Free Blogging

In the interest of returning to blogging at the rate I was doing up until a few months ago, let me turn quickly to this Matty Ylgesias post about the use of a mix of paid/unpaid bloggers at the Huffington Post:

Erik Loomis castigates “the progressive blogosphere and young progressives in general” for a “lack of concern over labor” as evidenced by, for example, our lack of interest in the union-sponsored boycott of the Huffington Post over its use of a mix of paid and unpaid labor. So I’ll pay heed to the issue, though I won’t be boycotting anything. I’ll just start with the observation that there’s something ironic about a college professor writing a blog post for which he presumably wasn’t paid in order to castigate the practice of unpaid blogging. …

Those of us who write or a living on the internet might well benefit from a rule banning amateur content creation online. No more professors giving opinions on political issues away for free! No more videos of cute cats on YouTube! Heck, no more Wikipedia! More traffic for me! What’s not to like? Obviously there are free speech problems with trying to legally ban amateur internet writing. But should we boycott all free internet writing? My view is that we shouldn’t, even if Wikipedia is reducing the demand for unionized teamsters to deliver physical encyclopedias.

YGLESIAS, who is usually pretty good on these issues, just doesn’t get it. Now I am a college professor who writes (alas, not often lately) for free, but what he misses is that I also don’t rely on this for my paycheck. But I do know someone well who does, namely Freelance Extraordinaire. And here, Yglesias’s frame falls apart: FE worked, until two months ago, for AOL, writing regularly for a variety of its web sites. Then the Huffington Post was bought by AOL and much of AOL’s content was turned over to Arianna Huffington’s crew. This consolidation meant that the team FE worked with was reduced to two (with FE initially being one of those “lucky” two), after making all the freelancers go through the motions of various conference calls where they could discuss the bright future of these changes.

Now, how does AOL/Huffington Post expect to make up for those who were laid off (many of whom were excellent journalists laid off during the depression in the newspaper and journalism industry of the last few years)? Well, by exploiting those who will write for free, hoping to gain enough clips to one day, perhaps, gain a job. In other words, they went from a system that was very much like having adjuncts (bad enough) to then exploiting those who would teach a course for free in the hopes of one day becoming an adjunct. When the unemployment rate is 9.1% and far higher in journalism. Real cheery stuff.

So my worry isn’t whether a college prof or Gary Hart is being paid for online content. It’s when an already profitable enterprise engages in layoffs, making the risk economy riskier for all except those who have enough already. Which is an ironic argument made by someone who already makes money for writing online.

All this is par for the course for AOL, whose business model seems to depend on getting writers dependent on other companies to pay them, or is simply dependent on duping old people.