wendigThe Huffington Post and the question of payment versus exposure has popped up in social media again, as someone found a quote from HuffPo UK editor Stephen Hull that tries to spin not paying writers as a good thing. The fact that the writers are writing for free, Hull explains, makes their work more authentic. They’re writing it because they wanted to, rather than being paid to say something.

“I love this question, because I’m proud to say that what we do is that we have 13,000 contributors in the UK, bloggers… we don’t pay them, but you know if I was paying someone to write something because I wanted it to get advertising pay, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. So when somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real. We know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”

Needless to say, this is evoking the usual range of scornful-bordering-on-apoplectic reactions. Chuck Wendig demonstrates exactly what a colorful writer he is in his own blog rant on the matter. Wendig writes:

Let us expose this hot nonsense for what it is: a lie meant to exploit writers and to puff up that old persistent myth about the value of exposure or the joy of the starving artist or the mounting power of unpaid citizen journalism.

The lie is this: writing is not work, it is not fundamental, it is a freedom in which you would partake anyway, and here some chucklefuck would say, haw haw haw, you blog at your blog and nobody pays you, you post updates on Twitter and nobody pays you, you speak words into the mighty air and you do it for free, free, free. And Huffington Post floats overhead in their bloated dirigible and they yell down at you, WE BROADCAST TO MILLIONS and DON’T YOU WANT TO REACH MILLIONS WITH YOUR MEAGER VOICE and THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU.

But it is an opportunity for them, not for you.

And on Facebook, Ryk Spoor says much the same thing:

If you are doing an online business — starting an SF magazine, running a news site, doing a video-game review series — that is going to be taking IN money, then YOU ARE MORALLY OBLIGATED TO PAY YOUR CONTRIBUTORS. And you should be paying them a decent fee, per-word or per-article, not trying to get away with throwing them a couple of bucks and maybe a free ticket to something they won’t use.

There are a number of other posts from people sharing the same incredulous reaction. The New Statesman, Online Journalism Blog, Freethought Blogs, and so on. Never accuse Stephen Hull of being uncontroversial. But this is hardly the first time this issue has been raised.

The same sort of thing popped up back in October, when Wil Wheaton noted that HuffPo wanted to reblog one of his posts without paying him anything for it. And it’s hardly the first time people have complained about someone wanting them to work for nothing. Ted Swain posted an essay on why he won’t give talks at TEDx events—they don’t pay their speakers, while they charge people in the thousands of dollars a head to attend. (Though, ironically, Swain posted his essay on Medium, which has itself come under fire for not paying its writers anything either.) And we shouldn’t forget The Oatmeal, which applied its usual snarky sense of humor to the idea of being paid in exposure.

After the Huffington Post was bought by AOL for a considerable sum, a number of unpaid bloggers sued trying to recoup some of the HuffPo’s $315 million purchase price, but their case was tossed in 2012. But not all unpaid-worker lawsuits are necessarily so unsuccessful. Some unpaid interns sued Gawker in 2013 over lack of payment, and that case was still going as of August, 2015. It even saw some further action this month, but no end seems in sight.

But all this furor runs into two problems that, as long as they exist, will keep sites like HuffPo and Medium in business for life. One such problem is that too many people are simply too willing to work for free. You couldn’t talk all 13,000 UK contributors to HuffPo out of writing for nothing, nor could you talk the thousands and thousands of writers in the US or other places out of it either.

The other problem is, there simply aren’t that many markets where people can kick in writing at will in the expectation of getting paid. In fact, I don’t know of any at all. So, if I were one of those writers and found nobody was going to pay me for blogging, and I didn’t want to put in the time and effort of figuring out how to set up a blog of my own, why shouldn’t I do it for someone else for free? (Though that is strictly a hypothetical question for me—I do get paid for blogging for TeleRead, though probably not in the range someone like Wendig or Spoor would want.)

So what it all boils down to is, writers like Wendig and Spoor can use all the colorful language they want in anti-HuffPo diatribes demanding that it should pay contributors something—but that’s about all they can do, because as long as so many writers are willing to work for nothing, the Huffington Post will be able to sail serenely along, carried on their shoulders. It has no incentive to change the way it does business, because it’s not in any danger of running out of free material. If even the bad publicity from the unsuccessful blogger lawsuit wasn’t enough to stop other writers from continuing to work for the HuffPo for free, what would be?

If more writers should get paid for blogging, maybe someone should start up a market that will pay them something for it, as from sharing ad revenue. It doesn’t look like the Huffington Post or Medium have any plans in that direction.


    • As an additional note, no, not ironic, because even if I were to write everything “on spec”, *they aren’t getting to publish it unless they pay me” — and pay me a pretty substantial sum up front, too. They get NOTHING from me for free — and in fact the couple of times I’ve offered to do something easy for free, they’ve insisted on paying, as they should.

      So no, the trad book publishing industry is not in any way similar.

  1. It’s called non-pecuniary remuneration. Scholarly writers have been in this lowly caste for centuries.
    We write for recognition and validation by reputable journals with high “impact” credentials, not for filthy lucre. Of course that recognition and validation is convertible to filthy lucre via the arcane process we call promotion and tenure. That covers our tracks very nicely.

    • True, but as you note, there’s actually an accepted REQUIREMENT in almost all scholarly pursuits that you publish. In that case, the publication ITSELF represents the work for which you’re already being paid, and if you publish enough and get recognition, you are recognized as doing stellar work and get your promotions and tenure.

      This is rather different than starry-eyed “I’m gonna be a WRITER” who does lots of work for these guys for “exposure” only to find that the only thing the “exposure” is good for is to get OTHER people to ask them to do more free work.

  2. I think the real issue is that Huffington Post claims to be a business and charges advertising rates. I understand that paying writers in something other than money makes sense. And Huffington Post does offer good exposure. But the typical writer who needs exposure has a different perspective than a writer who simply wants to express an opinion or analyze something. They often are pawning off their expertise or writing content about solutions which they or their company have devised. Nothing wrong with that per se, But eventually that can be annoying to read.

  3. Two other comments. First, HP does offer exposure but it gets drowned out by the voices. Frankly, it’s rare that I read anything by HP unless someone finds the link for me. I don’t browse that site and I rarely visit it.

    Second, I don’t think HP asks for exclusive rights to publish your stuff. When they start doing that, then I would expect HP to start paying.

    But as I said, there are many circumstances where I would gladly write something for free in exchange for some intangible (publicity, prestige, personal connections, etc). Writing is an odd discipline because so many people do for free what others charge money for. And that doesn’t make either kind of writing better.

  4. I love the Oatmeal comic, funny because it’s true.

    But it’s also true that the right kind of exposure can be valuable. Fame can be turned into money, though not always.

    One of the reasons lots of people want to be writers is that there is a slim (very tiny) chance of huge rewards. Fame, money and power can follow those who become best sellers or notable authors.

    People are not only willing to work for free for a chance at this unlikely payoff, but they are even willing to pay money (hiring editors, publicists, paying for vanity presses).

    This is the same reason people get exploited by buying lottery tickets: the slim hope that maybe their dreams will come true. People also get exploited by the promise of fame or money by a desire to become actors, filmmakers, singers, or artists. Plenty of people work for free in the pursuit of those areas. People also work for free with unpaid internships and slightly better odds in hopes of getting rich in real estate, stocks and other potentially high paying professions.

    It’s silly to talk about this as a “all labor deserves to be paid” issue. Coal miners being exploited is a moral issue. Writers being exploited is a there’s a “sucker born every minute” issue.

    The people doing the free writing have their own motivations (even if they might be far fetched) for doing what they do. They are not completely innocent in their exploitation any more than the person who buys a lottery ticket, when they know full well they are throwing their money away. And just as someone can enjoy buying lottery tickets because they like to dream, people can enjoy writing for free for the same reason. And those buying lottery tickets can always argue that “someone” will get the million dollar payoff. Likewise, those doing the free writing can also argue that “someone” will become that famous author that everyone talks about and makes money.

    The idea that you’re going to “shame” people into not exploiting those who are willingly exploited seems like an even bigger waste of time than writing for exposure.

  5. Writing for The Huffington Post is a quid pro quo. They don’t pay–they make no promises of payment–and the blogger may or may not gain some exposure.

    I’ve blogged for THP several times when I was attempting to promote my book. Blogging for their book section is a waste of time. The posts I wrote there didn’t help me sell so much as one copy of my book. I doubt too many readers bother to go beyond Huffpo’s front page anyway. However, the op-ed I wrote in 2012 prior to the presidential election, defending my vote for a third party candidate, generated over 100 comments and had the incidental effect of helping sell ten copies of my book.

    The posts at THP usually run about 1,200 words or less (that’s the length cap their editors prefer). Most writers can turn out a 1,200-word blog post without back breaking effort and often write as much or more on their own blog for the same reason, to draw attention to their products. If you’re going to put in the effort without pay, you may as well go for the venue with the best opportunity for discovery. Much if not most of the content at THP is thinly disguised promotional copy which wouldn’t be published elsewhere anyway; you’re not losing a sale to a paying publication. THP is letting you advertise on their site for free. Do you have any idea how much display ads in a national publication cost? Nobody at THP is waterboarding writers to blog for them. It’s your choice. I would always prefer being paid for my effort: in an ideal world, I would be, but we don’t live in one. It’s extraordinarily hard to promote yourself at no cost when you’re just one of millions of nobodies all vying for attention. You grab the opportunities you can wherever you can.

  6. After reading the comments of those who accept the quid pro quo promises of publications such as Huffington Post, I find it much more difficult to accept a writers intent as stated or implied. No longer is there a bright and straight line separating advertising, opinion and self-promotion from honest and objective discourse. I now refuse to read “promoted” or “sponsored” stories and I view all ledes as link bait until proven otherwise. The blame game that this leads to very often indicts readers who appear to be unwilling to pay for anything up front but I’d guess that there’s more than enough blame to cover everyone involved.
    This is not a healthy environment for readers or writers.

    • I can certainly understand your cynicism in this modern environment, though I would suggest that content that’s clearly labeled as sponsored (such as the pieces we run from time to time that way) should be the least of your worries, because at least that way you know where the money is coming from. And given how hard it is to make enough money to keep one’s site operating out of just advertising, it has to come from somewhere.

      • Yes, the labeling helps. Still irksome with such labeling is having to penetrate the euphemisms that get ever more obfuscated. For example, the “how-to” article or video can be more propaganda than useful instruction. Infotainment, edutainment, etc. Where will the word mincing end? Are we moving toward language that turns everything into an undifferentiated mass?

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