Feature

Huffington: How to get rich off the Internet

The bloggers who provided free content for the HuffingtonPost.com won't receive any of the $315 million AOL paid for the website. 

You have to admire Arianna Huffington’s chutzpah, said Debra Saunders in the San Francisco Chronicle. As a sometime “populist” who loudly laments “corporate greed,” Huffington attracted thousands of left-wing bloggers to write for free at her HuffingtonPost.com website. Then last week she sold out to AOL for $315 million. After the spoils are divvied up among her “venture capitalist pals,” she’ll walk away with some $18 million and a new title as president and editor in chief of AOL’s Huffington Post Media Group. What will her army of bloggers and “citizen journalists” get for their labors? The chance for further unpaid glory toiling for AOL, a media giant with a market cap of $2.2 billion. To understand Huffington’s business model, said Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times, “picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.” After all her bluster about “Wall Street plutocrats and crony capitalism,” she’s made a fortune off the backs of unpaid scribes and content “aggregation”—a polite term for stealing from legitimate news outlets that actually pay their writers.

Huffington’s bloggers got their just deserts from this deal, said Nate Silver in NYTimes.com—which is nothing. HuffingtonPost.com publishes hundreds of blog posts every weekday. But the overwhelming majority of its 15.6 million daily page views are generated by content that the site “pays its staff to write or curate.” By my calculation, the advertising revenue generated by the site’s unpaid bloggers amounts to no more than a few bucks per blog post. Since our site commands millions of eyeballs, said Jason Linkins in HuffingtonPost.com, we’re doing people a favor by running their blogs or aggregating their content. That’s why the country’s major newspapers and magazines plead with us to run their stories, and why some of our contributors write for free. They know our site helps them reach the “widest possible audience.”

If Huffington can “make a fortune off people’s desire to express themselves,” said Andrew Sullivan in TheAtlantic.com, then more power to her. And Huffington’s business model is hardly unique, said David Carr in The New York Times. It’s basically the template for all digital media, where “low-cost and no-cost content is becoming the norm.” The multi-billion-dollar valuations of Twitter and Facebook are derived largely from the content created by millions of users like me—for free. We are all digital serfs now, working for the feudal lords of cyberspace. Just don’t expect a share of their fat profits. “The check,” as Arianna might tell you, “is in the mail.”

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