A writer in midlife turned to other journalists this month for advice on how to connect with the Huffington Post. “I’m curious how to become part of the unpaid writers group,” said B. Howe on a University of Missouri alumni listserv. (I subscribe.)
The business has come to this! Even to work for nothing you need a strategy. The Mizzou alumni who responded to Howe’s appeal showed more interest in lecturing than in advising him. “If you want to work for free, I have some landscaping that needs to be done,” one grad responded. “Seriously, why would anyone do this? Performing journalism for zero wages devalues all the work we do. Huffington Post purportedly had $200 million in revenue in 2014. If your material is worth publishing, let them pay you.”
( Let them pay you! How lovely it is to think for even one second it’s our prerogative.)
Another grad told B. Howe she got out of journalism because the cost of “chasing a passion” was to be “broke, incredibly burnt out, and . . . horribly undervalued. . . . The juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze.” At least, she still had her pride. “I don’t work for a pittance. I don’t work in exchange for ‘exposure.’ And I absolutely don’t work for free. If I had my way, all of us writers would rally together against HuffPo and loudly demand fair compensation for hard work; I think their business model is incredibly selfish and problematic.”
Yes, of course it is, but aside from that what’s so bad about it? Howe’s appeal reminded me of a conversation I’d had six years ago with Carol Felsenthal. A successful freelance writer by every superficial measure, she’d brought out her most recent book, Clinton in Exile, a few months earlier, and her profile of Michelle Obama was a few days from running in Chicago magazine. Yet Felsenthal had just hooked up with HuffPo and now was writing a political blog for them on her own dime.
Why? She started her blog to promote her book, she told me, and she kept at it because it was “addictive.” What’s more, it gave her somewhere to put the stuff cut from the “insanely long first drafts” she turned in to Chicago. So it was sort of win-win, though the big winner wasn’t Felsenthal. “It’s ridiculous that Ariana Huffington doesn’t find a way to pay people like me,” she told me. “And you know what—she’s not going to. She doesn’t need to.”
I’ve just asked Felsenthal to bring me up to date. Her ridiculous relationship with HuffPo went on a couple of years, she says, before she switched to the Hill, a Washington-based daily and website. The Hill didn’t pay her anything either, “but I felt more appreciated by its editors, I guess, and I liked the feedback I was getting.” One day she told Richard Babcock, then the editor of Chicago, that she’d like to blog for him. The conversation was important for what Felsenthal didn’t say: “It never occurred to him, I’m sure, that I’d write for free, and we agreed on a payment schedule.”
Today Felsenthal writes for Chicago and Politico, and both pay her in actual money. Her advice for B. Howe is to “just do it and see how it goes and ignore the naysayers. . . . When the time comes that he’s giving his work away without getting anything in return . . . he’ll have the clips and will be in a better position to line up a paid platform for his ideas.”
Eventually B. Howe decided he’d better explain himself to the listserv. “If I’m freelancing these days, I write for the extra money,” he wrote. “When I was a reporter, I did it for the paycheck. When I write my novels it’s in the hope that they will take off and I will make lots of money someday. When I write my blog, however, I write it to help other people.
“I am an LGBT person writing about LBGT issues, seeking to answer peoples’ questions about the LGBT world. I consider my audience mainly younger people, and those that work with them, like parents, teachers, friends & family. Having just wrapped up teaching in a high school for a decade, I know the need is there. A critical, often life-saving need.”
As so often happens, when altruism revealed itself it stilled the waters. A scornful alum who’d told Howe to go find a charity if he wanted to work for nothing because “HuffPost has plenty of money to pay,” wrote back chastened. “Follow your passions. Do what you wanna do,” he now proclaimed. “Who cares what everyone else thinks/does/wants. Cheers!”
But why do it on HuffPo? “I can publish it for free anywhere,” Howe allowed. “I don’t have to give the fruits of my labor to a multimillion-dollar corporation.” But the thing is, he does. “In the year I published my blog on my own, I had a maybe a dozen readers a week,” Howe told the listserv. “No matter what I did, I just couldn’t get readers. The Huffington Post fixed that. I had more readers in one day that I had before in one year.”
Howe told me setting up shop on HuffPo was a breeze. A Mizzou alum gave him a contact inside HuffPo (which is why he’d appealed to the listserv in the first place), and this intermediary put him in touch with Noah Michelson, who edits HuffPo’s Gay Voices section. Michelson looked at a few samples of Howe’s work, responded with one word, “Cool,” and added him to the roster.
Howe asked me to identify him only as B. Howe because, he says, he writes in various “genres” and he tries to keep them separate. The author of his LGBT blog is “Raina Bowe,” and Raina Bowe is an interesting character. Howe’s original blog, the blog no one ever knew existed, described Bowe as a teacher who “came out as a bisexual during a high school staff meeting” and aspires to be “a source of hope, information and advice for anyone trying to understand life in the LGBT world.”
The new HuffPo introduction paints a more vivid picture. Raina Bowe has become the “flamboyant alter-ego of a professional teacher and humorist,” a candidate for the title “of the world’s most colorful drag queen,” and possibly “the only drag queen, professional educator, humor writer and stand-up comedienne living in the Pacific Northwest.”
There was the whiff of a Faustian bargain. Are you OK with that? I asked Howe, wondering if the price he paid for more readers in a day than he’d had in a year was to be caricatured beyond recognition.
“I’m fine with it; I wrote it,” he replied. “Let’s just say in the last couple of years I’ve become more comfortable with who I am.” His first post itemizes himself—husband (still), father, high school teacher, Disney on Ice performer (former), novelist, rustic. And all that’s before he even gets to Raina Bowe.