Op-Ed, 652 words

Volunteer Writers May Be Part of Journalism’s Future

HuffPo writers need not only a platform--but cash as well.

Jason Salzman

I’m a volunteer blogger for the Huffington Post.

I have a job writing for other entities, but I submit my work to the popular website for free to push my writing further into the blogosphere.

HuffPo relies on volunteers. It has a core staff of about 150 paid journalists, but much of the site’s content comes from volunteers like me, for free.

Last month, a group of Huffington Post volunteer bloggers told Arianna Huffington that they want to be paid, or at least talk about being paid.

Their demand came after AOL purchased the Huffington Post for $315 million.

These bloggers called on the rest of HuffPo’s volunteer bloggers to stop submitting their work.

They asked bloggers like me not to cross their “virtual picket line.” In other words, they asked me to stop volunteering.

The virtual picket-line organizers didn’t ask volunteer writers who submit content to other media blogs and publications to stop submitting their writing to those outlets too.

One way “new media” entities are surviving, whether they make money or not, is to solicit content like articles, photos, and columns from the public.

Sometimes this work is edited and sometimes it’s not, as you can see on many blogs that happily accept some of the worst and most vitriolic commentaries you can imagine. (A bad combination, I know, but it works for some blogs.)

The question is, if an online entity makes money, should it share some of that revenue with its freelancers?

The question is complicated by the fact that many volunteers would love to be paid. Look at all the volunteers for the United Way, whose staff makes decent money. Or for political campaigns.

You might think it’s crazy for volunteers to demand payment and call a strike, especially if the volunteers didn’t first organize their fellow volunteers, take a vote, and then collectively demand wages.

I certainly thought so. Then I found out that the virtual picket line at the Huffington Post was endorsed by the Newspaper Guild, the union that represents journalists nationwide.

Why would it support a “strike” like this?

“We think we’re in a critical phase of reinvention in journalism,” Guild President Bernie Lunzer told me. “We want to tackle the question of the value of our work before there’s an assumption that writers take a vow of poverty to do their craft. It really has more to do with a critical moment than anything. That’s really the point of this.”

It’s a desperate time for journalism, as big-city newspapers bleed jobs and revenue, serious news outlets offer more mayhem and fluff, and a model to support journalism on the web has not materialized.

Journalism is dying and few people seem to care. Even fewer are doing anything about it.

So, yes, you can make a case that the Huffington Post, with its influx of AOL money, should hire more journalists and pay more of its contributors.

And you can also make a really good case that Arianna Huffington herself should meet with the organizers of the virtual picket line. That’s one of their central goals. But she has refused, Lunzer told me.

All this made me want to join the bloggers and support their cause. I thought about not posting anything for a month as a symbolic show of support for the Newspaper Guild and for paid journalism.

But I couldn’t convince myself that my volunteerism was in fact hurting journalism.

The Huffington Post isn’t the problem. In fact, a hybrid of professional journalists and volunteer writers may be part of the solution.

Still, it’s true that writers need not only a platform–but cash as well.

I hope Arianna Huffington gets the message. I hope Republicans attacking National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting get the message. I hope anyone who hires a freelance writer gets the message.

But lashing out at the Huffington Post doesn’t seem like the way to go.

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A former media critic for the Rocky Mountain News, Jason Salzman is board chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch and author of Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits. www.bigmedia.org