When I think about The Huffington Post, I’m troubled. But when I think harder, I reconsider what, exactly, makes me queasy.
I don’t love the prime element behind Huffington Post’s business model: the army of unpaid writers whose work generates traffic to subsidize a small group of editors and reporters. But no one forces anyone to write for free, and The Huffington Post can plausibly claim that the writers get some intangibles—exposure and a small amount of cachet among them. That someone would centralize and harness for their own profit a pool of writers who could have started their own unpaid blogs was a smart, if inevitable, move. And once you start to talk in terms of the inevitable, it becomes hard to blame those who merely recognized the opportunity.
So it is with their repackaging of news that’s reported elsewhere. It may feel unseemly to see the salient points of an article reproduced at the Huffington Post site with a bare link, and little incentive for the reader to click through. But repackaging someone else’s reporting for your own profit, without payment, was not invented by The Huffington Post, nor any other Internet site. Think of all the warmed-over stories that make the grist of local radio. Nightly affiliate news programs have long feasted on reporting done by newspapers. The Huffington Post has mostly just updated the practice for the Internet age.
And finally, perhaps it’s a minor point, but I ought to mentin the endless parade of sleaze—nip slips, boob tape, bikini shots—pushed out by the site. This is not content that would go in your father’s sober-minded newspaper, and sometimes I have difficulty taking the best content at the site seriously, knowing that Celebrity Skin is just a vertical away. But what about your father’s television network? Have we ever judged local TV news reporters by the fact that their station also ran Baywatch? The national networks for sharing their airwaves with the worst of reality TV? The newspapers who tell you the truth on the front page, and sell you the lie of a horoscope inside?
Clearly, hundreds of thousand of people find the site’s curation and editorial judgment useful, even if I’m not one of them. In the end, The Huffington Post does some good work, work which I’m thankful is supported, one discomfiting way or another.Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.