ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Arianna Huffington: New Media Diva or Feudal Pirate Plantation-Owner?

Arianna_Huffington The blogosphere has erupted with chatter regarding the recent acquisition of the Huffington Post by America Online (Sidebar: was anyone else surprised to learn that AOL still exists?) for a reported $315 million. While estimates of how much Arianna Huffington (shown at left prior to having herself gilded) personally profited from the sale greatly vary, it is safe to say that she made somewhere in the ballpark of $20 million to $30 million. In light of this, commentators have come out of the woodwork to both praise and question the Huffington Post model. From the journalists, the message is basically this: Arianna, you've got hate mail!

 The Huffington Post employs paid journalists to create original content and editors to sift through the massive content aggregated from AP, Reuters, and major newspapers and magazines, all to draw in readers to their website. Nothing controversial so far. Beyond that, the Huffington Post also features the work of unpaid bloggers who can post their content on the Huffington Post site to benefit from the increased traffic. Up until now, most were content with this arrangement. However, the idea that a relatively small number of people made millions of dollars, at least in part due to the work of “little-guy” bloggers who won’t see a dime, does have many up in arms.

Some decry the transaction as unjust enrichment of the elite at the expense of citizen journalists. For example, David Carr at the New York Times compares the plight of unpaid bloggers at Huffington Post to serfs under feudalism.

Not to be outdone, Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times likened Huffington Post’s business model to “a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates” with “overhead that would shame an antebellum plantation.” But there is more to this line of argument than farfetched historical analogies. While Huffington Post now draws most of its traffic from “big name” content, it only got to this point by the work of unpaid bloggers who contributed their time, efforts, and ideas. Without them, HuffPo may have been DOA.

Others praise and defend the Huffington Post model. TJ Walker at Forbes points out that no promise of payment was ever extended to these bloggers. In other words, they knew what they were getting into. And if they feel they are being exploited, Walker argues that you can always “own your own means of production” by starting your own blog on your own terms. Hillary Rosen of HuffPo notes that Huffington Post gives bloggers a platform to let their ideas be known to a larger audience than they might otherwise get themselves.

Will this joint-venture succeed? Will the “blogger serfs” ever receive compensation for their intellectual labors? Who knows? What no one can deny is that the Huffington Post model has changed the way journalism works, and the AOL/HuffPo deal validates that proposition. 

Asked for comment about how this development reflects on their own business model, the managers of the Law Professors Blog Network stated, "We pay our bloggers exactly what they are worth.  And if they don't like being galley slaves rowing for watered grog, they can row without the watered grog."  

Okay team, pass the grog and row!

[JT and Jon Kohlscheen]

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