Huffington writing in 2011:
Our bloggers — most of whom are not professional writers but come from all walks of life, from officeholders, students, and professionals to professors, entertainers, activists, and heads of nonprofits — can post whatever they like, whenever they like, and do so for the same reason people post for free on platforms such as Naver, Facebook, Twitter and Yelp: to connect and be heard.
This is one of the bugbears of HuffPo critics, who hate the idea that journalism should be compared to social posting.
Because some writers express themselves (for free) in their personal lives, should they naturally be willing to do so for a third-party publication?
Well, it turns out they are, and that speaks for itself. Bloggers want maximum exposure for their cause (which could be a charitable campaign or their own fledgling careers).
That means they are happy to publish on HuffPo, when the alternative is Medium or their university rag.
As long as unpaid writing exists (it always will) it has to agglomerate somewhere. What Stephen Hull should be stressing is the political viewpoint of HuffPo – staying true to its roots is the only way it can legitimately maintain a community of unpaid writers.
Publishing has always been a mug’s game
Journalism is a trade, but writing is not. Just look through history (pre and post internet) and it’s littered with unprofitable publishing.
If 95% of plumbers were losing money, they would not persist. But writing is different, it is a means to an end.
It seems to be taboo to assert that writing is an art or a compulsion, and that the value is sometimes in the act and not the invoice.
The choice is always with the author, they don’t have to write for free.
HuffPo is not devaluing journalism, merely offering a platform for those that would always write for free. It has to be humble in providing this platform, but not simpering or borderline deceitful.
Ultimately, the joke could be on HuffPo
HuffPo has already been a victim of its own success, with many claiming that editorial standards have suffered through the use of so many thousands of bloggers (many of whom rightly or wrongly covet a HuffPo link).
When AOL bought the publisher in 2011 (prior to the introduction of brand blogs), Patricio Robles pointed out that it would be difficult for HuffPo to maintain its progressive stance whilst becoming a content behemoth.
At the moment, the publication seems to be faltering on both fronts. It’s still not in profit and the discontent among its bloggers continues.
Maybe, in the end, there’s only so much cake you can have and eat.