Last week writer Jonathan Tasini filed a $105 million class action lawsuit against publisher Arianna Huffington and Kenneth Lerer of the Huffington Post, and its new owner, AOL, which recently bought the online publication for $315 million.
The Huffington Post, launched in May 2005,Â initially just aggregated content from other sources. But aided by an estimated 9,000 bloggers who contributed their work without payment, the site has become a successful and valuable media property.
Over a five year period, Tasini contributed 216 unpaid articles to the site. Why would he and other writers work for free? In a word–exposure. HuffPost provided them a platform, a voice and an audience for their ideas and talents. Some bet the exposure would lead to paying jobs or open other doors.
Huffington never agreed to pay the bloggers, but now that AOL has paid out the $315 million, Tasini wants compensation for his work and for the work of the other writers. Tasini reportedly said, â€œThe Huffington bloggers have essentially been turned into modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffingtonâ€™s plantation. . . She wants to pocket the tens of millions of dollars she reaped from the hard work of those bloggers…”
Huffington has dismissed the lawsuit as “utterly without merit”, claiming that the writers willingly contributed to the site. â€œWithout a shadow of a doubt (legal or otherwise), Tasini understood and appreciated the value of having a post on HuffPost â€” and was only too happy to use our platformâ€™s ability to get his work seen by a wider audience.”
Yet Huffington certainly profited from all the free content. As a self-styled Progressive, why not reward the bloggers as a goodwill gesture with a few million dollars from her windfall?
Regardless of what the courts decide, the big picture is that in the Internet age, the value of writing has declined dramatically. Where writers were once paid one to two dollars per word, the rate today–if there's payment at all–has fallen to 25 to 50 cents–a 75% reduction. As with HuffPost, exposure is seen as payment enough. Here's an excerpt from a recent Craigslist job post:
“IMPORTANT: Initially, compensation is primarily the opportunity to build your portfolio of experience by having your work published in an upscale magazine.
AND… if you are an unemployed, bitter, negative-thinking “writer” (whiner) with nothing better to do than criticize—please, save your limited mental energy for something productive. Don't bother sending a reply!”
By no means is this ad unique, although it's unusually blunt.
What do you think? Should bloggers be paid for their work or just shut up and be glad that anyone wants to read what they have to say?