Huffing and puffing … but still not getting paid

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.

Since the sale to AOL, some of Huffington Post‘s bloggers have organised a campaign to bring down HuffPo and create an alternative using the #huffpuff hash tag. As the Adbusters blog explains :

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.

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6 Responses to Huffing and puffing … but still not getting paid

  1. Don Arthur says:

    There’s a lot of debate about the way Silver estimated page views. Any ideas?

  2. Paul Montgomery says:

    There may not be a strong correlative link between comments and page views on an individual story, but it’s reasonable to do the research and see what it gets you in totality, with the corollary that the margin of error is probably high. Nevertheless, the conclusions sound right to me. Power law curves are dominant in these kinds of analyses, and Nate produced a classic one.

    I suppose it’s not surprising that the left would get more “bolshie” about this sort of thing than the right does, even though both sides do it the same way. Those on the right would glory in being exploited by a successful capitalist cause.

  3. Patrick says:

    I don’t know any rightwing examples, PM, do you? I’d be rather surprised if the rightwing blogosphere was full of people happy to volunteer their time towards someone else’s substantial profits.

    Sometimes people are just human.

  4. Jacques Chester says:

    HuffPo spammed the living daylights out of my favourite aggregator sites with a non-stop parade of ripped-off content. Anyone who saw them as some kind of shining beacon were useful idiots to the owners.

  5. JC says:

    But how many of these citizens bloggers were thinking of money rather then vanity when they posted articles etc at the site. I don’t mean vanity in a bad sense but surely they were thinking about something other then money when they continually frequented the site.

    Huffpost was offering them such an opportunity. Now that it’s been sold for $315 million some of them are pissed they didn’t get a share of the loot. I can understand that motivation, however the owners were doing nothing wrong in not paying contributors, if there were so many people wanting to put their names up there in lights.

    lastly, they weren’t exactly setting the world on fire in terms of profitability. AOL has take a punt, that’s all.

  6. Paul Montgomery says:

    Patrick: a place like Redstate.com would work exactly the same way as HuffPo when it comes to blog content. You would have the main figurehead in Erick Ericksen getting paid because he is employed and/or has equity, then I’d be surprised if anyone else got a penny apart from a few early-adopting sycophants. As their About page says: “RedState’s day to day efforts are led by its Editor, Erick Erickson, and a talented and largely volunteer team of front page contributors.” But if RedState got bought by Murdoch and added to the Fox stable, the writers would all cheer with glee that their hard work has been sold off to corporate overlords.

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