So now HuffPost decides to pay writers. Its effect on the industry still lingers

Arianna Huffington in 2012. Photo: C2 Montréal/flickr.

Many freelance writers rejoiced last week when the web site HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post) announced it would be paying for all written contributions. Since its inception almost 13 years ago, the site—founded by millionaire Arianna Huffington—relied heavily on free content. While it was at times a contentious model, Huffington always defended the practice of taking lots of written work for free, arguing the writers got exposure on a high-profile platform in return.

Which was utter nonsense. While traditional media outlets—especially daily newspapers—struggle to find their sea legs in the new digital media universe, it may seem unfair to pin too much of the blame on one single media entity, and indeed, other news organizations, including Forbes and Salon, solicited unpaid submissions from writers. But I would argue The Huffington Post had a deleterious impact on the new media landscape, our media diet, and the public’s attitude towards journalism and news generally. The fact that the site is now reversing course is welcome, but doesn’t do much to mitigate the damage already done.

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After AOL bought the Web site in 2011 for  $315 million, some of the site’s bloggers sued for what they felt was their fair share of the purchase price (an estimated 9,000 bloggers were due about one third, the suit argued). A US district judge tossed out the case. But while The Huffington Post may have won the legal case, it lost the ethical one.

As a writer, author, editor, and journalism professor, I’ve seen first hand what I refer to as The Huffington Post Effect: the free-content model that duped loads of writers into giving their work away for free, driving down the value of journalism across the industry.

Why did people work for free? They were expecting that working for the HuffPost would raise their profiles and then lead to paid gigs. That Huffington could rely on her much-touted, celebrity-laden Rolodex for contributors only made things worse: Unknown bloggers saw stars in their eyes, when their bylines would appear next to the already-famous. Sensing that they were part of an organization with Oscar- and Emmy-winners in their midst only seemed to blind people further.

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I often asked people why on earth they would peddle their work to a site that would tell them that work had no monetary value. One author told me he had heard that many of the editors at Vanity Fair regularly read the site, and therefore his appearing could well lead him to sell a story to Vanity Fair (spoiler alert: he never wrote for Vanity Fair). Another aspiring writer told me she hoped that the personal essay she wrote would lead to a book deal or maybe even a documentary (there was no book deal nor a documentary).

After The Huffington Post’s unpaid-content model became famous in media circles, I began to hear a familiar conversation. As media outlets began to pay less or ask for less words to cut costs, the bartering would ultimately end in an editor saying, “Well, at least we pay something. Look at The Huffington Post—they pay nothing.” I wish I could monetize the number of times I heard these words from a commissioning editor. To put a spin on an old cliche, if I could I’d be very rich—maybe as rich as Arianna Huffington.

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Another person who had a column there told me she had always been a publicist, and was now simply taking press releases she wrote for clients and posting them on The Huffington Post, rebranding herself as a writer. This is the exact opposite of what reliable journalism is supposed to be: It’s not about clients paying for advertising, but fair and reasonable assessments of what is going on around us.

I urge students not to write for free, even if the site gets a lot of traffic.

Every year I’m faced with the heartbreaking job of facing a group of young, idealistic journalism students. I urge them not to write for free, even if the site gets a lot of traffic. I repeat the old joke about the artist/writer who died of exposure. And I tell them about The Huffington Post Effect.

HuffPost’s Editor in Chief Lydia Polgreen, who started at the site about a year ago (and who is also on CJR’s board), is careful not to criticize the previous editors or founder of the site, but says we now face a very different media landscape. “The reality is that we’re all constantly putting things on the internet that someone else is monetizing. The initial critiques of The Huffington Post were a bit unfair. Almost all of our contributors were people writing about what they were passionate about,” she says. But now that there is so much information out there, Polgreen argues, “It makes sense to pay people for their contributions.”

And those who are hard on The Huffington Post’s unpaid-content model are relying on the idea that hindsight is always 20/20. Polgreen adds: “In this age of insane disruption, we can look back and say, Was that the best idea? We could go back to 1996 and wonder if The New York Times made the right decision to make all their online content free. There are lots of factors that have contributed to the situation the news is in right now. It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

It may seem unfair to blame one media organization for the mess we now find ourselves in, and I certainly laud the move by Polgreen to pay writers. Since arriving as editor, she has also recast the site, focusing its journalism on stories that tend to go uncovered elsewhere. All of which is worthwhile. But there is a history here, one that hasn’t served the community of writers it claims to be supporting.

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Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based author and journalist. He teaches courses in media studies and journalism at Concordia University and Marianopolis College.