As is to be expected, there are a number of things that change when you are suddenly US$315-million richer. One of the first things you may notice is that your status as media-darling, underdog, lefty champion goes out the window. So it is following the acquisition of the progressive news site and content aggregator Huffington Post by AOL that multiple voices are being raised in objection.
The attacks have come on multiple fronts, but most are focussed around the business model employed by the site, and Arianna Huffington’s impeccable liberal credentials. In a column called Huffington’s Plunder, Truthout columnist Chris Hedges writes “Any business owner who uses largely unpaid labor, with a handful of underpaid, non-union employees, to build a company that is sold for a few hundred million dollars, no matter how he or she is introduced to you on the television screen, is not a liberal or a progressive.”
Defenders of the very successful business model argue that no-one forces the writers to contribute to the blog, that they do so for their own personal reasons and to enhance their reputations. HuffPo spokesperson Mario Ruiz writes: “The vast majority of our bloggers understand the value of having a platform that reaches a very large audience. People blog on HuffPost for free for the same reason they go on cable TV shows every night for free – because they are passionate about their ideas, want them to be heard by the largest possible audience, and understand the value that that kind of visibility can bring.”
But there is a counter-argument from Hedges: “The argument made to defend this exploitation is that the writers had a choice. It is an argument I also heard made by the managers of sweatshops in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, the coal companies in West Virginia or Kentucky and huge poultry farms in Maine. It is the argument made by the comfortable, by those who do not know what it is to be hard up, desperate or driven by a passion to express one’s self and the world through journalism or art.”
In an eloquent analogy Anthony De Rosa, a product manager at Reuters, is quoted by the New York Times on the issue: “We live in a world of Digital Feudalism,” he wrote. “The land many live on is owned by someone else, be it Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, or some other service that offers up free land and the content provided by the renter of that land essentially becomes owned by the platform that owns the land.”
It’s a disconcerting scenario for writers who see the value of their work getting lower and lower everyday, as low-cost content becomes the norm, and they are now beginning to organise and fight back. A Facebook group called “Hey Arianna, Can you Spare a Dime?” has over 800 members, many of whom are disgruntled former HuffPo bloggers. The group’s description reads: “AOL gives you $315-million: We’re asking you to give you a little back to the unpaid writers who built the Huffington Post.”
Tapping into the zeitgeist, comedian Stephen Colbert announced the creation of a new site called Colbuffingtonrepost.com, which “has everything you love about the Huffington Post, because it’s the Huffington Post with a new border around it that says the Colbuffington Repost.”
Tongue firmly in cheek, Colbert is making the site available for sale at US$316-million, and if it’s sold, he guarantees to give Arianna the same cut as she’s giving him, i.e nothing.
More stinging critiscism was published on Slate.com around HuffPo’s SEO tactics. Farhad Manjoo argues that the Huffington Post plays the search engines by “stuffing articles with strings of meaningless keywords (HuffPo does this on every piece), repeating potential search queries at the top of a story, and carefully engineering articles in response to rising search terms.” None of which is illegal. But as Google gets better and better at “detecting keyword gaming”, and as more and more news comes to readers via social media, it’s likely that tactic will lose it’s ability to generate large traffic.
All of which begs the question — Did AOL make a sound business decision, or has it shot itself (and HuffPo) in the foot? The New York Times’ David Carr has the final word, “It will be interesting to see how the legions of unpaid bloggers at The Huffington Post react to the merger with AOL. Typing away for an upstart blog — founded by the lefty pundit Arianna Huffington and the technology executive Kenneth Lerer — would seem to be a little different from cranking copy for AOL, a large American media company with a market capitalisation of $2.2 billion.”