The Huffington Post is the Judas goat of journalism
The job market is tough these days but I still wouldn’t apply to slip on the fleecy suit of the Judas goat. The smartest of the dumb herd, the Judas goat is trained to hang out with the rest of the beasts at the slaughterhouse and get them comfortable. When the time comes it leads them onto the killing floor. They stay there and it walks out to dupe another set of startled sheep.
Judas goats aren’t so popular with slaughter house owners any more. In fact, in the EU using the duplicitous bleating bastards is now illegal. But the principle of the Judas goat has migrated to other industries, to professions where endless internships and paid staff encouraging others to contribute to money-making enterprises for no cash and the promise of that often worthless currency ‘exposure’ is painfully common.
I consider the Huffington Post to be a massive $300m pen of Judas goats. Another working journalist compared staffers there to how Bill Hicks saw rockstars doing Pepsi cola commercials and his excoriating rant against Jay Leno who turned from sharp-eyed comic observer to a parcel shelf ornament listlessly chatting to Joey Lawrence (“A company man to the bitter end.”).
To me, the Huffington Post is one giant Judas goat. As the number of available jobs diminishes, it’s a pen provided by Arianna Huffington, a pen burnished by AOL’s money and a growing army of celebrity bloggers who can jot some words down to promote their latest product and demonstrate their political savvy.
The Huffington Post does have some staff journalists producing decent journalism but their work sits surrounded by the products of an endlessly churning ‘content repurposing’ operation. The machine gobbles up stories from other sites, fillets the copy and slaps a new headline on top with a link below. In hell, one of the rooms is dedicated to forcing you to click through Huffington Post gallery stories on celebrity looks.
“Why are you writing this now?”, you might ask, you endlessly inquisitive little scamp. Because on Wednesday, as I was watching a Huffington Post UK editor-in-chief, Carla Buzasi, being questioned at the Leveson Inquiry and tweeting my responses, a Huffington Post staff member fired a shot back at me.
I’ve only met him once, when I was still writing for the old AOL TV UK site, before it was evaporated like Alderaan by the HuffPo death ray with several other sites. The few survivors were ferried to the mines where the memory of the fees they once received were like myths passed along in samizdat copies of cancelled freelance contracts.
The occasion of my meeting with the HuffPo loyalist (as well he might be given that they pay his wages) was at a conference where Arianna Huffington and AOL CEO Tim Armstrong had appeared onstage to discuss the imminent launch of Huffington Post UK. I had asked a question from the floor about the ethics of running a profit making entity and expecting professional journalists to write for free.
Afterwards, a small group of AOL editors, including Our Man In Huff Town, were genuinely shocked that I had questioned Arianna. I did it politely. I genuinely wanted to know her answer. It all boiled down to “exposure”.
I’m not going to name the editor I had my discussion with yesterday because he’s a nice guy and I’d defend where I worked if I was him. When I worked at Stuff, I swore that I could never work at T3 (the rival tech mag) despite the fact that people had hopped back and forth more times than Peter Andre has been photographed with a ‘mysterious blonde’. But while I’m going with the no names, no pack drill policy, the conversation we had bothered me a lot.
It all kicked off from a tweet I sent which read: “‘AOL bought the Huffington Post for $315m dollars…this is big business isn’t it?’ It’s a feudal empire, that’s what it is #leveson” Hardly Pulitzer-worthy media analysis but enough to spark a response from the HuffPo editor. He said: “How’s things going since you stopped working for AOL?”
Since he follows me on Twitter, he well knows how things have been going since around that time. To overstretch the Star Wars analogy from earlier, for about six months I have been sat in the Millennium Falcon, hiding on an asteroid, waiting for the Empire to piss off. Only my asteroid is, in fact, Dublin.
A back-and-forth between the Unnamed HuffPo Editor (this is getting a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?) and I went on, in which he noted that the sites he’d worked for prior to HuffPo UK launching were shutdown upon its arrival. He applied for a job at HuffPo and got it. His point was that I didn’t try to do that. He’s right, I didn’t. For a number of reasons including my disquiet about the Huffington Post’s business model and its approach to crediting the rest of the web, which is at best flakey.
I’m not going to paint this guy as someone “just following orders” as I’ve got no desire to Godwin myself into a gibbering wreck on my own blog. But while I well understand his irritation at what he deemed my dismissal of all his website’s content as “bland”, I do think a lot of it is.
While the Huffington Post did create a number of new journalism jobs it also took a lot of freelance away from other writers and is continuing to foster a culture where the notion of ‘exposure’ from a big site like HuffPo is meant to be enough to make up for the lack of real life tokens that can buy things like baked beans and brown sauce.
A few months before my column was compacted into virtual landfill with the rest of the AOL TV website, HuffPo did ask me to keep writing it on their site. Initially that meant a tricksy arrangement where it was published in both places and I still got paid.
Eventually that came to an end and the fee stopped. With it, went the title Mic Wright’s Remotely Furious, replaced with the more boring Mic Wright’s TV week. Eventually I stopped submitting copy, disillusioned that a relatively popular column, which had previously been a paid gig, had now become a free blog post stuck in the far corner of a cluttered explosion of content.
The point in my slightly heated discussion with the Man From Del HuffPost (“He say: no fee!”) that got to me and left me boiling over with frustration at my desk was when he said: “If [your column] was well-received enough, you’d have been continued to be paid for it. No need to shit over everyone else’s hard work.”
The kicker there is that in admonishing me for ‘shitting on everyone else’s hard work’, he was shitting on mine. It’s also a comment that deliberately ignores the HuffPo business model. I wasn’t on staff, so I wouldn’t get paid. The merits of the column were beside the point.
You could argue that for someone continuing to seek new ways to make money from their writing to put this kind of sentiment out there is foolish. In some ways, posting this is like Randy Quaid’s suicide mission at the end of Independence Day. I’m flying my battered F15 into the centre of Arianna’s death-ray (what’s not to like about hyperbolic analogies using awful films, in which I’m presented as some self-sacrificing hero rather than a man complaining needlessly on a blog?).
The thing is, I strongly believe the Huffington Post is the Judas Goat of journalism. It’s a major actor in a drift towards a general belief that the vast majority of writers don’t deserve to be paid for what they do and that it’s fine for a company that makes money not to share its wins with people who contribute to them.
While Arianna Huffington was in Davos bibbling on about the merits of openness and community and helping those in need, she’s heading up a enterprise that doesn’t believe in offering rewards for hard work. Arianna’s world is a world of infinite interns.
When Buzasi delivered a touching homily on how Arianna struggled to make the original Huffington Post site work in the beginning I spat water all over my laptop screen. She was already a multimillionaire from an elite background by the time she harnessed her celebrity contacts to found the Huffington Post.
I’m sorry if my comparison of the Huffington Post to the Judas goat offends people employed there but that’s how I sincerely see their business model. And to me, the idea of defending an outlet that voraciously repackages other people’s content and is happy to build itself on free labour is a lot more offensive than anything I’ve written in this post.