Huffington’s Bogus Defense of Unpaid Bloggers

Mike Elk

While many view the labor prac­tices of the Huff­in­g­ton Post as affect­ing only a small hand­ful of writ­ers, Ari­an­na Huffington’s will­ing­ness to clas­si­fy peo­ple work­ing for her site as non-employ­ees” could impact the rights of all workers.

As unpaid intern­ships become the norm among a new gen­er­a­tion of work­ers, more and more employ­ers are find­ing inter­est­ing ways to clas­si­fy those work­ing for them as non-employ­ees” who don’t need to be paid. This clas­si­fi­ca­tion occurs despite the fact that employ­ers often force unpaid work­ers to obey the same rules as paid workers.

Huff­in­g­ton, who sold her busi­ness to AOL for $315 mil­lion ear­ly this year, con­tin­ues to deny that her website’s unpaid blog­gers (and there may be as many as 8,000) have an employ­ee-like rela­tion­ship to the com­pa­ny. (After the sale, The News­pa­per Guild (TNG) and the Nation­al Writ­ers Union (NWU) in March called for blog­gers to boy­cott the Huff­in­g­ton Post and join an elec­tron­ic pick­et line against the publication.)

She and Huff­in­g­ton Post Exec­u­tive Edi­tor Nico Pit­ney have argued that their blog­gers needn’t be paid because writ­ing for Huff­in­g­ton is like writ­ing for social media sites like Face­book or Twit­ter. In a can­did e‑mail exchange on a pri­vate lib­er­al list­serv that was leaked ear­ly this year, Pit­ney com­pared unpaid Huff­in­g­ton blog­gers to Twit­ter or Face­book users, saying:

i won­der whether twit­ter, face­book, and dai­lykos will ever pay me for the con­tent i’ve pro­vid­ed them, and which they’ve hap­pi­ly mon­e­tized. prob­a­bly not, but i don’t mind. i under­stood what i was get­ting out of writ­ing for them when i did it. which is I think the same case for our blog­gers, who get their own ben­e­fits from post­ing on our site, ask to do it, and often yell at me (usu­al­ly jus­ti­fi­ably) when it takes too long for their post to go live.

Like­wise, Ari­an­na Huff­in­g­ton com­pared unpaid blog­gers to social media users in a col­umn explain­ing why she does not pay her writers.

How­ev­er, the stan­dards of con­duct imposed on Huff­in­g­ton Post blog­gers are reg­i­ment­ed and employ­ee-like com­pared to what’s expect­ed from social media users. (Full dis­clo­sure: I was fired” as an unpaid blog­ger for the Huff­in­g­ton Post in Jan­u­ary 2011 for not meet­ing such stan­dards, when I used my sta­tus as a Huff­in­g­ton Post blog­ger to help 200 con­struc­tion work­ers break into a con­fer­ence of bankers.)

On Twit­ter and Face­book, users can post any­thing they want (as long as it does not vio­late laws; e.g., threats). Blog­gers at the Huff­in­g­ton Post, on the oth­er hand, must have every sin­gle post approved by an edi­tor before it is allowed to be pub­lished. To state the obvi­ous, Twit­ter or Face­book do not pre-approve each sta­tus update or tweet. If the Huff­in­g­ton Post doesn’t feel that the post by an unpaid blog­ger meets its stan­dards of jour­nal­ism, it will not pub­lish the post.

To be even more spe­cif­ic about the stan­dards expect­ed from Huff­in­g­ton Post blog­gers: The site does not allow its blog­gers to use anony­mous sourc­ing. Like­wise, Huff­in­g­ton Post often factchecks posts before they go up. On sev­er­al occa­sions when I used to write (again, unpaid) for the site, I received phone calls and emails from edi­tors ask­ing me to pro­vide more details and sourc­ing in order to ver­i­fy a state­ment I had writ­ten in a blog post. On Twit­ter and Face­book, no edi­tors call you up to check the accu­ra­cy of your state­ments; you can sim­ply post what­ev­er you want. 

The Huff­in­g­ton Post, how­ev­er, goes to great lengths to decide what can be writ­ten for the site so that its con­tent appears pro­fes­sion­al and equal in qual­i­ty to con­tent writ­ten for sites that do pay all of their writ­ers. The columns of paid Huff­in­g­ton Post reporters appear side by side next to many unpaid blog­gers— mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for most read­ers to tell what con­tent is pro­duced by paid writ­ers and unpaid writers. 

Final­ly, the Huff­in­g­ton Post impos­es very strict stan­dards of con­duct on its blog­gers to pro­tect its rep­u­ta­tion as a pro­fes­sion­al jour­nal­is­tic pub­li­ca­tion. Andrew Bre­it­bart was demot­ed as a front-page blog­ger because of what he said about pro­gres­sive activist Van Jones in an inter­view with the Dai­ly Caller. And in my case, as Huff­in­g­ton Post Exec­u­tive Busi­ness Edi­tor Peter Good­man told me upon fir­ing” me, You pulled a stunt and dam­aged our rep­u­ta­tion and that’s why you’re not writ­ing for us anymore.”

So is the Huff­in­g­ton Post a social media site as it likes to claim while defend­ing its pol­i­cy of not pay­ing writ­ers? Or is the web­site a pro­fes­sion­al jour­nal­is­tic enti­ty? Legal­ly speak­ing, the answer is unclear. But what is clear is that the ambi­gu­i­ty of the employ­ment rela­tion­ship of Huff­in­g­ton blog­gers allows the web­site to prof­it off unpaid blog­gers’ writing.

The larg­er trend toward unpaid labor 

In cre­ative indus­tries such as jour­nal­ism or the arts, work­ers have always worked for lit­tle or noth­ing in order to gain the expo­sure need­ed to fur­ther their career. But the use of unpaid work is spread­ing beyond cre­ative indus­tries as a new gen­er­a­tion hunts for jobs in a dif­fi­cult economy. 

Accord­ing to Paving the Way Through Paid Intern­ships,” a report by Demos and the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute (EPI) pub­lished last year, in 1992, only 9 per­cent of grad­u­at­ing col­lege stu­dents had held an intern­ship. By 2006, 83 per­cent of grad­u­at­ing col­lege stu­dents had held an intern­ship. The EPI esti­mates that at least 2.5 mil­lion stu­dents work each year as interns, with any­where from one-fourth to one-half of all interns work­ing unpaid — often in vio­la­tion of many state and fed­er­al labor laws for­bid­ding such practices.

But it’s not just young work­ers that are work­ing for free in the hope of even­tu­al­ly gain­ing a job anymore.

We real­ized what a big prob­lem this was when we start­ed dis­cov­er­ing mid­dle age work­ers who had been laid off that were work­ing unpaid for six months as a try­out peri­od for a com­pa­ny, while col­lect­ing their unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits in order to get by,” says EPI Vice Pres­i­dent Ross Eisen­brey. Work­ers who remained unem­ployed for long peri­od of times often face dis­crim­i­na­tion because employ­ers feel those work­ers have lost skills; thus many unem­ployed work­ers choose to work unpaid for com­pa­nies in order to gain skills and to make their resumes look better.

Unpaid labor — whether in the form of interns or unpaid Huff­in­g­ton Post blog­gers — is an extreme form of anoth­er trend in America’s work­force: the shift away from full-time offi­cial employ­ees (with ben­e­fits) to inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors. A few decades ago, near­ly all work­ers were clas­si­fied as full-time employ­ees, not inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors, who are inel­i­gi­ble for health­care and retire­ment ben­e­fits and denied key rights such as unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion insur­ance, min­i­mum wage and over­time laws, and, most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the right to join a union. Now, the Depart­ment of Labor esti­mates that 30 per­cent of all com­pa­nies mis­clas­si­fy employ­ees as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors in order to avoid pay­ing ben­e­fits to work­ers and giv­ing work­ers these ben­e­fits and rights.

While some promi­nent labor-fund­ed pro­gres­sives, such as for­mer Sec­re­tary of Labor Robert Reich, Amer­i­can Prospect Exec­u­tive Edi­tor Robert Kut­tner, and sev­er­al indi­vid­u­als from Cam­paign for America’s Future have con­tin­ued to blog at the Huff­in­g­ton Post—in vio­la­tion of the NWU/TNG pick­et line — union lead­ers such as AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka, USW Pres­i­dent Leo Ger­ard, and UAW Pres­i­dent Bob King strong­ly back the Huff­in­g­ton boy­cott because they real­ize the dra­mat­ic effect that Ari­an­na Huffington’s labor prac­tices could have on all work­ers, not just jour­nal­ists and oth­er writers. 

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,” said Iron­work­ers Local 377 mem­ber Mike Daly at San Francisco’s Labor Fest, after a pan­el titled Blog­ging, Jour­nal­ism, The Net & Free Labor.”

A divide now exists in many work­places between employ­ees clas­si­fied as reg­u­lar full-time employ­ees with full ben­e­fits and rights, and employ­ees doing sim­i­lar jobs but clas­si­fied as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors. With the rise of a new gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple often forced to work as an unpaid interns in order to gain a job, how long will be it before a sim­i­lar divide emerges in the work­place between work­ers who are paid and work­ers who are deemed unwor­thy of being paid?

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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