There are currently two labor issues at play vis a vis the Huffington Post. First, there's an attempt to organize the 160-person newsroom staff under the Newspaper Guild. Should HuffPo's paid reporters and editors choose this route, I'd be supportive. Online breaking news is a high-stress business with long hours, and many of HuffPo's competitors, from The Daily Beast/Newsweek to just about every major newspaper, are already unionized.
But then there's the frivolous Jonathan Tasini lawsuit seeking royalties for bloggers who agreed to write for HuffPo without pay, as well as the call, from the Newspaper Guild and the National Writers Union, for websites and writers to cease sharing their content with the site until the company agrees to pay its currently-unpaid bloggers. Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Erik Loomis attempts to make the case for this boycott:
Unlike unionized workplaces like the New York Times, Huffington Post exploits laborers desperate to get in print by offering them a byline without compensation while Ariana Huffington makes millions. The unions want the writers to get paid and to have greater editorial control over their content.
I completely support this boycott. I refuse to read anything at HuffPo or to link there. Ultimately, HuffPo is surviving on the adjunct model. Like higher education with its hordes of PhDs with no job prospects, there is a huge supply of writers who want to make a living in journalism. HuffPo offers the promise of gaining valuable experience and readership so that someday, maybe, you can make it big.
I will admit that I've never been entirely comfortable with the HuffPo revenue model. Earlier in its history–most notably during the 2008 presidential election, with its Off the Bus project–HuffPo did seem to use the concept of "citizen journalism" to justify relying on unpaid amateurs who dreamt, naively, of making it big as journalists. Then there's the now-ubiquitous practice, pioneered by HuffPo, of re-posting so much of another news organization's story that readers are unlikely to click-through to the original reporting, thus denying traffic and ad dollars to the publication that actually paid to produce the content. (Here's an example in which the victim is Time magazine.)
But Loomis' argument strains credulity; it just isn't true that Arianna Huffington has made millions primarily off the labor of toiling opinion bloggers. As Nate Silver has demonstrated, the typical HuffPo politics blog post attracts just about 550 pageviews, which is equal to $3.44 in advertising revenue. The vast majority of the site's soaring traffic–which now exceeds traffic to NYTimes.com–is due to strategic news aggregation, savvy search-engine optimization, and, increasingly, its own breaking news, reported by a team of very fairly-compensated reporters and editors.
What's more, with its merger with AOL and recent poaching of talent from The New York Times, Newsweek, and many other mainstream publications, it's clear that HuffPo is planning to build more and more of its business on original reporting. In this context, it makes sense that the site is reconsidering its relationship with some contributors, including the labor journalist/activist Mike Elk, who was "fired" from his unpaid position after he attended a Mortgage Brokers' Association conference in D.C. and lent his HuffPo press credential to a union leader, resulting in 200 workers crashing the event in protest.
The upside of HuffPo's meainstream-ificiation is more paid jobs for journalists like Amanda Terkel, Sam Stein, and Ryan Grim, all of whom approach their work with a progressive worldview, but draw clear distinctions between the role of a reporter and that of an activist. (The difference is in how one interjects oneself into a story. Are you on the scene to report and analyze the news, or to participate in it?) It's exciting that so many bright, young journalists are finding a professional home at HuffPo at a time when more and more traditional news organizations are scaling back.
What's more, HuffPo's model is nothing like the academic adjunct market to which Loomis compares it. Ph.Ds have invested countless years, money, and labor in the possibility of a tenure-track job. Meanwhile, there's no evidence at all that the majority of unpaid HuffPo bloggers are unhappy with the arrangement, or that they hope to make a living writing online. In fact, many of the bloggers who have complained loudest about HuffPo's model are those who earn their living in fields other than journalism. Loomis, for example, is a historian, and Tasini is a political organizer and consultant. Take it from me: Many of us who work in the media world are cheering HuffPo's success and growth, as well as its evolution into more of a play-by-the-rules news outlet.
For more: Yglesias also disagrees with Loomis
Loomis responds: "large corporations have the obligation to pay workers for labor."