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The Huffington Post: New-media equivalent of an antebellum plantation?

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You might have heard about the Huffington Post being sold to AOL for around $315 million. The internet was “virtually queefing” about it yesterday. Unfortunately, now that the vaginal farts have stopped and the dust has settled, we’re getting slavery metaphors.

Huffington Post runs its organization like an “antebellum plantation.” Now, I can’t take credit for that particular bit of wordsmithery — that comes from the mighty keyboard of a man named Tim Rutten who works for a real news organization, The Los Angeles Times. In an editorial with the cutesy-poo title AOL ♥ HuffPo. The loser? Journalism, Mr. Rutten isn’t afraid to risk looking completely stupid as he lays it all on the line:

The other partner to this dubious arrangement is the Huffington Post, which is a new-media marvel of ingenuity, combining a mastery of editing geared to game the search engines that stimulate Web traffic and overhead that would shame an antebellum plantation. The bulk of the site’s content is provided by commentators, who work for nothing other than the opportunity to champion causes or ideas to which they’re devoted. Most of the rest of the content is “aggregated” — which is to say stolen — from the newspapers and television networks that pay journalists to gather and edit the news.

Huffington Post is a news aggregator that has engendered some resentment for its business practices. Basically, Huffington Post is Reader’s Digest for liberals on the internet. They condense stories from other sources, and readers get the gist of the story without having to actually leave Huffington Post.

The difference is that Reader’s Digest pays for what it condenses. So, yes, Huffington Post can be likened (metaphorically) to thieves.

Reader’s Digest also pays its contributors. Huffington Post doesn’t. That, in Mr. Rutten’s eyes, makes the moral equivalent to antebellum plantation owners. The people who owned slaves. It’s a striking metaphor, particularly during the month of February, when we’re all encouraged to remember and honor the accomplishments of black Americans.

Mr. Rutten’s words really make you think. Great writers make you think. Also, they expect to get paid — it’s not enough to “champion a cause or idea to which they’re devoted.” Obviously, Mr. Rutten doesn’t touch a keyboard unless he’s making some scratch.

So, Mr. Rutten wants some money. But how does he expect the company for which he works to make the money that it pays him? In his editorial, he references

a memo from AOL Chief Executive Officer Tim Armstrong on where his company’s journalism is going. It’s fairly chilling reading, ordering the company’s editors to evaluate all future stories on the basis of “traffic potential, revenue potential, edit quality and turnaround time.” All stories, it stressed, are to be evaluated according to their “profitability consideration.” All AOL’s journalistic employees will be required to produce “five to 10 stories per day.”

It’s “chilling” that a website wants to get traffic. It’s “chilling” that a website wants to be profitable.

Mr. Rutten writes for the Los Angeles Times.

He writes for a newspaper.

Has he seen a newspaper? It is an advertising delivery mechanism.

The problem of the daily press in the U.S. is exclusively this: the collapse of its business model. That model used to be, plainly put, making money—a lot of money, oceans of money—delivering advertising on newsprint into peoples’ homes. Subscribers didn’t pay for news. Advertisers did.

Remember “shoppers,” the poorly designed throwaway publications filled with tacky little ads? Daily newspapers are high-end shoppers. They spent a lot of money on original content to class up the operation and give people a reason to ask for the ads to be delivered. Long before the web displayed the power and leverage of critical mass, newspapers benefited from it; once you got the franchise in your particular locale, you tried not to stir up trouble, because it just distracted you from time better spent cashing checks.

Some people liked the news, sure; most thought they were paying for it. And some papers spent more money on news than they had to. But the papers weren’t selling the news. They were selling ads and charging a lot of money for them because of one thing only: They held an informal monopoly on a societal convention whereby they deposited those ads—around which they wrapped some reporting, some of it serious, some of it fluff—on subscribers’ driveways.

Advertising pays for Mr. Rutten’s words. How many people do you know who only buy the Sunday paper, because of all the coupons and Target fliers? And how many people do you know who buy it to read Mr. Rutten’s latest, most scintillating thoughts?

If Huffington Post is really worth $315 million, then I would hope that some of that money would make it to the contributors in some way. People who don’t like the fact that they’re not directly paid in cash money by Huffington Post are free to leave. Some have. But comparing to slaves the people who voluntarily write opinion pieces for a website that has millions of viewers a day, simply for the love of “championing a cause or idea to which they’re devoted,” is absolutely ludicrous. He can’t imagine anyone writing for anything other than money.  And if Mr. Rutten’s writing is typical of what can be found in the other pages of the Los Angeles Times, I’ll stick to the Target flyers.

Ricky Sprague occasionally writes and/or draws things. He sometimes animates things. He has a Twitter account and he has a blog. He scripted this graphic novel about Kolchak The Night Stalker. He is really, really good at putting links in bios.
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2 Responses to “The Huffington Post: New-media equivalent of an antebellum plantation?”

  1. As soon as a man opens his mouth – or keeps it shut – one can determine his temperment. However said man can deny and lie in the absence of witnesses. The thing about writing is its ad infinitum presence. When a man writes a word the world can qualify his opinion. Said man can denounce his own words – out of context – at his leisure.

    Tim Rutten and the LA Times have told the world what they think of antebellum slavery – and as you pointed out; during Black History Month. Rutten has also told the world what he thinks when somebody else makes bank. There’s plenty like him.

    I don’t live in LA and I’ve never seen a copy of their Times but now I know the kind of writers they hire.

    I don’t want to know what kind of adverts they run.

  2. American newspapers are a crock and I take their bleating about loss of revenue with a giant pinch of salt. If they weren’t so pious and tedious and predictable they might sell a few more copies anyway.

    On the other hand, I think there is something distasteful about the Huff sale. I have no problem writing for free for people who aren’t making money off my free labor. But if someone is making millions from the freely given free labor of others then they’re not slaves, obviously, but simply suckers.

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