Last year Mayhill Fowler, one of the Huffington Post‘s citizen journalists, threatened to stop blogging unless the Post started paying her. After a brief exchange of emails where Fowler explained she was no longer prepared to do her reporting for free, the Post’s founding editor Roy Sekoff said he understood and wished her all the best. As Fowler learned, the Huffington Post can get pretty much all the blogging it wants for nothing. And according to New York Times blogger Nate Silver, that’s pretty much what a lot of it is worth in terms of advertising revenue.
For thousands of bloggers who thought they were the driving force behind the Post’s success this is a bitter lesson in the economics of online media. The Huffington Post recently sold to America Online (AOL) for $315 million and they get nothing. Many of them thought they were part of a movement, now they realise they’re doing voluntary work for a corporation.
You’d think that Fowler might stand a better chance of getting paid than most bloggers. After all, she was the ‘citizen journalist’ who reported Barack Obama’s comments about bitter small town Pennsylvanians clinging to guns and religion. Dubbed Bittergate, it became one of the most talked about episodes of the Obama campaign. But with a few hundred unpaid posts flooding in every day, the Post can easily sacrifice a few from Fowler.
At New York Times blog Five Thirty Eight, Nate Silver does some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the value HuffPo‘s blog posts. With around 15.6 million page views every weekday, the site gets a lot of traffic. But it’s unlikely that unpaid blog posts are generating more than a small fraction of this. Using the number of comments a post receives as a way of guessing at page views, Silver estimates:
… the average blog post — which we estimate generated a couple thousand page views — was worth about $13 in advertising revenue. The median blog post, with several hundred views, was worth only $3 or $4.
Even a hugely popular post by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich would only be worth $170 according to Silver’s estimates — that’s all that 27,000 page views is worth.
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.
But the Huffington Post is not Arianna’s to sell. It is ours: the lefty writers and readers, environmentalism activists and anti-corporate organizers who flooded the site with 25 million visits a month. So we’re going to take it back.
The success of this protest hinges on the assumption that it’s content generated by citizen journalists that’s behind HuffPo’s success. Silver has a different take. He argues that the Huffington Post is more a technology company than a publishing company. Like Facebook, its success lies in the software platform rather than the content.
Is Silver right? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.