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Huffington Post And The DisContentarati

April 14, 2011

The Huffington Post – a highly successful news aggregator and blogging site founded by Arianna Huffington in 2005 and recently bought by AOL for US$315M is itself sparking an entire online debate about the role of content, when it should be paid for and whether bloggers should share in profits of sites they contribute to.

This one is set to run and with rumours of court action the outcome of it could have massive implications for content creators and website producers. First, how the Huffington Post works. It now employs 97 editors, brings together news clips from other sites and makes a tidy profit of about US$30m per annum by virtue of now having more than 15 million readers per day. So what’s the problem? The big part of Huffington Post’s success is created by utilising a stream of free content provided by more than 9000 bloggers – who are not paid and who did not share in the recent sale of the site. Some of these bloggers feel aggrieved, that their content, delivered for free has helped create a major multi-million dollar media business. To counter, Arianna Huffington pointed out something that every TV station, radio show and newspaper – along with PR people and publicists have always known. Getting exposure for your brand and views is plenty reward – if that is what you are seeking in return for your content. To paraphrase, ‘we’re giving you a free platform to promote your views and product – so of course we’re not going to pay you for it’. This week it was reported that Google, AOL and others are all now back in the market to producing and owning great content – and this has to be a good thing. Huffington Post too, employs professional journalists. As Arianna Huffington said when she visited the UK recently “If people go on ‘Newsnight’ – they don’t get paid”. Mr Paxman is not a free content, he is a highly paid Tax-payer funded journalist. A political activist is the equivalent of a free blogger – using ‘Newsnight’s’ platform and facing Paxman’s questioning in return for the opportunity to reach a mass audience. The issue for many bloggers is that they see themselves as freelance journalists – closer to Mr Paxman thant the political activit. Unfortunately – they face a lot of competition from lots of people who are now willing and able to contribute very similar content for free in return for publicity, profile and clicks and writing and producing content, just like desk top publishing and web design is no longer a priestly mystery it once was. And let’s be honest: not everyone  writes with the sharpness of Seth Godin or the wit of Stephen Fry. As Facebook, You Tube and Huffington Post has shown, everyone can have a go at being a video producer, a  journalist, a reviewer, a gag writer or a political ranter. You may not be a good one – but that’s not the point. Newspapers and magazines around the world are looking at paywalls as they increasingly realise that unique, difficult to obtain, brilliantly researched content prepared by well paid journalist is cannot be funded in the long term by the super fragmented and minimal revenues of online advertising. Analysis of the Russian banking market? That’s pretty specialist and valued and it’s the kind of content that has made Financial Times a very successful online newspaper indeed. A report about another England penalty shoot out disaster? Or the failures of Rooney and Torres? Not hard to find, not hard to produce and increasingly the kind of content that media will increasingly obtain from free and enthusiastic bloggers who will gladly accept the exposure alone as fair payment. Some of the Huffington’s critics, led by blogger Jonathan Tasini, are now filing a class action – on the basis that the AOL deal has created a ‘blogger plantation’ – and with Huffington treating bloggers like slaves. I see the point but I cannot see them succeeding. Just as digital streaming and downloads has changed forever the way in which rock stars and record companies get to fund their expensive habits – so the rise of sites like Huffington Post has changed forever how content is created, exchanged, distributed – and rewarded. I am sure nobody was forced to blog on Huffington Post and as a creator you control where you place your work and if you think its good enough to hold out for $100 an article, then do so.  Cash is not the only currency and finding a new and fair exchange rate for unique and valuable content is going to be the challenge for media owners and creators alike. In the meantime, I’m off to see a website with loads of rants about Rooney and Torres …

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