A news story is going around today from the British culture magazine New Statesmen in which a regular contributor known as the “Media Mole” takes a local Huffington Post editor to task for his response to a question about the site’s regular solicitation for free content from bloggers.
“If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy,” UK editor Stephen Hull told BBC Radio 4. “When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”
Lost in the Mole’s article and the ensuing social media firestorm after the interview aired was that Hull had been invited to appear on the BBC program shortly after Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, published an opinion piece on the site in which she called for better emotional and mental health for children.
Hull noted that the Duchess’ blog post was syndicated to a number of different Huffington Post-branded websites throughout the world, including two localized sites where it was translated from English.
And though her editorial went global, she was not paid for it. Nor are the thousands of other regular and irregular Huffington Post contributors, Hull noted.
That the Huffington Post regularly accepts contributions from guest writers (or bloggers, as the site calls them) is hardly a secret. But Hull’s explanation as to why the site doesn’t pay its guest writers was seen by many in the industry as myopic and tone-deaf. They questioned whether Hull, a paid staffer, contributed inauthentic work because of his salary, and whether he really believed the best way to attain quality journalism was to forego payment.
Was that really what he was saying?
The answer is: No.
The Huffington Post employs a few hundred paid journalists, editors and other staffers to run and produce content for a news platform. But what it also does is provide space for more than 10,000 guest writers to promote their thoughts, ideas, beliefs, work, brands, products and perspectives to the site’s millions of unique readers every month.
For their contribution to the site, the Huffington Post pays guest writers nothing. Journalists and others in the information industry would have you believe this is an abhorrent and unethical practice, but the reality is, it’s not. Most of the people contributing their guest writings are looking for exposure, not for money. They’re looking to leverage the site’s millions of readers to get their thoughts, products or brands in front of people—the same way individuals and companies use the communities on Facebook, Twitter and Medium.
(For example, this post — which is being written on Medium— has the potential to be seen by hundreds of people who follow me on the platform, and maybe thousands more if it’s shared on Twitter and Facebook. Medium did not pay me to write here, and Twitter and Facebook do not pay me to promote my content there, but I do it anyway because more people will find my writing there than if I simply wrote on my own blog. By the way, I do like money and I am looking for a job, and if someone would like to pay me to do any of these things for your publication or newsroom, you can drop me a line here.)
If you dissect Hull’s remarks on the radio, you’ll find his position is the same. The Huffington Post does not pay people to advertise their thoughts, positions, brands or products to their community. In fact, very few news organizations do: Newspapers do not pay for people to write letters to the editor, and very few of them pay for guest editorials (the Guradian comes to mind as a notable exception). Aside from a few “outside experts,” TV and radio news programs rarely pay for people to appear on their shows. Social media sites never pay for the short updates, photos, videos and lengthier blog posts.
Yet social media sites, TV and radio news programs and newspapers make money off those contributions, either through subscription, advertisements or a mixture of both. The Huffington Post also makes money by running advertisements alongside its journalism and editorials. It is a successful news venture that leverages off of free content that people are willing to give—no different from other publishing platforms—but the measure of its success compared to other news properties makes it a consistent target of criticism when it comes to the free content it receives.
None of this is to say that writers who don’t work in the information space should automatically forego any expectation of compensation. Some writers feel entitled to payment for their work, and they absolutely have that right. But we shouldn’t forget that there actually are people who don’t have an expectation for payment, only a desire for exposure. The Huffington Post has found thousands of writers who have an appetite for just that, and the site shouldn’t be criticized for providing those guest contributors with space and an audience.