Should the HuffPo pay its bloggers?

Since AOL paid US$315 million for The Huffington Post, the website’s unpaid bloggers have been angry they haven’t been compensated for their work, and have targeted their anger at the site’s executives, namely Arianna Huffington and co-founder Ken Lerer.

Leading the $105 million lawsuit is former HuffPo blogger Jonathan Tasini, who says the site’s bloggers – more than 9,000 of them – are what made HuffPo worth buying in the first place.

“ has been unjustly enriched by engaging in and continuing to engage in the practice of generating enormous profits by luring carefully-vetted contributors, with the prospect of ‘exposure’…” part of Tasini’s complaint reads, according to Time.

In an interview with the press on Tuesday, he said: “In my view, the Huffington Post’s bloggers have essentially been turned into modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation,” Forbes reported.

Of course, HuffPo disagrees. The site gives the bloggers a chance to “connect” and “be seen by as many people as possible,” Arianna Huffington wrote yesterday. “It’s the same reason people go on TV shows: to promote their views and ideas. HuffPost bloggers can cross-post their work on other sites, including their own.”

The statement also noted that:

“The key point that the lawsuit completely ignores (or perhaps fails to understand) is how new media, new technologies, and the linked economy have changed the game, enabling millions of people to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation … The same people who never question why someone would sit on a couch and watch TV for eight hours straight can’t understand why someone would find it rewarding to weigh in on the issues — great and small — that interest them. For free. They don’t understand the people who contribute to Wikipedia for free, who maintain their own blogs for free, who tweet for free, who constantly refresh and update their Facebook pages for free, and who want to help tell the stories of what is happening in their lives and in their communities… for free.”

Blogs make up a third of the HuffPo’s three-pronged approach, which also includes aggregated content and articles written by staffers.

Overall, the site receives about 15.6 million page views each weekday. Nate Silver did the math in his Political Calculus column for The New York Times, and found that blogs likely account for significantly less than 33 percent.

Even if the HuffPo doesn’t make much money from its blogs in the grand scheme of things, shouldn’t it pay its bloggers something? “Of course they could — and maybe they should. But the mechanics would get a little tricky,” Silver mused, stating that paying a flat fee could cause lower quality content to come in, instead of content from top names, who could probably command much more if they were to pitch their writing elsewhere. A revenue-sharing scheme is another option, but it would open the HuffPo up to other competitors who might try the same thing. However, because blogs make up a small amount of traffic, losing most of its bloggers to other sites “would have a fairly negligible impact” on the bottom line, he stated.

So what are bloggers, and the larger community of newsmedia publishers, to do?

For starters, we can “stop calling it content,” Bob Buch, vice president of business development at AOL, wrote last month on the topic of charging consumers to read news articles online. “Calling it content commoditises it and sends a message to the creative community that quality doesn’t matter.”

Discussing whether – or what – to pay bloggers, as well as whether publishers should charge for content online, all comes down to the same issue of how we value what is produced. And although Buch was talking about journalists as a whole, his views are worth considering when applied to the entire newsmedia industry, with bloggers being a part of that: “As business people, we need to do better.  Let’s start being more creative about how to get creative people paid.”

Tasini told Forbes his goal is not just to award bloggers some money from the suit, but also to create a standard ensures in which writers who are willing to write for free can also share in wealth they help create.

“If we want to have a society that has a diverse, vibrant culture, we have to make sure the people that create the content, whether it be words, images, drawings, photographs – those people have to be compensated fairly.”

Image via ProBlogger: The Huffington Post released its book about blogging in December 2008
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