If the Huffington Post is the future of journalism, I don’t believe in the future. There’s no news-oriented Web site with a higher public profile, and possibly none more entertaining to visit (if you’re a Democrat), but HuffPo doesn’t pay contributors a dime and it aggregates (some would say poaches) tons of content from media that do. That’s “not our financial model,” Ken Lerer, a HuffPo founder, once said about the old-fashioned idea of paying the people who do the work. “We offer them visibility, promotion, and distribution with a great company."
Remember Calvin Trillin’s joke that the Nation used to pay him in the “high two figures”? The Huffington Post’s brilliant insight—if such it proves to be—is that the high two figures was still too much. Slate, Salon, Tina Brown’s newish Daily Beast—all pay contributors. “We have 200 new blog posts a day and about 2,500 bloggers with a password who can post any time day or night,” says Arianna Huffington, another founder and HuffPo’s public face. What she offers them is “a platform with millions of readers,” a “civil environment” maintained by moderators paid to purge the readers’ comments of vulgarity and stupidity, and the opportunity to write “whenever they have something to say, with no expectations of being paid.” This assures her that her writers are driven only by their big ideas. “Do you think,” she asks, “that someone doing an op-ed for the New York Times is doing it for the $100?”
Web sites—including the Reader’s—routinely aggregate articles from other sources, offering the best work of reporters who may soon be laid off by newspapers that before long may not exist. What sets HuffPo apart is its horde of bloggers lured by its vaunted visibility. In the long run, visibility alone butters less bread than visibility plus a little cash, which is why I’m far from the first person to question Huffington’s battle plan. But in the short run HuffPo is riding high. My friend Carol Felsenthal was telling me the other day that her husband, Steve, “loves the Huffington stuff—he’s always on the site. He just finds something fun about it.”
But it’s not Steve’s enthusiasm that puzzles me. It’s Carol’s. She’s not an academic or celebrity, the sort of contributor for whom the blogging is not, as Huffington puts it, “their primary job.” Felsenthal is a professional writer. Her most recent book, Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, came out in May. Her latest magazine article, on Michelle Obama, will run in the next issue of Chicago magazine. Felsenthal is an old-school freelancer—she takes the assignment, does the work, and cashes the check. And yet she—like everyone else on the site—writes for HuffPo for nothing.
The relationship began with Clinton in Exile. Two months before it came out Felsenthal told HarperCollins, her publishers, that she wanted to start a blog to drum up interest in the book. “I was naive about the process,” she says. Start a blog, a marketer replied, and no one will ever see it. Instead, the marketer sent her to HuffPo. Her first post, dated March 17, examined Bill Clinton’s “pangs of envy” at Barack Obama’s acclaim as a speaker and memoirist; she was off and running. She says, “It just surprised me how effective it was, and how addictive it became to me because it’s immediate. Everything else—magazine or book writing—there’s such a lead time. But this—put something out at 4 PM and go out with the dog, and you have e-mail on your Blackberry saying your piece has been posted.”
The Clintons provided a mother lode, and Felsenthal blogged steadily until September, when she stopped to work on her Michelle Obama story. “Steve said, ‘Don’t do that. It’s a mistake. You’re building up a following. You can do both.’ But I said, ‘No, I can’t.'” But the Michelle Obama piece is finished—and Felsenthal’s gone back to blogging. With Hillary at the State Department the Clintons remain a fertile topic, and now Felsenthal can draw on the notebooks she filled writing a profile of Rod Blagojevich for Chicago in 2003. Her last post noted that the governor was impeached on Richard Nixon’s birthday and recalled that Blagojevich once told her "Nixon had a lot of fascinating qualities" and was “a Greek tragedy in many ways."
The thing about doing it for nothing, says Felsenthal, is that “these profiles I’m writing for Chicago magazine—I always turn in these insanely long first drafts. What ends up running is a small fraction of what I have, so I can go back to them—I can use my outtakes in a way I never could before. It’s kind of satisfying to me.” Besides, “It’s not like I could get a job—there are no jobs. It’s not like someone would say, ‘Write a column every week and we’ll pay you.’
“It’s ridiculous that Ariana Huffington doesn’t find a way to pay people like me,” Felsenthal continues. “And you know what—she’s not going to. She doesn’t need to. What really makes the site go are the news stories put up there. There are people my daughters’ age”—mid-20s—”who instead of going to the New York Times site they go there and get all their opinions confirmed. The stories are all pro-Obama. They lift them from the AP or Reuters or the Times or the Washington Post.”
Sometimes HuffPo lifts them all too completely. Whet Moser, the Reader‘s online producer, ripped HuffPo last month in his blog (blogs.chicagoreader.com/chicagoland/) for swiping concert previews in their entirety from the Reader. (The perfunctory links to the Reader originals provided little solace.) Moser protested, a chorus of like voices chimed in, and Huffington wrote Moser and apologized. “This episode has led us to carefully reexamine how our posting guidelines are being applied,” she said.
When Felsenthal finishes a HuffPo item she files it in the system and e-mails the editors, who post it. That can happen right away, but she’s waited as long as two days, and that’s not a pleasant experience—speed is so central to blogging that waiting even a few hours for your story to show up online is like waiting inside a burning building for the fire trucks. Whenever her story is primarily local she files through Ben Goldberger, the editor of HuffPo’s recently launched Chicago edition, and lets him pass the story on to the national editors. “Not that there’s anything wrong with them,” she says, “but they’re kids. And they tend to make you feel like you’re some kind of overeager, overly ambitious person when I might have spent two hours on something and I want to make sure it’s up there and featured and it stays up long enough.”
As a UPI reporter years ago, I learned the joys of writing faster than I could think and flinging stories one after another into the ether, but for loftier authors this kind of spontaneous combustion is a new experience. “It keeps my juices going,” Felsenthal says. “It’s not like I go snowboarding or anything. I lead a kind of quiet life. And I never sleep. So at three in the morning I’ll be reading the New Republic and I’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting connection,’ and I’ll run up to my office and do something right on the spot.”
She reflects, “I do radio, and now I’m introduced as a Huffington Post blogger, as if that’s the key thing I did in my career. It’s kind of funny, but there’s a cachet to it, and it’s become in such a short time a brand name.”
“I think daily newspapers are finding they’ll have to change their model,” Arianna Huffington tells me. “I don’t believe we’ll see the end of newspapers in our lifetime. I believe the papers that successfully produce content online will be able to survive and thrive.”
With newsrooms of their traditional size? No, she says. The bundling and sustaining of journalists will have to take a different form.
“We’re doing our part,” she says. “We’ll be launching a fund for investigative journalists—we’ll put a fund aside so journalists can send us ideas about what to investigate and they will be paid for them. And we’re expanding our citizen journalism project that we launched during the campaign. Twelve thousand [unpaid] contributors—teachers, judges, college students who want to express what they’re seeing. So that’s the platform we provide—especially if you’re young and starting out. We tell them it’s another way to get your work out there and get known, instead of submitting articles for years before you get published.”
But get known to whom? To editors at newspapers and magazines that no longer exist? Well, to book publishers, says Huffington, “and others who have a budget much larger than ours and can pay.” She recalls a contributor who was hired by a English newspaper.
“There are still active markets out there,” says Huffington.
Though she agrees they’re disappearing fast.v
For more on the media, see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com