Why I won't contribute to the Huffington Post and you shouldn't either

I recently finished a story on spec and had my editor balk at the story.

The general rule is freelancers shouldn’t write without a promise of pay, but it was a story I didn’t find particularly challenging, did find interesting and was for a new publication, some reasons that motivate me to take a chance. So, I was more – although perhaps wrongly – accepting of the demand that I write first before I elicited an agreement.

In telling my sources that I was shopping new homes for the story, I got a suggestion from one source, E. Jean Carrol, the venerable Elle magazine advice columnist.

“Send it to Huffington,” she offered, but, “They don’t pay.  It is ALL glory!”

For now, I’m choosing to sit on the story — one in a frustratingly growing class of stories I’ve written and then eaten. Huffington Post, the uproariously popular liberal news and opinion blog, is not getting my work, and it shouldn’t get yours.

E. Jean is a Huffington contributor. So is Liz Spikol, noted mental health blogger, columnist and an editor of mine at Philadelphia Weekly whom I respect. And, of course, there are dozens other professional writers giving it away for free, like Chicago-based freelancer Carol Felsenthal, as reported by the Chicago Reader.

But it’s not [her husband] Steve’s enthusiasm that puzzles me. It’s Carol’s. She’s not an academic or celebrity, the sort of contributor for whom the blogging is not, as Huffington puts it, “their primary job.” Felsenthal is a professional writer. Her most recent book, Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, came out in May. Her latest magazine article, on Michelle Obama, will run in the next issue of Chicago magazine. Felsenthal is an old-school freelancer—she takes the assignment, does the work, and cashes the check. And yet she—like everyone else on the site—writes for HuffPo for nothing. [Source]

In the Reader story, Felsenthal suggests she loves the immediacy of blogging – meaning she’s new to the form, so joining was easier than building her own readership. She is an established freelancer with a fat paycheck for her books and longform magazine stories. She doesn’t need the money from the Huffington Post, so why the Hell should she care about young journalists trying to make a living today?

How is the criticism of newspapers originally giving their content away for free – called the (last) original sin of the print media – any different than freelancers writing for free? It’s the same mistake recycled because those leading the push don’t really care.

And don’t mistake, there are options because unless something is done, writing will once again become a trade of the rich, as was suggested by Francis Wilkinson, a former editor at HuffPo.

After all, the number of people willing to write for free is vast. In 2007, I was in charge of recruiting writers for the expansion of The Huffington Post. I calculated that I would need 75 unpaid blog submissions per day, Monday through Friday, in order to make the site work. That target seemed absurd at first. Yet within two months, hundreds of willing bloggers had signed up, the majority of them credentialed authors published by major publishing houses. [Source]

Nonprofessionals doing it for free – I think – is rough enough on us, the trend of citizen journalist invariably pushing down our prices and challenging our ability to survive on the profession. But professionals doing so is unconscioable. Freelancers should not give away their work for free, nor should any other professional – writer, plumber or hair dresser. In this age of new media, journalists need to be able to do more, often for the same, if not less money, though we should charge for it all.

Read about who does get paid at HuffPo.

I contribute to two start-up blogs for free: NEastPhilly.com, a local news portal for Northeast Philadelphia, and Technically Philly, a blog covering the city’s growing tech scene. But the twist is that in our monetization strategies, we have included plans for paying contributors in the future. We don’t have money yet, so we’re not paying. But once we do, the game changes. We won’t feed into a culture that is making it increasingly difficult for anyone who is not financially self-supported to be a journalist on his own.

The Huffington Post and other major news organizations are bringing in money – even the struggling ones. So, I think it’s insulting they aren’t offering anything in return to their writers.

I also put blame on their contributors, though. I fear that Carrol, Spikol and others are caught up in the name, without realizing the ramifications of their involvement. They are complicit in the degradation of the opportunities for average people to pursue journalism as a vocation. The Post’s claims of increasing a writer’s visibility is, of course, silly. I doubt any editors are trolling the site looking for contributors. It’s a new age, we’re fighting for slots; fewer and fewer eds are fighting for us.

So, for now, I’d rather get paid nothing for doing nothing, then get paid nothing for doing something.

Am I being unfair to contributors to Huffington and other sites that ask for unpaid submissions?

Screen shot courtesy of MediaBistro.