Slave Labor: The New, New-Media Profit Model

Here's a question both Arianna Huffington and Guest of a Guest blog mogul wunderkind Rachelle Hruska want to know: Why pay for something - or for them, content - when you can get it for free? Like slavery, but different!

Hruska, the smart, city-savvy Omaha import who quietly stormed the NYC media and socialite scene after quitting her hedge fund gig and starting a successful blog covering New York nightlife got a much-ballyhooed* profile in the New York Times today. Most of it's just fluff, and fun fluff, at that: it's nice to see a young upstart - even if they are funded by a Winklevoss Twin, ahem - come wide-eyed from Middle America and get her Blog Empire on. Hruska's unflappably charming, has few detractors and lots of friends in this town, who she gets to flit around with and make part of her story. But there was one part of the profile that might've tugged on some pretty sensitive nerves: the fact that the piece touted her "energetic, well educated and impressionable" staff that is "largely unpaid."

Gawker emerita Sheila McClear rips into Hruska over at ASSME:

As long as you're grateful to work for free in exchange for cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, and social cache, your "career" is going nowhere. Try crashing parties for your schmoozing opportunities, and you can freeblog for fun but don't spend too much time on it–real adults get paid. Jesus, I sound like a Dad, but seriously–do you want to be popular, or do you want to make money?

Yes, I've checked: ASSME pays. Which raises the question: if ASSME can pay, why can't Hruska? Or why won't she? Even the potential conflict-of-interest-ridden minefield that is media expert Dan Abrams' site Mediaite will be paying their contributors. What gives?

Slave Labor: The New, New-Media Profit Model

It's my guess that Hruska doesn't give a shit about the future of journalism, and if she does, it doesn't have much to do with her blog, which is a social scene site. The girls writing for Hruska - not to pigeonhole them - probably aren't looking for a full-time gig in what she does so much as (A) a mentoring from her (B) a good time, which is a kinda fair barter or (C) enough perks to supplement their full-time gigs. If anybody's trying to get gainful employment directly from working for Hruska, that's their fault, not hers, no matter how impressionable they are. But then comes the philosophical imperative: is it bad for society to not pay writers?

Well, that depends on how important you think Guest of a Guest is to society.

Slave Labor: The New, New-Media Profit Model

Which brings us to The Huffington Post, who, on the other hand, some people definitely think is important to the future of journalism. Among those people: Lorraine Branham, dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse, who awarded Arianna Huffington with a lifetime achievement award on June 9th. Now, mind you: the Huffington Post doesn't pay for the majority of the content that appears on their site. Journalism School students pay lots of money to (hopefully) one day be paid for the content Arianna Huffington is putting on her site for free-nintey-nine. AdAge media writer Simon Dumenco took on the award a while back. And today, Dumenco absolutely lays into Huffington for grievances held against her nearly universally.

First, Arianna Huffington's dismissive views regarding journalism itself:

...Huffington's own defensive explanation, at the Mirror Awards, for why her bloggers earn nothing...she declared, "Our bloggers come and go. They write when the spirit moves them, and they do it because they want to be part of the conversation." Yikes. So after all these years of Huffington giving lip service to the idea that her legions of bloggers are the heart and soul of her supposedly revolutionary über-blog, it turns out she thinks they're marginal, fly-by-night, "come and go" wannabes.

Dumenco could be on to something: if writers are writing for free to gain exposure, this could eventually become so circular - the job I'm writing from right now could be a job done "for exposure" - that the foundation that journalism jobs are built on could become an (ironically) inverted pyramid, one where free content sits at the top, with only those who survive through an income-less period of life scoring paid gigs.

How 'bout those writers who aren't paid, though? How do you ensure quality or liability? Every time the Huffington Post puts shoddy journalism on their site, they risk their reputation as a place to get news. And maybe that - the reputation - is the currency Arianna Huffington has to barter with her "writers." And quality control is important to the press!

And that would be the case with HuffPo. If it weren't turning into a content-repurposing tabloid. Dumenco did the math about the actual content on her site. The stuff that wasn't one of her celebrity-friend-penned columns, or written by one of her five paid reporters:

By HuffPo's own tally, more than a quarter million readers viewed the Heather Graham post, which quoted 13 sentences, totaling 142 words, from Britain's Daily Mail — a paper that (stupidly, naively, I suppose) pays its entertainment reporters. HuffPo's contribution to the, uh, discourse? Just 58 words of its own — which simply set up the Daily Mail's interview with Graham and further summarized the article. And that, folks, is HuffPo's true business model...

The Oncoming Apocalypse Of Journalism - of which Huffington might be one of the Four Horsepeople - could just be a Noah's Ark-esque flood, one in which the only thing holding you above water is a paycheck for quality. Or people could just stop giving a shit about quality, and that could go, too. Either way, Huffington and Hruska make two things about making a buck writing very, very evident: (1) there will now always be someone behind you to do your job for less, at the same rate you're doing it at, and (2) in the economy of writing - shit, in any economy - owning the shop always has and always will have perks. It may be lonely at the top, but at least you're gettin' paid. And if you're Huffington and Hruska, you get to bring your friends along for the ride, too.

Cocktails and Backslaps Don't Pay My Rent–Do They Yours? [ASSME]
Trashy Parasitism as a Get-Rich-Quick Scheme? Hi, HuffPo [AdAge]