Doonesbury goes after HuffPo

I’ve been asked to write for HuffPo but have always refused on two grounds: their “science” section is too mushy, unscientific, and sensationalistic, but mainly because their writers don’t get paid.  When I brought up that issue, they told me very nicely that their budget did not allow writers any compensation, but I’d be more than compensated by the high readership.

Indeed, writing for HuffPo brings a lot of views. Still, somehow it seems like slave labor to me: you’re working for a profit-making venture, helping bring in the cash, but you don’t get a penny of it.  Writing on this website is different: I don’t make a penny, but I’m not enriching anyone else either (except, perhaps, Doctors without Borders, but that’s fine).  And so in some ways I feel sorry for those who write for HuffPo: they’re selling themselves too cheaply.

This week Doonesbury has been making fun of the HuffPo “write-for-free” policy:

So true! The suit to which the strip refers is described by Wikipedia:

Since March 2011, the strike and the call to boycott The Huffington Post was joined and endorsed by the Huffington Post Union of Bloggers and Writers (HPUB), the National Writers Union (NWU) and the Newspaper Guild (TNG).

In April 2011, The Huffington Post was targeted with a multimillion dollar lawsuit filed in United States District Court in New York by Jonathan Tasini on behalf of thousands of uncompensated bloggers. The suit was dismissed with prejudice on March 30, 2012 by the court, holding that the bloggers had volunteered their services, their compensation being publication.

20 Comments

  1. Posted September 28, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    It’s funny how writers are always the ones who are supposed to be satisfied with “exposure.” Editors get paid, the people in the business offices get paid, heck–the people who supply the electricity and paper clips get paid. The one group of people that doesn’t get paid is the group of people who provide the content. All those editors and business people put the job on their resumes, which is also exposure. No other business runs like this, and it only happens because writers let themselves be taken advantage of. There are plenty of other ways to not make money without being exploited.

    • Posted September 28, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      No government can take away the right of association.

      Of course, the government can throw you in jail (or worse) for exercising said right, but that’s one of the shortest possible paths for a government to lose the consent of the governed.

      The reason anti-union laws work is that people have forgotten why we have unions in the first place. I think, though, that they’re starting to remember….

      Cheers,

      b&

    • JohnnieCanuck
      Posted September 28, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      Aspiring musicians get much the same treatment as writers. Lots of small venues do this to performers. Given that they also get vague promises of being paid which they find very difficult to collect after the performance, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s common in the writing business as well.

      • Posted September 28, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        Is there any substantial enterprises or online sites where the business model is based on:
        - Publishing other’s creative and professional work
        - Explicitly rejecting payment of any kind?

  2. Posted September 28, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Also, unlike, for example, newspaper employees, freelancers are legally unable to organize strikes. According to anti-trust law, each freelancer is considered an independent business, and so organizing a strike is considered some kind of collusion by law. Screenwriters got an exemption from anti-trust law early back in the last century and so could start a proper union. Freelance writers have attempted to get a similar exemption, but, as you can imagine, legislators have not been overly friendly to people seeking greater labor rights over the last few decades. (The situation is completely different in the UK.)

    • gravelinspector
      Posted September 28, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      legislators have not been overly friendly to people seeking greater labor rights over the last few decades. (The situation is completely different in the UK.)

      As a some-time volunteer for the OILC, the first trade union set up in Britain after Thatcher’s attempts (may she suffer moments of lucidity to appreciate her dribbling senility and impending death ; I’m sure she realises how many people deeply hate her) to make setting up trade unions impossible, I’d dispute the suggestion that (UK) legislators have been overly friendly to people seeking greater labour rights during the last few decades. Every step of the way, we’ve suffered bureaucratic obstruction, changed laws and changed interpretations of laws forcing us to re-do things, and generally had the law fighting to prevent us from representing the interests of our members. And in the mean time, we’ve also had to fight against blacklisting of our members by foreign-managed multi-national corporations, massive intimidation, and of course several dozen of our members being killed at work (which was why we set up our union. With all that, the repeated efforts of other, longer established, trade unions to stab us in the communal back were hardly noticeable.
      I’m sure the HPUB people are getting it in the neck, big style, even as we type. And yes, they have been selling themselves far too cheaply.
      Personally, I don’t read HuffPo or other American for-profit publications without thinking really carefully about whether I want to export my money to that country. Which adds up to a subscription to “American Scientist” and to “Fantasy and Sci-Fi”. Come to think of it, I really should review that latter subscription when it comes to renewal time.

      • Posted September 28, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        Sorry, should have been more specific. What I meant is that the legal status of the National Union of Journalists, which includes freelancers in the UK, has a very different legal status than, e.g., the National Writers Union, which, even though affiliated with the United Auto Workers, cannot organize strikes or boycotts legally. (I’m a long-time member of the NWU.)

        • gravelinspector
          Posted September 29, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          There are different (legalistic) types of trade union in the US ? (I’m guessing that you’re in the US?) That has got to be on the basis of some historical anomaly, surely? The purpose of a trade union (collective negotiation of workers terms and conditions against individual or collected management representatives) is pretty uniform. Or do you have unions for different reasons too?
          (This is drifting from the blobsite’s subject.)

          • Posted September 29, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

            The chaotic nature of organized labor in the US makes sense when you understand that the plutocracy has done a superlative job in suppressing the labor movement. Basically, they’ve won the PR war, with unions being equated with Communism and organized crime.

            It’s so bad that Arizona (where I live), along with about half of other states, is what’s euphemistically called a “right to work state,” as well as an “at-will state.” In reality, it’s a “right to get underpaid, fired, and generally fucked over if you even dare breathe a hint that you’d like to organize” state.

            Yeah, there’re still unions here, but not many and they’re not very strong. And, yes — employee safety, wages, benefits, and job security all suffer significantly as a result.

            b&

            • gravelinspector
              Posted September 30, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

              So … for once Russian propaganda is true? Shocked, I’m shocked, I tell you!

          • Posted September 29, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

            One historical anomaly is that you in the UK were on the brink following the two world wars, and we weren’t. You got a socialist government back then and we didn’t. People have different opinions about which situation is preferable, but the difference in terms of labor history is deep.

  3. Posted September 28, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    If they can’t pay for content they have an unsustainable business model.

    She was smart to sell.

    It certainly proves that pandering to silly ideas on the right or left gets eyeballs and then advertisers are also skunked by paying for them. BTW< there is little evidence that web advertising works.

    What quality of "authors" do something for nothing?

    Sadly, but predictably, the web is turning out to be just another social/business setting where scam artists rule.

    PuffHo is a scam and A. Huffington just another rich scam artist.

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted September 28, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      “She was smart to sell.”

      Do the HuffPo contributors sign a paper surrendering copyright? Am I right in thinking that if you write something without a contract and payment, you remain the owner of your work and nobody can sell it.

      • Rick
        Posted September 28, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        No, that is a common misunderstanding. If you write a letter to the editor, the newspaper owns it, not you. HuffPo made it clear to writers that there was no compensation beyond publication itself, and to them, it was worth it.

        • Posted September 28, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

          Copyright in a letter to the editor stays with the writer, unless he/she signs an agreement otherwise. When you send it in, you’re granting the right to print it, but not giving up the copyright. You could print a book of your letters to the editor without asking permission of the publications they were printed in, for example. My guess is that, unless they sign an agreement with HuffPo, writers retain copyright in their pieces there. The sale of HuffPo was sale of the business, not explicitly sale of the contents of the site (although that’s undeniably confusing). I’m not a lawyer, but have followed these issues for a long time, and they are confusing. In any specific case where these matters matter materially to you, you should get the advice of someone qualified to opine, because they can be extremely tricky in the internet age.

      • Posted September 28, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        Here’s the thing. The only value is in getting attention so you can get paid by advertisers.

        Attention now is mainly measured by “eyeballs.” Not because eyeballs translate to people taking action to buy anything but mainly because it is cheap and easy to measure thus, sell.

        Also, the words and pictures that get the most eyeballs are really dum ones. Effectively, no eyeballs attend to complicated , interesting or useful content with much information value.

        “information is expensive” to both produce and consume/process. Sometimes however, higher info value content is paid more.

  4. Posted September 28, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” — Samuel Johnson

  5. Posted September 28, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Even if the bloggers had won in court, the lawyers are always the big winners. Our justice system is broken.

  6. Posted September 28, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    We can rail and blame but the fact is that the value of every individual article on PuffHo is zero.

    One could also say the information value is zero as well.

    That tracks with research we’ve seen on the wasting economics of the web. The web basically takes and gives nothing back.

    It does so by, apparently, it has not been studied, triggering pretty automatic and reflexive parts of our brains — thus, it doesn’t need to deliver real information of value.

  7. Posted September 29, 2012 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    Can’t Coyne “write” something for HuffPo that is already written?

    I mean, you could send them a blog post already written and published for free already at this site.

    I really find important that the ideas presented here have more exposure.


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