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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

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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