Is the Huffington Post Unfair to Labor?

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Erik Loomis brings our attention to a virtual picket line:

As some but by no means all progressives know, the Newspapers Guild and the National Writers Union have called a boycott against Huffington Post for refusing to pay its writers. Unlike unionized workplaces like the New York Times, Huffington Post exploits laborers desperate to get in print by offering them a byline without compensation while Ariana Huffington makes millions. The unions want the writers to get paid and to have greater editorial control over their content.

….Like higher education with its hordes of PhDs with no job prospects, there is a huge supply of writers who want to make a living in journalism. HuffPo offers the promise of gaining valuable experience and readership so that someday, maybe, you can make it big.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a picket line not to cross (I think the Southern California supermarket strike eight years ago was the last one around here), and it would be great to have another one — especially since I’m a unionized writer myself. But I have my doubts about this one. However, my doubts turn on an empirical question: is Loomis right that most of HuffPo’s unpaid bloggers have been lured in by “the promise of gaining valuable experience and readership so that someday, maybe, you can make it big”?

This is a real question. My sense is that there are three basic kinds of writers who put up free blog posts at HuffPo:

  1. Big name folks like Robert Reich who write opinion stuff for free all the time.
  2. Hollywood stars that Arianna has provided yet another platform to.
  3. Little guys.

Obviously it’s only the little guys that we’re concerned about here. But I doubt that very many of them are posting at HuffPo in hopes of breaking into big-time journalism. Rather, they’re more like people who write letters to the editor: they like the idea of their opinions being read by a big audience and have never really dreamed of any serious career in journalism. They just want to be seen and heard.

So that’s the question: are HuffPo’s little-guy bloggers more like letter writers, who have never been compensated, or are they mostly folks who desperately want to break into the opinion biz and have been deluded into thinking that blogging for HuffPo is a good way to do that? If it’s the latter, then I think the Guild has a point. If you read HuffPo more regularly than me — or, better yet, if you blog for HuffPo on a freebie basis — let me know what you think in comments.

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