Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Perspectives on the Huffington Post suit

A group of volunteer bloggers who have written for the Huffington Post have come together in a class-action lawsuit against the newly AOL-owned site to the tune of $105 million, headed by a journalist called Jon Tasini. Their argument is that HuffPo has taken advantage of them and owes them back pay for all of the work they've done with no contract for payment and from which the site made a profit. HuffPo is going to respond, I assume, by pointing out that a) there was no promise to pay them, b) they knew this, c) could leave at any point if this agreement was not satisfactory, and e) they nevertheless benefited from the arrangement through gained exposure.  But here are some opinions from people who are more informed on the matter than I:

Tasini himself:
"Arianna Huffington is pursuing the Wal-Martization of creative content and a Third World class of creative people," Tasini said in a press release. "Actually, that is unfair to Wal-Mart because at least Wal-Mart pays its workers something for the value those workers create. In Arianna Huffington's business model, economic gain is only reserved for her. Everyone else, apparently, is expected to work for free regardless of the value they create. Greed and selfishness is the order of the day."
David Goldstein, former HuffPo contributor:
I wouldn't mind getting a share of the $105 million class action lawsuit Jonathan Tasini is filing on behalf of exploited, unpaid bloggers like me. I mean, The Stranger only pays marginally more than Huffington Post, so, well, I could really use the money.  
That said, I agree with Eli, in that as a writer giving away my work for free, I knew exactly what I was getting. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. At least in direct monetary compensation.  
But it wasn't exactly a one-way street. Arianna Huffington got free content from folks like me, and in exchange I got a larger audience and a slightly enhanced national profile. Furthermore, the bulk of my eighty-some posts at HuffPo were cross-posts, so they didn't take much extra work, and they all linked back to HA, both bumping my traffic, and more importantly, my Google ranking.  
All in all, not an entirely bad deal for me, and no hard feelings. It would have been nice if Arianna had shared the wealth of her AOL windfall with those of us who helped make it possible, if only a token gesture. You know, like a buck or two a post. Or maybe a gift certificate to Olive Garden. But I wasn't expecting it.  
In fact, if I have any ambivalence (if not downright regrets) over my career as a blogger, it's got more to do with the way I sold myself cheap at my own blog, rather than the eyes-wide-open arrangement I had at HuffPo. For six years I obsessively covered Washington state and local politics for free, mostly full-time. How could that not help but contribute to the devaluation of the profession, negatively impacting not only my own finances, but those of my colleagues in the legacy press? 
 Radley Balko, criminal justice journalist newly hired by HuffPo, on his blog:
I realize this is going to look like I’m just shilling for my future employer, but really, what the hell am I missing about this Huffington Post controversy?  
A bunch of people agreed to write for Huffington Post for free. Or rather, in exchange for a platform that gave them access to a pretty large audience. They did this knowing full well that the goal of Huffington Post has always been to eventually become profitable. If they agreed to sit behind their keyboards and voluntarily churn out free content, how exactly have they been exploited? And on what basis could they possibly argue that those prior agreements should change now that the site has been purchased by AOL?  
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written for free over the years. It’s how you get a foot in the door. It has never occurred to me to go back and sue all of those publications. Come to think of it, I’ve been writing for all of you for free for the last nine years. Expect a visit from my process server soon. 
Although I can sympathize with Tasini's issue and Goldstein's complaints, this can't be about "fair." If things were fair, all good writers would get paid well for their work and poor writers wouldn't get hired for anything. But since contracts are what matter here and HuffPo made no agreement to pay these writers for their work (so far as I understand), there shouldn't be any way for them to demand payment after the fact regardless of how much work they did. If they're not happy about that, they're free (again, so far as I know) to refuse to do any more writing without pay, and to bitterly condemn the HuffPo's business model to anyone who will listen. Which is what they have been doing.

1 comment:

  1. Ack. Blogger just ate my comment. Essentially, I wanted to thank you for the first link, which eventually leads to the suit. I look forward to reading it.

    I blogged about this today as well. Morally, this is wrong. Legally...well, if the offer was made and the blogger accepted, then that may be it. However, I get a fair number of offers along the lines of, "we can only pay you in exposure now, but once we start to make money..." I haven't read the complaint yet, but if promises like that were made, then perhaps there's cause for a suit. IANL, and so on. ;-)

    If nothing else, I hope this helps open up discussion about the value of creative work in this marketplace.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.