There are many reasons to be proud of running a news publication. Editors and publishers often speak of lofty ideals like uncovering the truth, funding good storytelling and forging a trust with everyday readers. But at the Huffington Post, one special point of pride, apparently, is being able to avoid paying writers for their work, according to the site's U.K. editor-in-chief, Steven Hull.
Hull brought it up during a Wednesday interview on Radio 4, explaining why the popular website does not pay the thousands of writers who contribute to its blogging network.
"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," Hull said. "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.”
When asked about Hull's remarks (which caused a stir among journalists over the next 24 hours), Huffington Post doubled down on the comment, saying in a statement to International Business Times that the site's bloggers — apparently all 100,000 of them — are satisfied receiving no compensation.
"Our bloggers are happy with this arrangement, and happy to access the platform and the huge audience it brings, without having to build, pay for, edit, moderate or maintain that platform," the statement read. "Indeed, we are inundated with requests from people who want to blog. The proof is in the pudding: People are looking to join the party, not go home early."
The argument propagated the idea that what the writers don't make in cash, they get back in "exposure."
A sample of a few bloggers told IBT that they disagree.
"Um, yeah, I definitely wish someone had paid me," former HuffPost blogger and social media strategist Karen Geier said. She contributed from 2012 to 2014. "I went out of pocket for expenses to interview comedians and it wasn’t a situation where the nonpayment allowed you other latitude. They still yelled at me and protected their paid writers all the time."
Noah Baron, another blogger, felt the same way. "I don't think that any company should be 'proud' that it doesn't compensate people for their labor. As pleased as I am with what I've written for Huffington Post, HuffPo ultimately generates substantial revenue off of my work and the work of many like me," said Baron. "I do wish I could be or had been paid for the material I write there. That said, I will likely continue to contribute because it allows me to spread a progressive message to a mass audience."
Yet another blogger, labor writer Jeff Ballinger, sent IBT his archive of HuffPost pieces and added, simply, "Show me da money."
As of last fall, Huffington Post received about 86 million unique visitors per month and is one of the most highly trafficked news sites on the internet.
Most of HuffPost's response to Hull's remarks was adapted from a 2011 post by HuffPo founder Ariana Huffington defending the unpaid-blogger policy. "[O]ur 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."
The company went on to compare itself to the Atlantic, Medium and other sites that make use of paid and unpaid contributors.
But HuffPost's comparison to Facebook and similar social platforms comes just a bit late: Facebook revealed on Wednesday that it will soon allow writers to contribute to Instant Articles and get a cut of the revenue as partners.
Some 9,000 former bloggers hit HuffPost with a lawsuit in 2011 during its sale to AOL, arguing that their unpaid labor factored into the site's valuation and demanding compensation. The case was thrown out the next year by U.S. District Judge John Koeltl who said that "no one forced" the bloggers to repeatedly provide their work with no expectation of being paid, rendering their grievances null.
The lawsuit may have been launched on shaky ground, but there's a big difference between suing for compensation after the fact and asking for a company to change its policy altogether.
Huffington herself, in the post from 2011, justified the policy as part of the brave new world of digital media in a flourish of tech sector buzzwords. (It's also worth noting that, in defending the practice, Huffington cited not fellow progressives, but a post from the libertarian magazine Reason.)
"The key point that the lawsuit completely ignores (or perhaps fails to understand) is how new media, new technologies, and the linked economy have changed the game, enabling millions of people to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation — from couch potato to self-expression. Writing blogs, sending tweets, updating your Facebook page, editing photos, uploading videos, and making music are options made possible by new technologies," she wrote.
But these days, Huffington may be the one who's behind the times. The wave of unionization that is sweeping digital newsrooms over the past year (including HuffPost) is a serious rebuke to the theory that "new" media requires "new" ways of compensating labor. Many writers, bloggers and contributors appear to feel that Huffington's metric of "exposure" has been thoroughly exposed.