From Arianna Huffington’s Unpaid Massage Therapists to Obama’s Bridge to Work Program

Mike Elk

It might look strenuous, but this massage therapist at the Huffington Post "Oasis" at the Republican National Convention isn't working; he's gaining "exposure."

Since its incep­tion, the Huff­in­g­ton Post has relied heav­i­ly on unpaid blog­gers. Huff­in­g­ton Post co-founder Ken Lerer said in 2007 that a key part of the plan of the web­site was to not pay these bloggers.

That’s not our finan­cial mod­el,” Lerer told USA Today. We offer them vis­i­bil­i­ty, pro­mo­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion with a great company.”

And2011 Forbes arti­cle quot­ed a for­mer edi­tor-in-chief from AOL, which owns the Huff­in­g­ton Post, say­ing that around the offices, It was always, Ari­an­na does it. That’s what she’s built her busi­ness on. Why don’t we do it, too?’”

Despite its mas­sive growth and sale to AOL for $315 mil­lion, the Huff­in­g­ton Post still relies heav­i­ly on the work on unpaid work­ers, and has refused to sign an agree­ment with the Nation­al Writ­ers Union to pay all of its reporters who are assigned sto­ries or report to edi­tors. The Huff­in­g­ton Post cur­rent­ly has 50 paid reporters and more than 400 oth­er staff employed as edi­tors, pho­to edi­tors, graph­ic design­ers, and busi­ness staffers on pay­roll, accord­ing to Huff­in­g­ton Post spokesman Rhoad­es Alder­son. But the major­i­ty of its con­tent is still gen­er­at­ed by its net­work of more than 8,000 unpaid bloggers.

Some of Huff­in­g­ton Post’s unpaid blog­gers sub­mit op-eds in the same fash­ion that let­ters to the edi­tor have been done for gen­er­a­tions. How­ev­er, oth­er unpaid Huff­in­g­ton Post blog­gers do some­thing that has not been done in the past. As unpaid blog­gers, they are giv­en top­ics to write about by edi­tors and report to them. Leaked inter­nal emails from Huff­in­g­ton Post found­ing edi­tor Roy Sekoff shows that Huff­in­g­ton Post edi­tors hold dai­ly con­fer­ence calls with small groups of cit­i­zen reporters” to coor­di­nate their report­ing. Accord­ing to Sekoff, on these calls, the jour­nal­ists run their pitch­es by our … edi­tors, get feed­back and point­ers, and are also able to dis­cuss prob­lems, ques­tions, com­ments, etc with the oth­er jour­nal­ists on the call.”

In oth­er words, they do all the work of reporters except for no pay­check, just expo­sure. Accord­ing to Alder­son, Huff­in­g­ton Post cur­rent­ly has four unpaid reporters from its Off the Bus pro­gram com­ple­ment­ing more than a dozen paid reporters cov­er­ing the Repub­li­can Nation­al Con­ven­tion (RNC).

The unpaid so called cit­i­zen jour­nal­ists” are so impor­tant to Huff­in­g­ton Post’s report­ing mod­el that star Huff­in­g­ton Post White House reporter Sam Stein recent­ly said in an Red​dit​.com inter­view, At the Huff­in­g­ton Post we employ cit­i­zen jour­nal­ists who help us get sto­ries that we sim­ply could­n’t get from Wash­ing­ton D.C. or New York. That does­n’t guar­an­tee sucess. You still have to work hard, scrape for sto­ries, etc…But its a fun and excit­ing time to be in this field.” 

(Full dis­clo­sure, I pre­vi­ous­ly cross-post­ed some of my work from oth­er places on the Huff­in­g­ton Post as an unpaid blog­ger, but was fired after I par­tic­i­pat­ed in a protest of union con­struc­tion work­ers at the Mort­gage Bankers Asso­ci­a­tion in Jan­u­ary 2011. I guess only in this econ­o­my can you be fired from a job that doesn’t pay you anything)

How­ev­er, at the RNC, the Huff­in­g­ton Post has shown just how quick­ly pay­ing peo­ple for expo­sure can spread to pro­fes­sions beyond reporting. 

As part of its pres­ence in Tam­pa, the Huff­in­g­ton Post offers con­ven­tion atten­dees Oasis, a can­dle lit retreat that’s a reminder to find bal­ance in the hus­tle and bus­tle of the con­ven­tions,’ ” notes the Nation­al Writ­ers Union in a state­ment. Among the offer­ings are yoga class­es, mas­sages, mini-facials, and med­i­ta­tion. Like its thou­sands of cit­i­zen jour­nal­ists and blog­gers, the mas­sage pro­fes­sion­als are unpaid and work­ing for expo­sure.’ ”

Alder­son con­firms the Huff­in­g­ton Post did not pay the mas­sage ther­a­pists rub­bing down RNC atten­dees. Instead, the Huff­in­g­ton Post made a $40,000 dona­tion to the non-prof­it group Off the Mat into the World,” which pro­motes relax­ation tech­niques like yoga and mas­sage ther­a­py. The group, which is not based in Tam­pa, then recruit­ed a num­ber of Tam­pa-area mas­sage ther­a­pist to work at the RNC strict­ly for tips, no pay. Off the Mat into the World did not respond to a request for comment.

Irin Car­mon, a staff writer at Salon who received one of the mas­sages, says the unpaid mas­sage ther­a­pist told her that he was basi­cal­ly doing it for the expo­sure.” Mas­sage ther­a­pists make on aver­age $21,028 a year, but expo­sure and con­nec­tions from work­ing a high-pro­file event like the RNC could lead to paid work in the future.

Ear­li­er this sum­mer, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion enshrined the Huff­in­g­ton Post doc­trine of hav­ing peo­ple work for free in order to gain expo­sure as an offi­cial pol­i­cy for the unem­ployed. A new Depart­ment of Labor Bridge to Work” demon­stra­tion pro­gram would build on Huff­in­g­ton mod­el of work­ing for expo­sure by allow­ing up to 10 states to let com­pa­nies employ work­ers receiv­ing unem­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion with­out the employ­er nec­es­sar­i­ly hav­ing to pay those work­ers. Sec­re­tary of Labor Hil­da Solis wrote on Twit­ter when announc­ing the pro­gram, As we explore every avenue to help our work­force recov­er, #vol­un­teerism is a way job-seek­ers can do good and become more marketable.”

As con­struc­tion work­er Mike Daly, a mem­ber of Iron­work­er Local 377, told me last year, If we as a labor move­ment allow the Huff­in­g­ton Post to get away with this pret­ty soon we are going to see young kids walk­ing around con­struc­tion sites work­ing as unpaid apprentices,”.

The real­i­ty is that unpaid work such that at the Huff­in­g­ton Post rarely leads to real jobs.

Unpaid work and vol­un­teerism should not be seen as step­ping stones’ to a reg­u­lar job: after all, today there are more unpaid intern­ships around than ever before, and yet youth unem­ploy­ment is near its all-time high,” says Ross Per­lin, author of the book Intern Nation (which In These Times excerpt­ed). Unpaid intern­ships and vol­un­teer’ sit­u­a­tions (in cas­es where the per­son is real­ly any­thing but) in fact tend to destroy jobs rather than cre­ate them, because firms learn that they don’t have to pay for work, they don’t have to hire.”

Since drop­ping its boy­cott of Huff­in­g­ton Post after many labor-fund­ed pro­gres­sives writ­ers deseper­ate for pub­lic­i­ty crossed the pick­et lines, the Nation­al Writ­ers Union is now redou­bling its efforts to get the com­pa­ny to pay writ­ers who do orig­i­nal report­ing and work with an editor.

Refus­ing to pay work­ers, whether jour­nal­ists or health pro­fes­sion­als, is a sad­ly fit­ting trib­ute to the can­di­date of the one-per­cent. We know this is how Ari­an­na oper­ates. With the Nation­al Writ­ers Union, writ­ers and their allies are deliv­er­ing a pow­er­ful mes­sage that this kind of exploita­tion must end,” says Andrew Van Alstyne, orga­niz­er of the Nation­al Writ­ers Union’s Pay the Writer” campaign.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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