Well, this is awkward: Having somehow heard that Arianna Huffington and her partners in the Huffington Post recently came into $315 million, some members of the unpaid blogging horde that fills the website with content are asking for their share. Yesterday, a Facebook group titled Hey Arianna, Can You Spare a Dime? was launched to rally the disgruntled bloggers together. "AOL gave you $315 million," reads the group's description. "We're asking you to give a little back to the unpaid writers who built the Huffington Post." A post notes that "this $315 million buyout by AOL, along with her $4 million annual salary, was built on the backs of hard-working writers who never saw a dime for their labor. We call on Ms. Huffington to live up to the ideals she so earnestly professes and share her profits with the people responsible for the Huffington Post's success." Hey, wait a minute. Yeah, isn't this the woman who just wrote a book that fretted America is going to become a Third World country? Where was that sentiment when she made millions off of free labor?
Of course, the reality is not so simple. Arianna was never dishonest about what she was offering in exchange for blog content: Writers were given a platform for their work — one that grew substantially in a short time, and will be even larger now. And she does pay employees, nearly 200 in fact, many of whom edit and post those same "free" columns. "No one has ever tried to fool anybody," founding editor Roy Sekoff told Bloomberg Business Week this morning. "When we started we had 500 contributors. Now we've had close to 15,000 people blogging at least once. They came to us and said, 'Please, can my stuff be on your site?'"
Sekoff says that this grievance-airing by the unpaid bloggers comes up every time there's a report of a valuation of the site, or new investors. But this one isn't as likely to die down because now the Huffington Post is merged with AOL, which feels like a much more corporate enterprise (with large teams of full-time paid writers). Already there's debate over whether the Post can continue with its unpaid model. Arianna, in an e-mail sent to everyone who has ever blogged for the Huffington Post (including, full disclosure, me), indicated that there'd be no change to the system. "Together, our companies will have a combined base of 117 million unique U.S. visitors a month — and 250 million around the world — so your posts will have an even bigger impact on the national and global conversation," she wrote. "That’s the only real change you’ll notice — more people reading what you wrote." In other words, you won't notice a change in your bank account.
Bloggers may be disappointed, but PaidContent this morning made a good point. In this case, with capitalism comes a limit on democracy:
Paying bloggers introduces a different kind of economics: cost benefit. Instead of an open exchange and dialogue, editors would have to judge submissions as worth money or not. They would have to pick for topics or takes likely to get the highest traffic. It would change the dynamics completely — and some of the people complaining probably wouldn’t have a chance at all.
Still, the optics of the deal — millions to Arianna and Co., nil to the writers who helped build her site — aren't so hot when described in heated terms. And they know it. "Please, enough with the sweatshop and slave ship metaphors — they are ridiculous and offensive," spokesman Mario Ruiz told me today in an e-mail. "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 (the visibility of being on HuffPost has led to our bloggers being invited on TV to discuss their posts, to paid speeches, to book deals, to a TV show — Greg Gutfeld claims he was offered his Fox show because of his writing on HuffPost).
"Our bloggers are free to write for HuffPost — or not write for HuffPost. They can write as often as they like or as little as they like," he continued. "Why isn’t there an uprising calling for the heads of Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, Bill O’Reilly, Joy Behar, et al?"
Related: 101 Minutes With Arianna Huffington [NYM]