The Huffington Post and the question of payment versus exposure has popped up in social media again, as someone found a quote from HuffPo UK editor Stephen Hull that tries to spin not paying writers as a good thing. The fact that the writers are writing for free, Hull explains, makes their work more authentic. They’re writing it because they wanted to, rather than being paid to say something.
“I love this question, because I’m proud to say that what we do is that we have 13,000 contributors in the UK, bloggers… we don’t pay them, but you know if I was paying someone to write something because I wanted it to get advertising pay, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. So 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.”
Needless to say, this is evoking the usual range of scornful-bordering-on-apoplectic reactions. Chuck Wendig demonstrates exactly what a colorful writer he is in his own blog rant on the matter. Wendig writes:
Let us expose this hot nonsense for what it is: a lie meant to exploit writers and to puff up that old persistent myth about the value of exposure or the joy of the starving artist or the mounting power of unpaid citizen journalism.
The lie is this: writing is not work, it is not fundamental, it is a freedom in which you would partake anyway, and here some chucklefuck would say, haw haw haw, you blog at your blog and nobody pays you, you post updates on Twitter and nobody pays you, you speak words into the mighty air and you do it for free, free, free. And Huffington Post floats overhead in their bloated dirigible and they yell down at you, WE BROADCAST TO MILLIONS and DON’T YOU WANT TO REACH MILLIONS WITH YOUR MEAGER VOICE and THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU.
But it is an opportunity for them, not for you.
And on Facebook, Ryk Spoor says much the same thing:
If you are doing an online business — starting an SF magazine, running a news site, doing a video-game review series — that is going to be taking IN money, then YOU ARE MORALLY OBLIGATED TO PAY YOUR CONTRIBUTORS. And you should be paying them a decent fee, per-word or per-article, not trying to get away with throwing them a couple of bucks and maybe a free ticket to something they won’t use.
There are a number of other posts from people sharing the same incredulous reaction. The New Statesman, Online Journalism Blog, Freethought Blogs, and so on. Never accuse Stephen Hull of being uncontroversial. But this is hardly the first time this issue has been raised.
The same sort of thing popped up back in October, when Wil Wheaton noted that HuffPo wanted to reblog one of his posts without paying him anything for it. And it’s hardly the first time people have complained about someone wanting them to work for nothing. Ted Swain posted an essay on why he won’t give talks at TEDx events—they don’t pay their speakers, while they charge people in the thousands of dollars a head to attend. (Though, ironically, Swain posted his essay on Medium, which has itself come under fire for not paying its writers anything either.) And we shouldn’t forget The Oatmeal, which applied its usual snarky sense of humor to the idea of being paid in exposure.
After the Huffington Post was bought by AOL for a considerable sum, a number of unpaid bloggers sued trying to recoup some of the HuffPo’s $315 million purchase price, but their case was tossed in 2012. But not all unpaid-worker lawsuits are necessarily so unsuccessful. Some unpaid interns sued Gawker in 2013 over lack of payment, and that case was still going as of August, 2015. It even saw some further action this month, but no end seems in sight.
But all this furor runs into two problems that, as long as they exist, will keep sites like HuffPo and Medium in business for life. One such problem is that too many people are simply too willing to work for free. You couldn’t talk all 13,000 UK contributors to HuffPo out of writing for nothing, nor could you talk the thousands and thousands of writers in the US or other places out of it either.
The other problem is, there simply aren’t that many markets where people can kick in writing at will in the expectation of getting paid. In fact, I don’t know of any at all. So, if I were one of those writers and found nobody was going to pay me for blogging, and I didn’t want to put in the time and effort of figuring out how to set up a blog of my own, why shouldn’t I do it for someone else for free? (Though that is strictly a hypothetical question for me—I do get paid for blogging for TeleRead, though probably not in the range someone like Wendig or Spoor would want.)
So what it all boils down to is, writers like Wendig and Spoor can use all the colorful language they want in anti-HuffPo diatribes demanding that it should pay contributors something—but that’s about all they can do, because as long as so many writers are willing to work for nothing, the Huffington Post will be able to sail serenely along, carried on their shoulders. It has no incentive to change the way it does business, because it’s not in any danger of running out of free material. If even the bad publicity from the unsuccessful blogger lawsuit wasn’t enough to stop other writers from continuing to work for the HuffPo for free, what would be?
If more writers should get paid for blogging, maybe someone should start up a market that will pay them something for it, as from sharing ad revenue. It doesn’t look like the Huffington Post or Medium have any plans in that direction.