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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

calling bullshit: on Arianna Huffington and The Huffington Post…

…and on Newsweek’s fawning profile of Huffington, which declares that “The Huffington Post may have figured out the future of journalism.” And that future — though Newsweek will not say it, and barely even acknowledges this fact — is that journalism will be the purview of the idle rich, and not a field in which anyone should ever again expect to earn a living.

Daniel Lyons’ puff piece on Huffington opens with some apple polishing about the millions of visitors HuffPo gets and how it is “one of the most important news sites on the Web.” Following that is some sycophantic swooning about Huffington herself:

It’s a humid July afternoon in New York—Huffington’s 60th birthday—and she’s sipping San Pellegrino water and nibbling on apple slices in her tiny office on the third floor of a building in New York’s SoHo. Minions rush in and out, bringing chocolates, messages, and a BlackBerry, with her ex-husband, former Republican congressman Michael Huffington, on the line. Arianna has just come from speaking at an advertising conference—she gives more than 100 speeches a year, addressing techies and publishing types, who view her as the patron saint of new media, the queen of bloggers, the one person who’s figured out the future of journalism.

And then Lyons gets down to ignoring the central tenet of HuffPo’s financial success: it does not pay its writers. It expects the vast majority of those who contribute to its bottom line to donate their efforts. You think Lyons might find room to include that fact when he says stuff like:

TV and newspapers have higher fixed costs than Web sites

by noting, perhaps, that TV and newspapers pay those who contribute their time, expertise, and creative effort. But he doesn’t. You might think this fact would come after such a comment as this:

HuffPo and other online publications must find ways to acquire content at low cost.

But no. Lyons chooses to inform us that things really are looking pretty bright on the Web these days:

These sites run lean; HuffPo has 88 editorial employees, while big newspapers might have several times that many. Online jobs used to pay far less than print jobs, but now salaries for entry-level staffers are comparable: $35,000 to $40,000.

Except for writers, of course. Finally, Lyons gets to the crux of the matter:

To hold down the costs, sites get a lot of content free, aggregating articles from other sites and getting readers to create the content themselves, as HuffPo does via its 6,000 unpaid bloggers.

That’s it. One sentence seven paragraphs into a 2,000-word article about what is really the defining notion of HuffPo and the reason for its extraordinary “success”: It does not pay its writers.

Imagine the profit margins of a company that does not have to pay its workers! That used to be called slave labor… and at least slaves got room and board. Writers are now expected to work for free, but they still have to fend for themselves.

Unless we think journalism is something people will do as a hobby, in their spare time, then the only other option is that serious professional journalism is something that only the independently wealthy will be able to do.

And maybe that is the case. Maybe that’s really where we’re heading. Is that a good thing? I don’t think so. I can’t imagine that Daniel Lyons — who was presumably paid, and paid very well, by Newsweek — for his writing work here, thinks so. So why doesn’t he acknowledge this? What possible motive could there be for embracing this idea of the future of journalism instead of decrying it?

Here’s a thought: It’s a lot easier to dismiss journalism when it comes from unpaid hobbyists than dedicated professionals, even on the rare occasions when the unpaid hobbyists manage to produce something worthwhile. We already see that at work: Politicians and CEOs and others in power can dismiss criticism by sneering about “bloggers,” and that’s the end of it. But when all the journalists are nothing but “bloggers,” who will be left with any credibility?



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  • elucidarian

    MaryAnn, is this an instance of slightly reactionary bias on your part, as a writer and published author? I don’t mean to discount your perception of the Post’s influence on the profession of journalism, a career not well represented in current media. I can’t help but feel, however, that your discontent in this article is overriding your usual analytical viewpoint.

    Reading about these unpaid writers made me think of how many stories I’ve heard from great talents from across the fields of printed word, from non-fiction essayists to creators of comic book superheroes, relating their meager beginnings. I wonder if an operation like the Huffington Post couldn’t stand as a proving ground for potentially great journalists who would be hard pressed to find such exposure elsewhere.

    It would still be nice if these writers had some monetary compensation. There are other sites where people post their stuff, hoping to be noticed, and have a chance of making some money. On deviantart.com, for example, if anyone orders a print of your work, you get a small portion of the profit. Even better, you be discovered and commissioned by someone with real money. This model doesn’t translate so well to journalism, but it does serve as a reminder of the possibilities.

    Successful ventures run in cycles. We can’t be certain how today’s media will evolve; just look how our expectations have changed from 10 years ago.

  • Joanne

    As a journalist I’m becoming more and more aware of how crucial getting the internet right is to the media’s future. My monthly magazine is doing more and more online in a bid to attract hits – sometimes I feel the company cares more about what happens online than what goes in the magazine. I trained as a print journalist but these days I have to do video and audio and take photos, all in an effort to cut costs and gain traffic. Luckily I get paid. Like you, MaryAnn, I’m not keen on the idea that people should do this job for free – hell, journalism’s never been a high-paid job despite the qualifications of most people in the industry (me: a four-year degree from a top university plus a one-year postgrad diploma in journalism). But at least I get paid in recognition of my qualifications and my skills. I’m a professional, trained to do my job. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for blogs like the Huffington Post, but it certainly shouldn’t be the model for future journalism. That’s the high road to the end of good journalism and I’m worried we’re already on that path.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    elucidarian: You aren’t in the creative industry, are you? With very, VERY few exceptions, commissions are massively outnumbered by for requests for free art or art trades. For most people, commission money is nice when it comes to buying the occasional treat for themselves, but is nowhere near reliable enough income to pay for rent, groceries or basic utilities. That’s why the vast majority of DA artists are students, or hobbyists.

    Labour in North America is getting shafted across the board. What hasn’t been sent overseas has been whittled down to part time, or temporary, without benefits, without stability. We blame unions for everything, begrudge the few people making a genuine living wage every penny they get, and cater to the whims of the billionaire profiteers who benefit from keeping labor in poverty. Worse, the mantra of “Personal responsibility” has put all the pressure on the individual; massive student debt, massive healthcare risk exposure, lack of protection from predatory lenders or employers, and once again Social Security is back on the cutting board, at a time when personal savings are t an all-time low.

    That we now see supposedly progressive organizations like HuffPo adopting these labor practices is incredibly disheartening.

  • Orsand

    The sad part about Huffington Post is how thin skinned Arianna is whenever someone politely disagrees with any portion of her signature commentaries. Your post will not only never make it past the moderators, but any other comments you have made that day (on completely different subjects) will also be permanently removed as a reminder that this Queen Bee demands total loyalty and that dissension in any form will not be tolerated.
    Read any of her columns at Huffington Post and then scroll down to the comments. You may find it odd that the entire world appears to be in agreement with her every word, if one were to take the posted comments to heart. What Ms. Huffington fails to realize is that most people are able to immediately see through that type of yellow journalism and find it ridiculous. Serious journalists remain open to hearing critical and opposing views, especially from those who’s primary interests are promoting a civilized dialogue and not just being oppositional for the sake of being oppositional.

  • captain_swing

    But this is the brave new world – and it stinks.I’m from the UK and the new Govt. has plans to make almost everything it can get it’s hands on run by volunteers – it’s just been proposed that there should be volunteer policemen. It’s the modern business practice – also known as shafting the workers. Why pay for it when you can get it for free. The intention here is to make thousands redundant and pass the work to the voluntary sector, then if it can’t/won’t be done by unpaid volunteers it won’t be done. Frightening eh?

  • MaryAnn

    MaryAnn, is this an instance of slightly reactionary bias on your part, as a writer and published author? I don’t mean to discount your perception of the Post’s influence on the profession of journalism, a career not well represented in current media. I can’t help but feel, however, that your discontent in this article is overriding your usual analytical viewpoint.

    Okay, then: What dispassionate objective analysis am I missing here? What’s the upside to journalism being the playground only of rich dilettantes and unpaid hobbyists? Because that’s what *Newsweek* is saying is the future of journalism.

    What’s the upside that I’m missing? Please tell me.

  • MaryAnn

    It would still be nice if these writers had some monetary compensation.

    It would still be nice if doctors had some monetary compensation.

    It would still be nice if carpenters had some monetary compensation.

    It would still be nice if auto mechanics had some monetary compensation.

    It would still be nice if cab drivers had some monetary compensation.

    It would still be nice if schoolteachers had some monetary compensation.

    Those statements all sound ridiculous, don’t they?

  • We already see that at work: Politicians and CEOs and others in power can dismiss criticism by sneering about “bloggers,” and that’s the end of it.

    Well, even in the heyday of print journalism, it was fashionable for the rich and powerful to sneer at “muckrakers” or “yellow journalists.” And that in the days when newspapers were run by people as rich and powerful as William Randolph Hearst–a man whom–for all his faults–actually paid his reporters. (But then I suspect a lot of real-life publishers have had more in common with Charles Foster Kane or J. Jonah Jameson than, say, the idealistic publisher in Lou Grant.)

    What worries me about this new trend is not just all the journalists who will be forced out of the profession because they can’t afford to pursue it but rather the news stories we won’t hear about because it takes too much time or costs too much money to investigate or would embarrass the company that is owned by the kinfolk of some “journalist.”

    There’s already been one incident at the beginning of the immigrant demonstration a few years back when other bloggers pointed out quite bluntly how awful it was that such a big story basically caught the Huffington Post by surprise. I can’t help but get the feeling that there’ll be many more such “surprises” if this trend continues.

  • Er, demonstration was meant to be plural. My bad.

  • mortadella

    I second everything Mary Ann said, and yep, as a journalist I’m biased. Why exactly wouldn’t I be? I’d go on, but hell, I’ll let Harlan Ellison do it for me here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

    He’s talking about fiction writers, but it still applies to this discussion. David Simon has a lot of good stuff to say on the future of journalism, but there are too many good posts to choose from.

  • misterb

    I think journalists are worth more to society than financiers. Perhaps Wall Street should be run on a volunteer basis. Seems to me we would all be better off.

  • Knightgee

    I must say that this model is alarming. I know far too many bloggers that already maintain spaces that are updated numerous times everyday throughout the week for free with little breaks and they will quickly tell you that this is a daunting task that simply isn’t worth the effort most times. This seems like a way to capitalize on the internet without having to recognize that this qualifies as labor.

    I’m not particularly concerned about “good journalism” being killed by this, because Fox News and other mainstream media outlets are already doing that far more effectively and have been for quite a while now.

  • iakobos

    I’m probably going to catch Hell for this but it’s not just a shift to the internet that’s the problem. Here’s the real problem. Roughly half the country is conservative, while the mainstream news media is liberal. All media, whether liberal or conservative, is supported by advertising revenue which revenue must be supplied by consumers of the media who go on to be become purchasers of the advertised product. When comparing the mainstream media vs the new media (Foxnews, Talk Radio, etc) the mainstream media is losing advertising revenue because it’s losing viewers and it’s losing viewers because the conservative audience is going to the new media for it’s news. There was a time when the mainstream media was the only media and conservatives had no choice but to get their news from them, consequently the mainstream media was able to grow to it’s huge size. Now that their support is eroding they’re going to shrink, one way or the other. I don’t think the mainstream news is only going to become the playground of the wealthy elite, such as Huffington. There will always be a liberal half of the country that will be a consumer of what the mainstream offers. I just think the mainstream will have to shrink down to a level proportionate to their audience so they can be profitable and pay their journalists accordingly.

  • elucidarian

    Sorry if I offended anyone. Just trying to comprehend the matter by questioning those with insight I might lack.

    MaryAnn: I wasn’t condoning the aspect of the Post being the new model for journalism, only suggesting it could be an entry point for exposure. Apparently, I’m not doing too well discerning the divide between professionals and amateurs.

    Left_Wing_Fox: I write just enough to keep thinking critically and photograph enough to improve as an artist in the medium, but find it difficult to imagine going career when competing against today’s sophisticated, amateur-friendly technologies, as well as a glut of semi-professionals supplementing the market.

  • MaryAnn

    the mainstream news media is liberal

    I don’t know what “mainstream news media” you’re consuming, iakobos, but the one I see is so far from liberal that it surely must be some sort of mass delusion that anyone believes it’s liberal at all.

    Read Glenn Greenwald for regular explanations of how not-liberal our supposely liberal media is. The examples are numerous and ongoing, not aberrant devations from some supposedly typical liberal agenda. One only need to actually *look* at what the media is doing — as Greenwald does — to see that it simply isn’t liberal at all.

    I wasn’t condoning the aspect of the Post being the new model for journalism, only suggesting it could be an entry point for exposure.

    HuffPo does not operate as an entry point for exposure. It expects all of its contributors — many of whom are already well known — to contribute their work for free. *Newsweek* tells us that HuffPo is the future of journalism, ie, that the future of journalism is that writers will give their work away.

    Also: What actually happens on HuffPo? Celebrity writers — that is, those whose names are already known, writers who already are exposed — get lots of traffic. But these celeb friends of Huffington’s aren’t looking to make any money from their writing — they don’t have to; they’re already rich — so they’re happy to give it away. Unknown writers, on the other hand, don’t get the traffic because they aren’t known. But when a site has 6,000 unknown writers contributing work for free, even if each of those unknown writers gets only a few page views, it adds up to significant revenue for HuffPo.

    So: lots of unknown writers write for “exposure” and get next to nothing in return: certainly not any meaningful exposure. But HuffPo makes millions taking advantage of those writers. How is any of this justifiable, except in a world that puts profit before *everything* else, including fairness?

    But hey, even apart from all that: I’m even angrier at *Newsweek* for not calling a spade a spade. If real journalism is dying (or is already dead), it’s because of writing this like *Newsweek* piece, which buries the lede and ignores all consequences of its declaration of HuffPo as the future of journalism.

    I write just enough to keep thinking critically and photograph enough to improve as an artist in the medium

    Unless you’re doing these things *all the time,* then you’re not doing it enough! Good art — and even good, entertaining junk! — requires more than just halfhearted, catch-as-catch-can attention to it.

    but find it difficult to imagine going career when competing against today’s sophisticated, amateur-friendly technologies, as well as a glut of semi-professionals supplementing the market.

    Exactly! That’s *exactly* the issue!

  • Oh, boy. The “liberal media” myth. I so wish it was actually true.

  • aquila6

    This may seem obvious, but I will say it anyway: If a web site like HuffPo doesn’t want to pay you for your content, stop giving it to them for free. Do the HuffPo editors go around putting guns to writers’ heads and demanding that they produce content free of charge?

  • Knightgee

    As MaryAnn said, the writers at HuffPo that can afford to do it for free do so, but to those who don’t and who aren’t celebrity writers in a sense, their refusal to give HuffPo their work means nothing. If this is indeed the future of journalism, then it will be much like regular media is today, which is to say that “big” sites like HuffPo will garner the most attention and traffic while dedicated but less known or independent journalists will be ignored because they refuse to give away their work for free or have made themselves less “accessible” by refusing to work with a larger news site like HuffPo.

  • MaryAnn

    I’ve gotten in arguments with other writers, in which I try to explain to them why they’re only hurting themselves in the long run — as well as in the short run! — by writing for HuffPo. I have yet to convince anyone, as far as I know. But I won’t stop, because these writers are hurting *all* writers, not just themselves.

    Is HuffPo holding a gun to anyone’s head? No, of course not, but that doesn’t make what they’re doing right. And those writers who do work for free are, in a sense, holding a gun on the rest of us.

  • bronxbee

    Arianna has just come from speaking at an advertising conference—she gives more than 100 speeches a year, addressing techies and publishing types, who view her as the patron saint of new media, the queen of bloggers, the one person who’s figured out the future of journalism.

    and i’m sure “Arianna” is very lucratively paid for each speech she gives. she’s paid — she should pay those who work for her.

    i find those who offer “exposure” instead of pay, just exploit instead of encourage.

  • Victor Plenty

    Thanks for continuing this fight, MaryAnn. Before reading this piece I did not realize the Huffington Post never pays its writers.

    Now that I know this, I will be a lot more cautious about reading HuffPo or linking to them. (Not that I’ll *never* read them or link to them, but the story will have to be pretty damn important, and unavailable anywhere else, before I’ll be willing to drive any more traffic to a site run like that.)

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    And those writers who do work for free are, in a sense, holding a gun on the rest of us.

    Oh yes. As long as there’s someone hungry enough to do free work for the chance of paid down the road, no-one else has a chance of actually charging the client what our time is worth.

    It’s the fundamental pressure on all labour: If you don’t work, you starve to death in the streets. Without regulation, collective pressure, or market scarcity, the lowest bidder sets the standard of living for everyone else.

  • There was a time when the mainstream media was the only media and conservatives had no choice but to get their news from them, consequently the mainstream media was able to grow to it’s huge size.

    Ah, yes. The bad old days when the big bad “liberals” controlled the media and yet conservative candidates managed to win the White House in two landslide elections.

    On behalf of all the Communist refugees I’ve worked with who could tell tales of real persecution, cry me a river…

  • Muzz

    The idea that the mainstream media is ‘liberal’ or left wing is hilarious, particularly in the US.
    There has been so much said in the past seven years on how the conservative or right wing mainstream media is shedding viewers in droves and the youth don’t even bother with it at all. The media, in order to keep its present audience then gets more and more conservative and sensational in slant, each service now competing for the same shrinking group. This has been a common observation.

    No doubt the extreme right decided long ago to leave the mainstream press altogether as well. But the only people who trumpet the ‘liberal media’ line with a straight face are the right wing press, like Fox news, out to polarise the issue. And frankly the idea that conservatives are leaving the media because it isn’t right wing enough for them is a little terrifying. Kinda suggests a desire for no relationship with reality at all, to me. (I’d love to know how Fox News and talk radio constitute ‘new media’ as well. There’s nothing new about talk radio. The ability of the most popular news service in the country attached to one of the largest news media companies on earth to paint itself as a non mainstream minority rebel sticking up for the little guy is one of the better PR coups of all time. ‘Con’ might be a better word for it).

    Anyway, it is kinda amazing that Huffpo is being held up as a great example of web media when, as mentioned, its doing all the most decried things of modern media trends. Poor staffing, farming and recycling content, a heavy reliance on boutique health/lifestyle and opinion pieces (and it doesn’t even pay for those). But it’s doing them on the net. Hardly a revolution. I wonder if Arianna’s speaking engagements are paid affairs?

  • Jurgan

    The mainstream media definitely isn’t liberal, but I don’t think it’s fundamentally conservative, either. The issue is that they’re motivated by profit, which leads them to lazily and quickly report any story without first getting the facts straight. The right-wing noise machine (Fox News, talk radio, and some websites like Drudge Report or Breitbart’s Big Whatever) take advantage of that. They’re so good at pushing a story into the public, usually based on falsehoods, that the mainstream media repeats the allegations because it’s easier than find out if they’re true. The question is how do we do journalism that places truth higher than profit- simply expecting corporate-owned media to forgo profit is unrealistic in this day and age. HuffPo at first seems like a solution, in that its writers are unpaid. However, it’s exactly backwards- the individuals aren’t being paid, but the entity is profitable. Without paying reporters, there’s really no way to get original information- there’s no time or resources to investigate stories. The free bloggers often (not always) are more opinion-dealers than reporters.

    If you need more proof that the media is not liberal, I recommend mediamatters.org Please don’t dismiss them as a biased source- it’s irrelevant, since they back up everything with facts, videos, and transcripts. The difference between right-wing and left-wing media figures is a matter of fact. People like Olbermann and Maddow may have liberal leanings, but they never lie to viewers, while people like O’Reilly, Beck, and Hannity regularly distort the truth in order to advance their agenda.

  • Sometime in recent weeks I was banned from posting comments on Huffington Post articles. I’m a polite, nice person, contribute positively, and have no clue what caused my banning. No explanation was given. I even contacted them and respecfully asked for an explanation. None was granted. But last night I saw Jon Stewart interview Ms Huffungton on his show and now I feel it’s probably a badge of honor that I’ve been banned. I’m embracing it. :)

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