The mousetrap: giving away your work for free
I have a bone to pick with the ubiquitous Huffington Post. Because I use my almost 20-year-old AOL account for non-personal emails, I see HuffPo stories almost every time I open my webmail. The online news aggregator aggressively leverages its relationship with AOL, which is smart business. It comes up often in news searches. And it’s crammed to the gills with content for every demographic and on every subject known to men and women. It’s aggressive. And everywhere.
But, I haven’t been aggressive in submitting my writing to HuffPo. That’s because it won’t compensate contributors: Huff Post contributors write for free. Since the idea of having a platform that large for one’s writing is hard to resist, many bloggers / writers do not resist. By filling its site with free content for which it sells a a significant amount of advertising, I believe Huff Po takes advantage of writers: in its business model everyone benefits except the writer. In fact, its model depends on it.
So when I read (often) that someone is “honored” that their piece was run in the outlet, I think they’re misled. They’re simply filling a news hole for free, along with other free contributors. Some of that writing is good, a bit of it is very good and some of it’s not so good. The Newspaper Guild had it right when they said that writing for free “doesn’t benefit the worker and undermines quality journalism.”
The company claims that the exposure and platform is compensation enough for writers. I don’t deny that kind of exposure is valuable. I just don’t agree that it’s enough. Plus, there’s so much content on the site that it’s easy for any given blog post or other piece to get lost. If a blogger I know promotes a HuffPo piece they’ve written I might take a look at it, or if a story comes up in a news search, I’ll click–but I have never actually gone to the site to read a section or a story without some catalyst. It’s not my “go-to” source for anything.
Most of us who’ve written for pay as part of our careers are troubled by the push-pull scenario presented by the Huffington Post model. “I hate myself, even as I submit an essay to them,” a well-regarded and well-published essayist said to me recently. I feel the same way. I’m not saying I won’t ever submit to the outlet, but it’s certainly not my outlet of first, second or even third choice and I mostly ignore it altogether. If I did submit, though, I might be “pleased” (even as I flagellated myself for caving in) but I wouldn’t be “honored” or “thrilled.” I was going to write “there is no honor among thieves” but the fact is, Huff Po is simply taking advantage of market conditions: tons of content providers willing to give away their work. And that’s capitalism, folks. It’s the way our system works. But I think it’s an abusive business practice.
Some of my readers are HuffPo contributors, I know, and some are damn good writers. I don’t diss your decision to take the free space as a platform. I’m just suggesting that there’s another way to look at it.
If there’s any justice at all, it’s that the news outlet is bleeding so much cash it has yet to turn a profit since AOL acquired it, its ad sales are sluggish and there are still great writers who have resisted its siren call. I count myself among them.
At least for now.