AOL/HuffPo shoots the messenger, fires Moviefone editor Patricia Chui over work-for-free email

And the AOL/HuffPo Cinematical fiasco comes full circle in the only way it could have: with a scapegoating.

Quick summation: 1) Respected staffers jump ship from Cinematical after the HuffPo takeover of AOL (which owned Cinematical and had been trying to kill it for years without much success). 2) An email then goes out to Cinematical freelancers (as well those who write for Movefone, also owned by AOL), inviting writers who’d formerly been paid for their work to write for free. Because, you know, AOL/HuffPo values their work. 3) AOL/HuffPo attempts hilarious damage control, asserting that when they said they wanted writers to write for free, they didn’t mean they wanted writers to work for free. Also: It’s all the fault of Moviefone editor Patricia Chui, who sent the email and — according to AOL/HuffPo — doesn’t know her ass from her elbow. It sure sounded as if she was parroting the HuffPo line — “Write for free because it’s totally awesome and stuff!” — but what do we peasants know: we’re too stupid to even realize that working for free for a multibillion-dollar corporation is like endless summer days of frolicking with puppies and eating ice cream.
So, after all this: AOL/HuffPo decides that Chui makes a good whipping boy — or girl, in this case — and gives her the boot. For, presumably, having the audacity to tell the truth. From a statement from Huffington Post (via Dylan Stableford at TheWrap):

The decision was made by the Editorial Director for Entertainment, Culture, and Lifestyle, John Montorio, who believes it’s imperative that all Huffington Post Media Group editors are on the same page when it comes to our vision of building a great team of full-time editors, writers, and reporters — who are all clear that this vision doesn’t include asking freelance writers to become unpaid bloggers, something we have never done and will never do. He also wanted to underline our belief in the Chinese wall between editorial and sales.

Note the beautiful euphemising. Or is it beautiful sophistry? Anyway, I’ve highlighted it, and it is beautiful: “Freelance writers” can’t possibly be “unpaid bloggers,” because “unpaid bloggers” aren’t “freelance writers.” Freelance writers get paid for their work; therefore, if you give your work away, you can’t be called a freelance writer. You are an unpaid blogger.

Reader Roy pointed out this disgusting piece by Kara Swisher at All Things Digital, which totally buys into the notion AOL/HuffPo is trying to push: that it’s all Chui’s fault for making up such a bizarre notion such as that a major corporation would expect professionals to contribute the fruits of their talents, expertise, experience, and efforts for no remuneration whatsoever. I mean, who could imagine such perfidy! Swisher:

Oh dear. Really, oh dear, especially since the Huffington Post has had its own share of controversies over not paying some bloggers (although it never quite ever offered up a doozie that this letter was).

Sources said Chui was terminated by John Montorio, the HuffPo Media Group’s culture, entertainment and lifestyle editor. Arianna Huffiington is head of all content at AOL, which recently paid $315 million to buy the Huffington Post.

Since she took over, Huffington has tried to stress a return to journalism over more algorithmic content creation. The unloading of its freelance writers was part of that effort.

Thus, Chui’s missteps did not help matters.

Chui’s missteps? For telling us AOL/HuffPo’s evil plan and neglecting to kill us afterward? Freelance writers are behind “algorithmic content creation”? Freelance writers don’t do this “journalism” thing that HuffPo wishes to “return to”? (Did HuffPo ever do journalism?)

Then again, The Wall Street Journal owns All Things Digital, and we know whose side the WSJ is on.

I don’t know Patricia Chui. Never met her, never worked with her, nothin’. But I do know and respect some of the movie journos who are standing up for her in the comments following the Wrap and All Things Digital posts linked above. Like these:

From Scott Weinberg (with whom I served on the Governing Committee of the Online Film Critics Society):

Count me among the Patricia Chui supporters. I have no loyalty or animosity towards Moviefone, so I have no reason to sling bullshit. I worked with Patricia for years, and while we did disagree on things here and there, she was always professional, helpful, and honest.

AOL/Huff can take a leap as far as I’m concerned; I’d work with Patricia again tomorrow.

From Eric D. Snider (ditto on the OFCS GC):

In case it’s not clear, here’s what happened: Patricia Chui told her writers what she’d been told. News of this went public, and there was a backlash. AOL/HuffPo backpedaled, tried to make it sound like Patricia had gone rogue and made up the whole idea herself, then fired her.

It wasn’t the idea of asking bloggers to write for free that AOL/HuffPo was opposed to. They liked that idea. What they didn’t like was the negative publicity it got. Firing Patricia for being their messenger — FOR DOING HER JOB — is cowardly and despicable, and even more shameful than I thought AOL and Huffington were capable of.

Ooo, and this one from Erik Davis, who just stepped down as Cinematical’s editor-in-chief:

This story is beyond disturbing. Having worked with Patricia for years, the woman is an outstanding writer and editor who was doing everything she could to follow the new HuffPo rules and give it a go. She was so excited about the future, and she really believed in the new HuffPo model working once things were fine tuned.

So what did they do? They fired her for promoting her own company’s blogging platform, and then (probably) leaked the firing to The Wall Street Journal, who then publicly bashed the poor girl … for being a cheerleader for her own company.

This is how we’re doing business these days, huh? This is how we’re treating our colleagues? Like Scott said, I’d work on any team Patricia runs from this day forward, and anyone who brings her on after this will be rewarded with one HARD worker. Girl is damn dedicated to what she does, and I have nothing but respect for her as a manager, a leader and, above all else, a great person.

The worst thing about all of this: I can’t see how there’s any way to have any real impact on AOL/HuffPo’s business practices. Thousands of wannabe writers will continue to give their work away for free to HuffPo, and millions of surfers will continue to visit the site and rack up their pageviews and ad revenue. We who care about doing good work and making a living at it (or trying to) are yelling into a hurricane. Yelling ourselves hoarse, to no avail.

Jumping off a bridge is looking more and more like the only sane response to such a world.

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