The Puffington Host: It’s all about bucks, clicks


Now that Arinana Huffington is raking in her millions from merging her eponymous blog with failing new media pioneer AOL, the fur is flying.

The former snarky New Age cultist Republican turned ersatz liberal has now declared that “the new Huffington Post would emphasize things other than the liberal politics on which the brand was built,” reported Dana Milbank at the Washington Post.

“It’s time for all of us in journalism to move beyond left and right,” Huffington said Monday on PBS’s “NewsHour.” “Truly, it is an obsolete way of looking at the problems America is facing.”

Indeed, Milbank adds, “Anybody who expects her to continue as a reliable voice of the left is a poor student of Huffington history.”

Rather than an ideologue, Huffington emerges on closer examination to be just another money-grubbing opportunist, a master of the art of reinvention whenever the dollar signs look bigger on the other side of the divide.

Huffington’s all about living large, and Ryan Tate at Gawker has made a small industry out of cataloging the outrageous profligacy of the self-promoting limousine liberal.

Huffington’s a poor girl grown rich, and famously married the gay heir to an oil fortune who was a fellow devotee of a strange Southern California cult leader who once tried and failed to recruit esnl back when he was a newspaper reporter in Santa Monica.

As Los Angeles magazine noted in a 2004 profile:

The 1986 San Francisco wedding of Arianna Stassinopoulos and Michael Huffington was one of the society events of the year. It cost a reported $100,000 and was covered by 18 reporters and gossip columnists. Barbara Walters was a bridesmaid.

A supreme opportunist, the Greek girl who grew up in near poverty now flaunts her wealth [see those acerbic Gawker posts] and pals around with billionaires.

We must admit that we never believed her conversion of liberalism was anything more than a shrewd business calculation, and now, having made her pile, she’s quite content to leave it behind and declare herself above politics in her new incarnation as mainstream media mogul.

We noted with interest that her website was a stark denial of Huffington’s pretensions to be a dedicated feminist. Just take a look at this screen capture included in a sharp evisceration of HuffPo’s blatant sexism by Amanda Knox in Washington City Paper. Note in particular the site’s tag: CELEBRITY SKIN.

Huffington Post was never about liberal ideals. It was about generating revenue from a niche. Politics might draw people to the site, but soft core porn would get them to linger.

Worse, it was about generating revenue by exploiting the unpaid work of others.

One of the shrewdest observers of the modern political landscape is the very political Chris Hedges, a former New York Times bureau chief who was forced out of his post because of his outspoken and deeply sincere political beliefs.

In a column written for Truthdig shortly after the AOL/HuffPo merger, Hedges, an unapologetic socialist, cut straight to the bone in a piece called simply “Huffington’s Plunder”:

Any business owner who uses largely unpaid labor, with a handful of underpaid, nonunion employees, to build a company that is sold for a few hundred million dollars, no matter how he or she is introduced to you on the television screen, is not a liberal or a progressive. Those who take advantage of workers, whatever their outward ideological veneer, to make profits of that magnitude are charter members of the exploitative class. Dust off your Karl Marx. They are the enemies of working men and women. And they are also, in this case, sucking the life blood out of a trade I care deeply about.

>snip<

The argument made to defend this exploitation is that the writers had a choice. It is an argument I also heard made by the managers of sweatshops in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, the coal companies in West Virginia or Kentucky and huge poultry farms in Maine. It is the argument made by the comfortable, by those who do not know what it is to be hard up, desperate or driven by a passion to express one’s self and the world through journalism or art. It is the argument the wealthy elite, who have cemented in place an oligarchic system under which there are no real choices, use to justify their oppression.

Who would not want to be able to carry out his or her trade and make enough to pay the bills? What worker would decline the possibility of job protection, health care and a pension? Why do these people think tens of millions of Americans endure substandard employment?

An even more razor-edged commentary came from Tim Rutten’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times:

To grasp the Huffington Post’s business model, picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.

That’s borne out by a memo from AOL Chief Executive Officer Tim Armstrong on where his company’s journalism is going. It’s fairly chilling reading, ordering the company’s editors to evaluate all future stories on the basis of “traffic potential, revenue potential, edit quality and turnaround time.” All stories, it stressed, are to be evaluated according to their “profitability consideration.” All AOL’s journalistic employees will be required to produce “five to 10 stories per day.”

Note all the things that come before the quality of the work or its contribution to the public interest and you’ve arrived at an essential difference between journalism and content. It may start with exploiting reporters and editors, but it inevitably ends up exploiting its audience.

The other partner to this dubious arrangement is the Huffington Post, which is a new-media marvel of ingenuity, combining a mastery of editing geared to game the search engines that stimulate Web traffic and overhead that would shame an antebellum plantation. The bulk of the site’s content is provided by commentators, who work for nothing other than the opportunity to champion causes or ideas to which they’re devoted. Most of the rest of the content is “aggregated” — which is to say stolen — from the newspapers and television networks that pay journalists to gather and edit the news.

The Huffington Post is a brilliantly packaged product with a particular flair for addressing the cultural and entertainment tastes of its overwhelmingly liberal audience. To grasp its business model, though, you need to picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates. Given the fact that its founder, Huffington, reportedly will walk away from this acquisition with a personal profit of as much as $100 million, it makes all the Post’s raging against Wall Street plutocrats, crony capitalism and the Bush and Obama administrations’ insensitivities to the middle class and the unemployed a bit much.

The fact is that AOL and the Huffington Post simply recapitulate in the new media many of the worst abuses of the old economy’s industrial capitalism — the sweatshop, the speedup and piecework; huge profits for the owners; desperation, drudgery and exploitation for the workers. No child labor, yet, but if there were more page views in it…

Paul Harris, writing for The Observer in Britain, notes that the

America’s Newspaper Guild, the journalists’ union, has started a campaign to target the Huffington Post as having a business model that has done great damage by not paying contributors. It has demanded that Huffington donate some of her AOL deal profits to investing in paid journalism. “After building a media empire based on unpaid writers and republishing the works of others… we are calling on Arianna Huffington to invest in quality journalism by sharing a portion of this fortune,” said the guild’s president, Bernie Lunzer.

That appeal is likely to fall on deaf ears. HuffPo spokesman Mario Ruiz denied the website was a problem for the industry, saying: “It’s both wrong and offensive to insist that the HuffPo is exploiting journalists.”

Offensive to him, maybe, but hardly wrong.

The simple fact remains that American journalism as an occupation is dying. Since we moved to the Bay Area, three-fourths of the region’s newspaper jobs have vanished [including our own]. We’ll grant that all of those journalists were maladaptive sorts like yours truly who simply find themselves incapable of corporate PR or similar other ways of serving the elite. But there are plenty of downsized journalists, we among them, who are driven, finding fulfillment only by reporting on the institutions shape our lives.

We began our career in a day when such inclinations could draw a decent paycheck for a 40-hour week [overtime for anything more], along with good health insurance, a pension, and typical vacations. Now, jobless, our calling continues, though sans paycheck, we blog.

We don’t get paid, but we’re still pursuing our calling.

We chose to operate an unpromoted, unattached, and unpaid stand-alone blog, answerable to nothing other than our own conscience. But we can understand folks availing themselves of HuffPo. It offered the chance of exposure, as well as gilt by association — your name included in the same fortune with luminaries and celebrities. The potential for audience is far greater that a site such as ours.

And HuffPo is all about exposure, about laying out search engine traps [remember those breasts?]. That’s why AOL was willing to shell out $315 million.

Now we acknowledge that boobs generate a lot more hits that erudite discussions of financial policy [unless you call someone as search-pinging ass who should go fuck himself]. But some of those thousands of unpaid posts had to draw some hits, some of who were seduced into those tit-ilating seductions screaming from the sidebars.

Last July, Fast Company scribe Kim Eaton wrote about the site’s use of technology to game pages to ensure the maximum number of hits.

Huffington Post has a long history of controversy, blended with an innovative business model that has challenged many preconceptions of how a news publishing business can work. The company has often been faced with accusations of outright content theft, and indeed in some of its modes of operation it’s been hard to see its wholesale content capture-republish mechanisms as anything else. But Ariana Huffington’s site has also embraced technology–even employing a system which game-tested automatically generated headlines for stories by seeing how well customers clicked on different versions before settling on the optimum headline which would, in theory, garner the site the most income from paying ad partners.

So why do those unpaid bloggers? Here’s one take from Robert Wenzel at EconomicPolicyJournal.com, who writes that some contributors think Arianna ought to share some of hefty profit:

Bill Lasarow, Publisher and Co-Editor of Visual Art Source, announced that his organization is “now going on strike. For now, at least, no more content from us will appear on the Huffington Post.”

Lasarow wrote, according to the Daily Caller.,that his organization has two demands. The first, that the Huffington Post develop a system for paying writers and bloggers. The second, for the site to differentiate between paid promotional content and writers’ work.

The group, says Daily Caller, proposes a system of collective bargaining for contributors, expressing hope that they band together to “form a negotiating partnership with Huffington/AOL in order to pursue these and other important matters so as to professionalize this relationship.”

Huffington dismissed the strike Thursday at a conference hosted by PaidContent in New York City. “Go ahead, go on strike,” Huffington said, ridiculing “the idea of going on strike when no one really notices.”

Here’s a take from one blogger, food writer Sarah Henry, reporting at local public broadcaster KQED’s bay area bites blog, said HuffPo’s sale was a windfall for Huffington,

but a slap in the face for the army of unpaid wordsmiths on which the HuffPo has built a blog empire using, essentially, the slave labor of journalists who wrote posts for free in the hope it may make a difference, including to their cash flow, down the track. . .[T]he fact remains no matter how you run the numbers this business model is just plain exploitive. So much for Huffington’s liberal values.

And writing at New Comm Biz, a website devoted to social media, Jason Moriber observed that the HuffPo model of selling posters on the notion of free labor in exchange for a “platform opportunity”

devalues college-educated employment. The HuffPo has established a mechanism for college-educated middle-class workers to drive down the value of their labor while the HuffPo harnesses their collective labor into greater profits. It’s straight-up Capitalism, but this type of rude mechanism, historically weighed-on the working class, has moved up the economic ladder.

We have to admit a fondness for a headline at Libertarian Today which captures some of our feelings toward the whole debacle:

Perpetually cluless liberal airheads surprised to be manipulated, exploited, swindled by limousine liberal snakes

And here’s a post that seems to be written for folks like yours truly from Forbes blogger T.J. Walker:

There is one person who is left out if the cold when it comes to the Huffington Posts of the world, and that is the so-called “pure” journalist. If you are someone who simply wants to focus on writing a good story and you aren’t also a speaker/trainer/consultant/shameless self-promoter, and your only revenue model is being paid for writing, then you have a problem. Huffington Post is not going to directly or indirectly keep you from starving to death. So find someplace else to write and don’t write unless people are paying you for your words. But this person doesn’t directly benefit from being a guest on the Today Show either. So what?

There never was some golden age when huge numbers of people were paid to be professional journalists. In fact, there has never been a time in human history when more people have been paid to write and commit acts of journalism than right now.

We disagree profoundly with the implication of that last paragraph. While more people may be getting paid [and we haven’t seen hard numbers], we can speak to the experience of the sorts of journalists we’ve worked with over the last four-plus decades. When we started in this business more than four decades back, any reporter with decent clips could land a job within a couple of weeks. People who wanted to be reporters could find a job. Not now. More than half the papers were worked for are gone, and of the ones left, all are hollow shells of the newsrooms we once worked in. The same is true of radio and television.

Reporting costs money, which pittance-paid bloggers can’t afford. Neither can they reach the same sorts of audience that mainstream media once reached. Nor do they have the libel lawyers and the expense accounts.

But, damn, she’s got integrity

Now consider this from Poynter news biz blogger Jim Romenesko about Huffington’s latest honor, an appointment to the board of the Center for Public Integrity:

Center for Public Integrity executive director William Buzenberg says Arianna Huffington is “a major asset to our board” because “she understands the importance of non-partisan investigative journalism, and she has proven instincts on how the Internet news marketplace is evolving.” Investment banker Frederic Seegal is also joining the board.

Press release
Huffington, Seegal Join Center’s Board of Directors

Washington, D.C. – March 1, 2011 –Arianna Huffington and Frederic Seegal have joined the board of directors of the Center for Public Integrity, one of the country’s oldest and largest nonprofit investigative news organizations.

Huffington is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Huffington Post, and will soon become president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group at AOL. She is a driving force in the rapidly changing world of digital news delivery. Earlier this year, The Huffington Post Investigative Fund merged with the Center for Public Integrity.

“Arianna is a major asset to our board,” said Executive Director William E. Buzenberg. “She understands the importance of non-partisan investigative journalism, and she has proven instincts on how the Internet news marketplace is evolving. I welcome her counsel as we continue to innovate at the Center in the years ahead.”

“I’m very pleased to be joining the board of CPI, which is doing so much to advance the cause of investigative journalism,” said Huffington. “In these tumultuous times for the Fourth Estate, it’s vital that we have places that ensure that the most important stories of our time aren’t just covered after things go bad — as happened with the war in Iraq and the economic crisis – but are uncovered before disaster strikes. We need fewer autopsies of what went wrong and more biopsies of what is about to go wrong.”

Oh, and see this for more on the center, see here.

So it’s a matter worthy of appointment to an integrity center to make millions using the cover of unpaid bloggers to give you a cover of legitmacy, all with paying them even a penny for their efforts.

Sure, some of them were simply fame-whores, hoping to cash in on the Post Modern American Dream of celebrity status, but some of them were good, honest, driven journalists, driven by a calling that endures through deprivation and poverty. They deserve at least a token reward.

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