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How The Huffington Post Can Pay Its Bloggers

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I recently wrote an article entitled, "The World of Free and The Huffington Post," in which I discuss what The Huffington Post is doing right that so many other online and print publications are doing wrong. In short, Arianna Huffington has figured out that content is king. The more bloggers that contribute to the site, the merrier the ad revenue.

People are willing to write for The Huffington Post for free. I'm one of them. It's great exposure, the tone is unapologetically opinionated and if you've ever met Arianna Huffington you've noticed that she exudes a kind of warmth and authenticity that is rare for people at her level in the media world. But not only are people willing to write for Arianna for free, she is also willing to let us write for her for free, something an old guard institution like the New York Times won't even consider.

Yet as brilliant of a strategy as hiring legions of unpaid writers is, there is a catch. Eventually and, some would argue, already, the only writers that will write for free are writers that can afford to write for free. The voices of the passionate amateurs that The Huffington Post showcases are becoming increasingly homogenous and, in the long-term, a blog dominated by rich people and celebrities will alienate readers that aren't a part of this demographic.

Additionally, and perhaps less capitalistically, The Huffington Post has a responsibility as a new media pioneer to set a payment precedent that values content providers. Perhaps Arianna's only concern is the bottom line, but considering that she is a woman who has been a politician, an author and a radio personality, it would seem that she isn't just in it for the money. She comes across as the type who would welcome the opportunity to shape the future of media in a way that takes into account both profitability and fairness.

To my knowledge, no one has ever proposed a way for The Huffington Post to pay its writers, so that's what I'm going to do. The great thing about Arianna is that even if she has no interest in ever paying her bloggers, The Huffington Post will publish this article. Arianna might even comment on it. I don't expect my proposal to be perfect, but it's a way to get the dialogue started. I hope that whoever is not in favor of this payment structure takes the time to come up with something better.

The proposal is an award system for bloggers. It is not simple because if The Huffington Post were to reward bloggers based solely on page views, bloggers might be inclined to write fluffy, celebrity-focused articles and the site could devolve into PerezHilton.com. If The Huffington Post were to reward bloggers based solely on editorial quality, there would be no incentive for bloggers to send around their stories and encourage friends to bookmark them. So although the following may seem complicated, it aims to check and balance the mixture of elements that make The Huffington Post what it is, while rewarding bloggers for providing this mixture.

According to TNS Media Intelligence, The Huffington Post's advertising revenue from January through April 2009 was $3.4 million. So let's round down and assume that ad revenue for the year is $10 million. I propose that The Huffington Post commit to spending 20% of its revenue rewarding bloggers. For 2009, this would be $2 million.

Not all bloggers will be rewarded. There are 4,000 bloggers that contribute to the site, and this structure only rewards those who contribute the most to the site's business and editorial goals.

$2 million a year is $166,666 a month.

Every month authors of the 200 articles that receive the highest number of page views would receive $250 bonuses.

Every month authors of the 200 articles that result in the most time spent on the site would receive $250 bonuses.

Every month authors of the 200 articles that are of the highest editorial quality would receive $250 bonuses.*

Every month authors of the 165 or so articles with the highest number of inbound links would receive $100 bonuses. (Methodology would have to be determined to ensure the validity of inbound links. Potentially the links would be weighted based on page rank.)

*How is editorial quality determined?

Initially The Huffington Post would select 200 bloggers to nominate three articles that they deem to be of superior editorial quality that month (a story that is well-written, timely, original, etc.). They will list their first, second and third choices, in case more than one blogger nominates the same article. Bloggers will not be permitted to nominate their own articles. The August winners will nominate the September articles, the September winners will nominate the October articles, and so on.

Paying it forward:

Since so many wealthy people write for The Huffington Post and those articles are often the ones featured most prominently on the site, every blogger will have the option to pay his/her bonus forward. On the 15th of each month a winning blogger will receive an email that allows her to either decline or accept payment for that month. If a blogger declines payment, that reward will go to the next article (after the original group of winners). So for example, Alec Baldwin might receive a bonus for the month of July for page views for his "Man of the People" article, but if he chooses to decline payment, the 201st author with the most page views will receive it instead.

If revenue numbers change, the formula can change along with them. So, for example, if The Huffington Post ends up making $20 million in ad revenue in 2009, it can start paying authors of the 400 articles with the highest number of page views. Not only will more bloggers will be rewarded, but each blogger will be motivated to produce even more content since bloggers can be rewarded for more than one article.

As always, whether or not an article is published would be at the discretion of the editors. If a writer tries to abuse the system by pumping out poorly written blog entries, the editors can simply choose not to publish them. Salaried employees of The Huffington Post would not be eligible for these bonuses.

I should add that even though I was able gather revenue estimates online, The Huffington Post does not disclose its earnings. I imagine that this proposal would sacrifice profitability in the near term, but would argue that it is more important for The Huffington Post to create a sustainable business model in the long term.