By paulgillin | February 14, 2011 - 8:28 am - Posted in Fake News

With its $315 million sale to America Online, Huffington Post now has to be considered one of the U.S.’s most highly valued news operations, so it’s only natural that observers should begin to wonder when it’s going to start paying its contributors a meaningful wage.

The debate is fueled by HuffPo’s unusual content model, which is based upon a large volume of articles contributed free by unpaid bloggers, as well as syndication and aggregation services that effectively used other people’s content to sell advertising.

Arianna Huffington’s “blogger network is an amazing achievement; she’s persuaded untold numbers of people to write for nothing, to have their names on the page as compensation for their labor,” writes Dan Gillmor on MediaActive. That model fits perfectly with the one that’s emerging at AOL as it places new-media bets with sites like TechCrunch and the Patch constellation of local news sites. “There’s a common thread in many of the content initiatives: paying low (or no) money to the people providing the content,” Gillmor writes.

But is that wrong? After all, no one is forcing bloggers to write for HuffPo for free, and the site’s terms & conditions state that contributors aren’t entitled to any compensation. Writing on Columbia Journalism Review, Lauren Kirchner notes that unpaid labor can actually be illegal in some circumstances. People have even been forced to accept payment when they didn’t want it because their volunteer work was deemed to be an unfair competitive advantage for the organization that benefited from their labors.

Even arrangements similar to HuffPo’s have been successfully contested in the past. Kirchner points to a suit filed against AOL years ago by a group of unpaid community managers who alleged that their efforts contributed to the company’s bottom line. The suit never reached trial and AOL finally settled for a reported $15 million, denying the world a clear precedent.

It’s unlikely that Huffington will change the practices that have contributed to its meteoric rise any time soon. But pressure from prominent voices like Gillmor could make executives uneasy. “The Huffington Post’s business model is perfectly legal. But is it right?” Kirchner asks.

Maybe not, but right in what context? We believe the debate over Huffington’s pay scale is a straw man for the bigger issue of content devaluation brought on by the Internet. Nate Silver contributes a fascinating analysis in this respect. He dissects the Huffington Post’s revenue model and determines that free content generates just a tiny percentage of the business. “The median blog post, with several hundred views, was worth only $3 or $4,” he writes. Even blockbuster articles contribute less than $200 to the site’s revenues.

Silver’s analysis makes a number of assumptions, due to the lack of publicly available information, but the number that caught our eye was his estimate that HuffPo publishes about 100 articles per day. If you figure that nets out to 30,000 articles per year and revenues of $30 million, then the average article is worth about $1,000 to the site. Assuming that HuffPo pays a 20% royalty to the author, then the average writer would expect to receive no more than $200 per piece. Silver’s methodology, which is based on traffic, estimates the actual value at much less than that. Under any scenario, unsolicited content is worth no more than a few bucks.

Huffington Post is only the most visible example of the new economics of news in which writers can expect to receive much less payment for work than they did in the heyday of mainstream media. Forcing the business to pay more to its writers doesn’t change those economics. Operations like Demand Media are standing at the ready to pay a nickel a word. The market will continue to find its low-water mark.

The good news — if there is any — is that this dynamic isn’t new. Back in the pre-Internet days, The New York Times was able to get away with paying freelancers a pittance for their work because it was The New York Times. The value of the  byline was enough to reward contributors, even if the actual paycheck was only beer money.

We believe that there is an explosion of demand about to come from corporations that are embracing the new tactics of “content marketing.” These businesses must increasingly compete on the value of their content rather than the size of their advertising budget, and they will need to hire professionals to help them. This may be small consolation to many journalists, but at least it offers the possibility of a living wage that enables them to practice independent journalism, if only in their spare time.

Second-half magazine circulation continued to tumble in 2010, with Hearst down 6% and Condé Nast off 10%. The biggest culprit is declining newsstand sales as consumers increasingly turn to their smart phones for information. Paid subscriptions were actually up 3.2%. Magazines continue to cut distribution and increase subscription prices in order to prop up profitability.

An interesting side note to this story  is that Sports Illustrated will stop selling print-only subscriptions. Instead of paying $39 to receive the magazine, people will now have to pay $48 to get a bundled print, web and Android app edition . Why no iPad version? The publisher and Apple are still trying to work that out, but nothing is expected soon.

More shenanigans in the Tribune Co.’s Chapter 11 mess. It just gets uglier and uglier.

And Finally…

Colorized photo at

If you think “crowdsourcing” is destroying the economy, then don’t read this…

  • “Princecharming” will type up a poem about anything you want and send it to you, signed, in the mail.
  • “Nick0000” will turn a black-and-white image into a color image (left).
  • “Berthold” will proofread 800 words of English or German.
  • “sugars68” will write a unique original article for any keyword, with delivery in 24 hours.

What do these stunts have in common? They’re all things people will do for $5. At you can find people to provide products and services ranging from the ordinary (deliver parenting advice) to the bizarre (design your name from energy drink tabs) for a lousy sawbuck.

Fiverr is a real e-commerce site. If you want to take someone up on an offer, click a button, pay by PayPal or credit card and wait for the results. Buyers can rate the quality of the transaction and sellers can accumulate feedback scores, just like on eBay. You can even post a request for people who will fulfill your desire. All for five bucks. Amazing.



This entry was posted on Monday, February 14th, 2011 at 8:28 am and is filed under Fake News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. February 14, 2011 @ 8:49 am

    Sad state of affairs, but too true. Nice analysis.

    Posted by Marilyn
  2. February 14, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Gillin, Paul Gillin, songwhale, Marilyn Cohodas, miho kovanova/ククリスト and others. miho kovanova/ククリスト said: あとでよむ[NewspaperDeathWatch]Huffington’s Serfs […]

  3. February 14, 2011 @ 9:33 am

    Paul, thanks for raising these issues, and as ever, in a thoughtful way. Forbes has also created a compensation scheme based on the traffic that bloggers bring to … which is a step up from Google ad sense. But as much as corporations creating content will put new value — and real money — into blogger compensation, the move by corporations to become media companies also raises serious issues of quality and editorial integrity.

    Posted by Robin Carey
  4. February 14, 2011 @ 9:17 pm

    I had something written here but I lost it when the page refreshed.

    It concerned 1:N, N:M communications and the difference between a broadcast model, a narrowcast model, the huffpo contribution model and the different ways of arriving at a price per web page but, screw it, I don’t really like the sound of my own voice that much.

    Posted by msbpodcast
  5. February 15, 2011 @ 4:38 am

    I’m damn sure it was insightful, whatever it was! LOL

    Posted by paulgillin
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