AOL-HuffPo: Arianna And The Free Blog Economy

Some of Huffington Post‘s 9,000+ bloggers have already announced that they won’t be following Arianna to AOL (NYSE: AOL) – either unhappy about the switch from ideological startup or, as Douglas Rushkoff wrote, disinterested in writing for the big corporation for free.

One set of writers is even demanding a boycott by readers and bloggers on the Left, claiming that Huffington sold it out by taking a fortune at their expense. Apparently, they managed to ignore that the HuffPo was a business, or to live with it as long as they thought the site was on course.

Against this backdrop, Arianna gave her rationale to AOL staffers in Los Angeles, when the question came up during her post-sales pitch this week.

The Reality

The complaints that HuffPo has been able to succeed or has an unfair advantage over paying sites because it doesn’t have to pay its bloggers aren’t new. Neither are the complaints by some bloggers about the lack of pay. They’re nearly as old as the site, founded in 2005.

But it also has had a paid staff from the beginning – now more than 200 people with 148 in edit – most, if not all, benefiting nicely from the $315 million cash sale. That’s one of the reasons HuffPo raised $37 million: to support a growing paid staff.

A chunk of that staff does nothing but deal with the blogs, which are far from being all-political or all-Left. A team of 14 actively manages the blog posts and submissions, while another team of moderators deals with the literally millions of comments (four million last month). Journalists are paid.

The agreement all along has been that bloggers get a platform instead of cash. No matter how people from the outside may feel, no-one makes the contributors do it for free. Those I know who write through HuffPo want an audience and see other ways to gain from doing so. Usually, ContentNext’s guest bloggers, far fewer in number, do the same.

The Criticism

The AOL deal brought a fresh wave. Rushkoff’s take in The Guardian:

“We’re not really witnessing the demise of HuffPo – just the demise of the justifications for writing for free. I would do it for Arianna. I won’t do it for AOL.”

Vancouver based anti-consumerist Adbusters, which is calling for a boycott by bloggers and readers, blames it all on Arianna:

Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and Leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp.

Adbusters is trying to use the #huffpuff hashtag to unite dissidents and cue readers in on how to find the former HuffPo bloggers.

Huff’s Defense

When the question about the negative reaction from commenters and bloggers on the Left came up at an energetic AOL all-hands, get-to-know-Arianna meeting in its Beverly Hills office Tuesday, where I was present, Arianna said the “vast majority” of bloggers she’s heard from, including Nora Ephron and Norman Lear, are “incredibly excited. They’re getting a much huger platform for their ideas.”

Whether or not you agree, she genuinely sees blogging, HuffPo-style, as a form of expression different from journalism, not a Tom Sawyer exercise:

“Blogging is something different, it’s really people expressing their views. We’re providing a fantastic platform. Our comments are premoderated so they don’t have to deal with ad hominem attacks and they get huge exposure … We have dozens of stories of people who got book deals, TV contracts.

“Really, a lot of the conversation about paying bloggers is really a very old-fashioned conversation. People have not fully adjusted to the fact that self-expression is, for many people, a new source of fulfillment and entertainment.

“We have 9,000 bloggers with a password and literally get hundreds of submissions that our editors have to process. People are dying to blog for us. … Do you think anybody really writes an op-ed for the NYT to get $100? They write because they want the exposure for their views.”

The Implications

One argument she didn’t make but others at HuffPo have…. Paying bloggers introduces a different kind of economics: cost benefit. Instead of an open exchange and dialogue, editors would have to judge submissions as worth money or not. They would have to pick for topics or takes likely to get the highest traffic. It would change the dynamics completely — and some of the people complaining probably wouldn’t have a chance at all…

Hilary Rosen, a former HuffPo political director and editor-at-large, now an analyst on CNN, wants the model to stay, arguing that she would more upset if she was locked out. Karen Dalton-Beninato, who has a day job writing for a site in New Orleans, started blogging for HuffPo to be heard after Katrina; she’s pleased to get a big potential jump now to a combined network with a projected 117 million monthly uniques.

For Arianna, the only change for HuffPo bloggers with AOL is a bigger platform and more resources. What we won’t see for a while is how big a dent the ones who leave have made – not in numbers of bloggers, but in the community – and whether they can come anywhere close to creating a new home with the economics they want.

Update” HuffPo’s Jason Linkins goes into more detail about how it all works:

Yes, The Huffington Post is like a public square, for conversation. But that’s been built and maintained by people who work at it every single day, at all hours. We’re glad to have created that space, and we’re overjoyed that it gets filled every day, and we’re happy to promote the writing of others. But the building and the maintaining and the promoting of that space for people to play — that’s takes daily work, and that’s a big part of what I’m paid to do.