Monthly Archives: February 2011

Writing Free For HuffPo: Why?

Recently, the publishing world was roiled by the news that the Huffington Post was going to be sold to AOL for a cool $315 million. However, whatever the political feedback of this move — and from what I've read, Arianna Huffington has insisted that her site isn't as political as everyone thinks it is — there has been a lot of pushback from the writing community that she has created.

One thing that the Huffington Post has been known for was its ability to attract eager writers who were happy to contribute their prose without any type of compensation.??Now, however, there is apparently a sense of betrayal in the ranks of the Huffington writers. What was acceptable, even welcome, when they were writing for the Huffington Post has become, in the words of several columnists, slavery — when working for AOL.

For example, one Huffington adherent,??R. B. Stuart,??wrote in an an article for The Improper entitled Huffington Post 'Slave' Writers in Revolt Over AOL Sale:

As a contributor to The Huffington Post since 2008, I have posted 25 original articles that I value at more than $25,000, for free … Essentially, the 6,000 writers Arianna lured with coveted bylines, then exploited while the site raked in ad revenue in the millions of dollars have now been sold without their permission, under the guise that we???ll continue to write for AOL for free.

My question is: Why was she doing it for free to begin with?

There are, of course, some legitimate reasons for writing for a company without compensation, especially if you're a beginning writer. For example, you may want to collect a body of work on a site that's more prominent than a personal blog so that you can??use it as a reference to find paying work elsewhere. Or you may wish to promote the agenda of a non-profit and/or political organization that you believe in.??

In fact, several of those who have written to protest the deal have said that they wrote for the Huffington Post because they had the sense of being part of a politically active community. Another Huffington writer,??Douglas Rushkoff, says in the Guardian that ??this last was precisely the reason many wrote without compension:

…the sense was always that we were writing for Arianna ??? contributing to an empire that spent its winnings bussing people to watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do their thing in Washington … We're not really witnessing the demise of HuffPo ??? just the demise of the justifications for writing for free. I would do it for Arianna. I won't do it for AOL.

Unfortunately — and perhaps it's because I'm old enough to be cynical about these things — as far as I could tell, the Huffington Post has been, as far as I could see, a for-profit enterprise for quite a while now. The site is busy with ads and bolstered with articles and photos from sources such as the AP, and apparently has a stable of paid columnists that make up the bulk of its front-page copy.

In his FiveThirtyEight column in the NY Times, Nate Silver wrote a piece entitled The Economics of Blogging and the Huffington Post in which he asserts that the volunteer writers who contribute their prose to the Post aren't really the source of most of its income. Using the number of comments appended to each piece, and concludes that the unpaid articles don't really generate enough page views — or income — to make that much of a difference.??

Now, you can't really know how well a Web page does from the number of comments it generates — I've had articles appear that had little to no comments, and yet earned a respectable number of page views. But Silver has a very good point: That perhaps the Huffington Post no longer (if it ever did) really depends on the free contributions of its volunteer writers.??

Instead, I think, it has prospered on its reputation of being the home of those writers, and on the loyalty of its contributors and their friends. Now that it's made its mark, it can go on to be, perhaps more honestly, the commercial entity that it is. Those who have volunteered their labor need to decide whether they want to continue — for whatever reason — or try to find a more profitable way to use their talents. As Nate Silver concludes:

Being a small fish in a very, very big pond isn't always the way to build up a name for yourself, much less to make money from it.

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How to Mock Content Farms in 10 Steps | The Atlantic Wire

The AtlanticWire has a link-rich blog entry on making fun of content farms — those sites that pay minimal-to-infinitesimal rates to freelancers for prose in order to fill as many pages as possible. The article’s conclusion is that it is nearly impossible to satirize these sites, because no matter how ridiculous a fake entry you create, a real content farm will have something to match it.

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A BusinessWeek writer tries to reach minimum wage with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site

If you're at all tempted to try to earn a bit of extra cash using crowd sourcing sites such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk, you might want to first check out this BusinessWeek article by Rachael King. She tried to spend a day earning a reasonable amount of money, and failed miserably:

By 9 a.m., I'm embarking on my first HIT: verifying five museums' website addresses and operating hours???for 10??. The work is easy and surprisingly interesting. (I will definitely check out the International Spy Museum the next time I'm in Washington.) I breeze through four additional museum-related HITs and before I know it, an hour has passed. I've earned 50??. The minimum wage in California is $8.00.

The article is part of a special report on the micro workforce, which includes a video called Freelance Nation, which I haven't had time to watch yet, but might be worth checking out.

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