HuffPo’s “Citizen Journalism” Under Fire

Arianna Huffington at GaragegeeksArianna Huffington is on a mission to expand citizen journalism, particularly during the 2012 presidential campaign, with AOL’s upcoming acquisition of The Huffington Post. “We will have thousands and thousands of people covering the election. Covering the Republicans. Covering the Democrats. Just being transparent about it,” she said.

Huffington plans to use AOL’s Patch to aid in the expansion. Patch has been the target of criticism in the past because, among other things, it was snatching up paid employees from other publications. The Huffington Post receives its own fair share of criticism as well, but for not spending enough money — i.e., allegedly exploiting its unpaid writers.

Tim Rutten, 30-year veteran journalist at the Los Angeles Times, writes, “It’s already clear that the merger will push more journalists more deeply into the tragically expanding low-wage sector of our increasingly brutal economy. That’s a development that will hurt not only the people who gather and edit the news but also readers and viewers.”

Presently, The Huffington Post has more than 6,000 unpaid bloggers and paid staff of 210 people. Huffington used her many celebrity connections to get some famous names to blog for her, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Diane Sawyer, Buzz Aldrin, Bill Maher, Madeleine Albright, Robert Redford, Katie Couric, Neil Young, Rahm Emanuel, Mia Farrow, Representative Nancy Pelosi, Madonna, Aaron Sorkin, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Russell Simmons, Sean Penn, Bill Gates, George Clooney, and former President Bill Clinton. One would imagine that the writers on this list wouldn’t have much concern over pay.

For those who make their living as writers, however, it’s a different story. Mayhill Fowler quit writing for The Huffington Post last year because the website refused to pay her. As Debra J. Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle writes, “‘Citizen journalist,’ Mayhill Fowler discovered, has a very specific meaning: Free.”

On her own blog, Fowler writes:

What is really intriguing is that Arianna decided to go corporate rather than double down on the Huff Post strengths. First of all, this decision gives the lie to her frequent assertion this past year that she is pro Main and con Wall Street. Of course, the hypocrisy of her ‘let’s hear it for the little people’ mantra has already been undercut by her refusal to pay bloggers like me. And I had been waiting for the moment when senators like John Kerry and economists like Robert Reich finally realized that they cannot say one thing and do another: to talk sympathy for working people and yet blog at a site that treats its writers badly. Eventually, celebrity blogging at Huff Post was always going to become the modern equivalent of a membership in an all-white, all-male club: a choice politicians, however reluctantly, would have to avoid. It was only a matter of time.

In a blost post where Fowler initially explained why she left The Huffington Post, she writes, “Let this be a warning to you, citizen journalism enthusiasts. In the end, what you are doing really is enhancing somebody else’s bottom line.”

Source: “Arianna planning huge expansion of citizen journalism for 2012 campaign,” The Washington Post‘s The Plum Line blog, 02/08/11
Source: “Can Huffington transform AOL like she has herself?,” Associated Press via Salon.com, 02/08/11
Source: “AOL-HuffPo meet corporate greed,” San Francisco Chronicle, 02/10/11
Source: “A Few Thoughts on the AOL Huff Love Fest,” MayhillFowler.com, 02/07/11
Source: “Why I Left The Huffington Post,” MayhillFowler.com, 09/25/10
Source: “AOL? HuffPo. The loser? Journalism,” Los Angeles Times, 02/09/11
Image by mikedarnell1974 (Mike Darnell), used under its Creative Commons license.

About Rachelle Matherne

  

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  1. Interesting story, Rachelle. It appears that, in addition to not paying most of its bloggers, The Huffington Post also claims ownership of the articles they post.

    Most print publications purchase “first serial rights” only, which is the right to be the first to publish a piece of writing. After publication, writers are free to sell or reprint their articles elsewhere, or collect them into anthologies or publish them in books.

    It looks like HuffPo retains the rights to articles written by volunteers, which is a very unusual practice. Thanks for staying on this story.

  2. I’m glad you brought this up, Steve. I think there are more sites out there than people realize that claim ownership of content. It’s like the question I asked in my Digital Legacy posts: How many people actually read the Terms of Service for sites they use? Maybe this is a topic I should cover for the Newsblogger.