Today The Huffington Post announced that it had chosen Mariah Stewart, a journalist based in St. Louis, as its inaugural "Ferguson Fellow" to investigate the August 9 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. over the next twelve months. One problem: Neither HuffPost nor its multi-millionaire namesake Arianna Huffington want to cough up the mere $40,000 for Stewart’s salary.
Instead, HuffPost is crowdsourcing Stewart’s compensation through the subscription journalism service Beacon Reader, and awarding various perks to top-tier donors. Backers who throw in $100, for example, will get “a thank-you note from Arianna Huffington on Facebook and a signed copy of her book, Thrive.” (Huffington may not want to pay her own employee, but she’ll throw in a few copies of her own self-help book.)
AOL is well-known for its tight purse strings. And Beacon Reader, which is a bit like Kickstarter, wants to offer an ad-free alternative to the present online journalism model, where outlets sell flashing banner ads against free content. But: The Huffington Post embodies that very model. The Huffington Post will place ads next to Stewart’s reporting. The Huffington Post will pay the rest of their employees with the money earned from those ads. Just not Stewart herself.
Huffington pocketed between $20 and $30 million from her website’s 2011 sale to AOL, which recently posted an annual profit of $9.3 million. Yet Stewart can’t even count on her job to exist twelve months from now. “After the first year, we’ll continue the fellowship if interest remains,” the fundraising campaign notes. If!
How online journalism will pay for itself is an ongoing debate. There are a lot of questions, and not many answers. But in this case the solution is simple and obvious. Arianna Huffington should pay for Mariah Stewart’s salary. All of it.
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Photo credit: Associated Press