Issue of pay for bloggers bigger than just Arianna’s windfall

When the Huffington Post was sold to AOL for a small fortune (very small, speaking in Mark Zuckerberg terms) typical of the comments heard was that it had been “built on the backs of bloggers” who went unpaid for their efforts. According to the infamous phrase that co-founder Ken Lerer once deigned to impart to the barbarians at the portal of the metablog, paying contributors is “not our financial model.”

In fact, Huffington Post’s administrators wouldn’t even make an exception for Mayhill Fowler. You remember Ms. Fowler — she broke the campaign-trail story about candidate Barack Obama speaking about Pennsylvanians to wealthy patrons at a fund raiser. To refresh your memory, he said, “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

In October 2010, because the Huffington Post continually stonewalled her efforts to be compensated for her work by the site and to seek funding for investigative projects despite the attention and traffic she brought to the site, Ms. Fowler informed the Huffington Post that she would no longer contribute to it.

Founding editor Roy Sekoff responded in part that “we have indeed tried to build a community around citizen journalism.” Note to Roy: invoking the phrase “citizen journalism” does not give you a free pass to withhold pay. Since when did one’s status as a citizen or a journalist preclude one’s right to a fair wage?

But, along with those who point out that political posts are responsible for a small percentage of the traffic to Huffington Post, Nate Silver writes in the New York Times, “that the average [HuffPo] blog post — which we estimate generated a couple thousand page views — was worth about $13 in advertising revenue. The median blog post, with several hundred views, was worth only $3 or $4. Even Mr. [Robert] Reich’s strongly-performing post was worth only about $170, by our estimates.”

Meanwhile, at  Tech Dirt, Mike Masnick makes a better case than HuffPo itself does for nonpayment of bloggers:

The reason that people chose to blog for free at the Huffington Post was because it’s a fantastic platform for exposure. [They] chose — of their own free will — to post at the Huffington Post for free . . . because they clearly got value out of doing so. . . . To then say that the only proper thing is to pay them is completely missing the point. It’s an attempt to retroactively go back and change the terms of a deal.

In other words, let the buyer beware. Ms. Fowler writes “think for a minute what it means when you throw yourself into working for a place, as I did, without first walking into the company’s human resources office to sign some paperwork that legally binds you and your employee to a relationship.”

In her resignation letter, Ms. Fowler goes to the heart of the matter.

. . . at the end of the day . . . 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 [provides] 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.

Her jab at commentators aside, it’s true that the few writers who are paid for commentary in the media are, for the most part, reporters rewarded with a desk job. The rest of us must content ourselves with a “platform” like that of the Huffington Post. In fact, the crux of the problem is that there are too many of the rest of us to expect to get paid. While the best nonaffiliated commentators surpass most newspaper columnists, lacking a reporter’s resume, they’re barred from positions as paid columnists.

From another perspective, a nation that overfloweth with writers is a happy problem. It means that many more people are not only participating in the national dialogue but are also realizing their creative potential. Sure, they’re generated by the new outlets that the web provides us. But, equally to the point, they’re  a product of word processing technology such as Microsoft Word, which represents an exponential advance in ergonomics over the typewriter. (I know the latter was a creative boon to many. But trying to make corrections and revisions on them probably stopped as many aspiring writers in their tracks as typing first drafts enabled others.)

Of course, with word processing technology, as with music-making technology, the risk is run that creators will soon outnumber consumers. In fact, I experienced that sense of seldom being read with fiction, on which I worked first as a writer. When I migrated from fiction to political analysis and commentary, though, I felt like I was welcomed into a community and, while under-read, at least read to some extent.

Nevertheless, we still deserve to be paid. Though it’s not one that addresses the eternal capital v. labor dialectic, especially since we’re obviously locked out by the likes of the Huffington Post, a solution may exist. I’ve seen some plans for payment by readers, but, traffic-incentive based, they’re so complicated that they require a learning curve. As an editor, who’s witness to how few of Ms. Word’s capabilities — not even page numbers! — most writers use, not to mention disdaining concern for traffic builders like SEO-friendly heads, I’m fairly sure that neither many writers nor readers will take the time to familiarize themselves with such a payment system.

How about this instead? A reader deposits $10 in a PayPal-like account and then, via a widget on various sites, instead of just Facebook-”liking” articles or clicking on the links to engage in the time-consuming process of promoting them to other social networks, he or she clicks on a dime icon and sends it into a fund for that writer. That’s 100 dimes to drop for each other. One thousand dimes equals $100 (presumably minus a small administrative fee) for the writer. Simple or what?

In the end, though, it must be said that it’s to Huffington Post’s shame that it never set aside — never mind money — even staff resources to devise a model for attracting funds for contributors.

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