When AOL acquired The Huffington Post for $315 million this week, we at CJR wondered, among other things, whether the thousands of bloggers who have contributed free writing to The Huffington Post would continue to do so after the sale, or whether they’d feel slighted at being left out of the profits. We also asked what the merger meant for journalism in general, considering both companies’ emphasis on aggregation, SEO, and opinion rather than original reporting.
Some others writing on the subject took those hypothetical wonderings to the extreme. Tim Rutten, writing in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, wrote that the real loser in the deal will be journalism itself. He likened The Huffington Post’s business model, which emphasizes aggregation and unpaid contributors, to “a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.” He writes:
The fact is that AOL and the Huffington Post simply recapitulate in the new media many of the worst abuses of the old economy’s industrial capitalism—the sweatshop, the speedup and piecework; huge profits for the owners; desperation, drudgery and exploitation for the workers. No child labor, yet, but if there were more page views in it .
Dan Gillmor at MediActive got out ahead of the conversation on Monday, reacting to the news of the merger with the advice to Huffington to “do the right thing: namely, cut a bunch of checks to a bunch of the most productive contributors on whose work she’s built a significant part of her new fortune”—not just because they’ve earned it, but because it would be a good PR move to do so. Early this morning, Guild Freelancers, a unit of the California Media Workers Guild, called on Arianna to “live up to your ideals” and share some of her profits from the sale with the 15,000-odd bloggers who helped build the site:
This $315 million buyout by AOL, along with her $4 million annual salary as part of the deal, was built on the backs of hard-working writers who never saw a dime for their labor. Many of Huffington Post’s most productive contributors broke news and provided astute analysis to regular beats, allowing Huffington to avoid hiring a paid journalist for the same coverage.
The organization also set up a Facebook page entitled “Hey Arianna, Can You Spare a Dime?”, which is slowly gaining traction online. Kathy Frederick wrote on the page, “Every time a writer writes for free, it means another writer is having an argument with someone about getting paid enough or at all.” Michael Goldfarb wrote, “Yesterday I contacted a couple of professors at Harvard Law’s Berkman Center to see whether there is a case for some retroactive compensation here anyone want to join me?”
These may just be a few voices of indignation among the many thousands of bloggers, most of whom are happy to write for free because of the readers and cachet it brings them. But the grumblings of dissent can grow, as they did in a similar situation in the early days of the Web.
In the 1990s, America Online established a Community Leader Program within its membership service; community leaders were trained members who would do tasks like moderating chatrooms, reporting offensive behavior, answering questions from other subscribers, and organizing fantasy sports games. In exchange for working a certain number of hours a week, these “volunteers” would get discounts on their monthly AOL connection fee. Thousands of members took part in the program. But in 1999, a group of those Community Leaders asked the Department of Labor to investigate whether the program violated the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
On a (now-defunct) website that the group launched to air their grievances, they explained that their positions were much more like that of employees than volunteers. As such, they believed they deserved the protection that employees would have received under federal law: minimum wage and benefits. They wrote: “We are tired of seeing others, like ourselves, being treated like employees of America Online .We believe that AOL treats its volunteer staff as a paid staff, forcing timecards, scheduled shifts, reports, and minimum hours onto these remote staff individuals.”
The Department of Labor did not investigate America Online, so the group of volunteers took it to federal court, suing the company for back pay. Their attorney, Leon Greenberg, told The New York Times at the time: ”AOL is a for-profit business. What community leaders did was very essential to the service in terms of what they were selling to the public. The minimum-wage laws require people get paid a minimum wage. When AOL says, ‘These people were volunteers so we didn’t have to pay them,’ I don’t see it.”