How The Huffington Post Works (In Case You Were Wondering)
Hi! In the wake of the AOL acquisition, I've been reading a lot about The Huffington Post from a lot of people who, as outsiders, don't really have any idea about what we do here. They nevertheless have all sorts of opinions. And that's okay! But I thought it would be useful to address the issue of our content model, and who gets paid and who doesn't, from the perspective of someone who actually knows something about it. Let's begin!
It's often written: "HuffPost does not pay its writers." I assure you, they do! Somehow, I always seem to have money for food and shelter and stuff. That's because I am an employee of The Huffington Post.
Being a paid employee comes with many expectations and responsibilities. Let's run some of them down, shall we? First of all, there's this expectation that on a daily basis, you will show up and do work. In an office and everything! There you are subject to things like deadlines -- you actually have to produce writing on a regular basis. You receive assignments, from editors, that you are expected to fulfill in a timely fashion. You participate in editorial meetings. You coordinate your efforts with your colleagues. You try to break news. You try to cultivate sources. You go, whenever you are able, to where news is occurring.
Is the State of the Union tonight? You'll be working during that time. Is there a debate? Got a night of election returns coming? Plan on staying late. Did some madman just put several people in Tucson, Arizona in the hospital on a Saturday? Cancel your plans, because you've got to call in and get to work. You are, theoretically, on call, 24-7, to get the work done.
Those are the sorts of responsibilities, that, when they are fulfilled, entitle one to a "salary." And that's the life of the people who get paid to do original reporting and content for the site. And the content they produce is the most important content on the site. It's the stuff that is most widely read. It's the primary driver of everything else.
Now, another big portion of the everything else is "content aggregation." Let me explain how that works. First of all, we run AP and Reuters content on the site. We pay for that, as everyone else does, and are entitled to use it. (You can start a blog tomorrow and pay the AP or Reuters and do the same thing, if you like!)
From there, here's what the daily life of our front page editors are like. All day long, they receive emails from reporters, editors, publishers, publicists and flacks from organizations that include but are not limited to, the following: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, McClatchy Newspapers, the London Guardian, USA Today, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, CBS News, C-SPAN, Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, etc. Those emails all ask the same thing: Would you consider placing this content on The Huffington Post? The front page editors work each day to separate the wheat from the chaff, and get the most timely and interesting stuff on the web. (And depending on how specific the section you are working in, say Books or Entertainment, the sorts of sources expand dramatically.)
All of the above -- the original content that drives the entire business and the aggregation that sends readers out into the world of news and information -- helps to build an architecture that enables thousands of other people to have a space to come and write and play and inform and start conversations. Those people are the Huffington Post bloggers -- who flock to the site for a chance of being heard. There are many people who believe the original reporting and content aggregation is done on the backs of these bloggers. In reality, the opposite is true -- their opportunities only exist in tandem with the work of people like me.
Now, people often wonder: why would anyone blog for free, at a place that pays other contributors? Please note, that part of what "free" entitles you to is a freedom from "having to work." No daily hours, no deadlines, no late nights, no weekends. You just do what you like when the spirit moves you.
To answer the question, "Why would someone make a free contribution to this business, knowing that it will, theoretically, enrich a whole other group of people?" you really need to ask the specific people who make those contributions. Their answers are likely to be just as varied as the number of bloggers that appear on the site. When John Kerry writes an op-ed for us, he's not angling to make $50. Ditto for people like Alec Baldwin. Robert Reich makes regular contributions to his own blog -- he typically asks HuffPost and TPM to cross-post the content so that it reaches as wide a possible audience. If you are, say, the communications director of NARAL, you get paid for your contribution to the Huffington Post...BY NARAL, the organization that gives you a salary to disseminate your message.
I was once approached by an expert in Iranian politics who wanted to blog for us. He had an op-ed going up in the New York Times, he told me, but since it occurred during a period when a lot was going on in Iran, and there were minute to minute developments, he had had further thoughts and ideas he wanted to amplify beyond those he had shared with the NYT. Of course, the NYT isn't going to run one person's thoughts on their op-ed page on consecutive days -- we had a model that could accommodate him. And he thought that his contributions would be of a transferrable value to our readers. (That's how a lot of our contributors imagine the economy of the exchange -- they are donating something of value (their mind) to people (our audience) who wouldn't be able to derive a benefit from it otherwise.)
Of course, there remain hundreds of contributors to The Huffington Post who do so for no other reason than that they want exposure. Now, the value of "exposure," in and of itself, is a subject for debate. And it should be! But nevertheless, we have hundreds of people who want to take something they've written and put it in front of potentially millions of people, instead of their Facebook friends or their Twitter followers.
I can personally attest to the fact that there is value in this. See, for three years, I was a contributor to DCist.com, one of the blogs in the Gothamist LLC network -- a rather large and well known network of microlocal urban blogs, serving an array of major cities. DCist gave me the opportunity to have my writing seen by many, to give me a chance to write about what I like, and to serve the cause of promoting the DC-Metro area. I was not paid for these contributions. At no time did it escape me that my contributions to the site were enabling the personal enrichment of the people who ran Gothamist LLC (and who did all the heavy lifting so that I could participate in a no deadlines/no obligations way to DCist). If the time ever came where that arrangement bothered me to the point where I could no longer make those contributions in good faith, I was afforded a fantastic option: I could stop doing it. I could just take my work somewhere else. Put it on my own site, if I liked. And exercising that option would have come at no cost to me.
Obviously, I didn't stop contributing. Not even after we started paying our editor-in-chief. (That job was, always, a lot of work, and Gothamist LLC started compensating them for that work just as soon as they were fiscally able to do so.) I kept contributing because it was a very enjoyable way to pass the time, mainly. But it was also an opportunity to hone my skills, get criticism, and earn a readership. Eventually, that "exposure" I received enabled me to earn a living writing for the web. But merely appearing on DCist wasn't enough to merit that -- I had to work very diligently at it. Of course, I always had the option to NOT work diligently at it, and NOT get a paying job, and in that case, I'd probably still be at DCist, writing for free and enjoying it. (Unless, for some reason, I stopped enjoying it, whereupon I could simply just not do it anymore.)
(It's funny: I remember when the Gothamist network started expanding into other cities and signing up volunteer contributors. A lot of people criticized the model, and wondered if those of us who were donating our services realized how stupid we were for helping a few people build a media property based on contributions we were offering for free. All I can say is that I really enjoyed doing that thing that a few people deemed to be "stupid." And, I continue to offer my content for free here, here, and here.)
I suspect that there are a lot of blogger-contributors who are of a similar mind to me. Still others probably like having a big megaphone for their hobby. Naturally, there will probably be people who want to graduate from unpaid contributor to employee -- and where they can make a case on merit, and assume all of the responsibilities of employees, such "promotions" will be considered. But it's a dramatic change in your life to go from somebody who's writing whenever they feel up to it, to someone who has to come in and make high quality contributions on a regular basis -- even when that sporadic writing is brilliant writing. And that's the sort of thing that has to be considered before that jump is made.
So there you have it. This is how it all works. Yes, The Huffington Post is like a public square, for conversation. But that's been built and maintained by people who work at it every single day, at all hours. We're glad to have created that space, and we're overjoyed that it gets filled every day, and we're happy to promote the writing of others. But the building and the maintaining and the promoting of that space for people to play -- that takes daily work, and that's a big part of what I'm paid to do.