HuffPo writers strike- why Arianna Huffington’s wildly successful media empire is harmful to web workers

Off the bat, I will admit to having an intense girl-crush on Arianna Huffington.

I’ve been an ardent fan of both Politically Incorrect and Real Time with Bill Maher for a decade and a half, and I find Huffington’s passionate pleas on behalf of the exploited middle and working class during her frequent appearances to be moving, convincing and compelling. Admittedly, I haven’t read two of her books dealing with the issue, “Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption Are Undermining America” and “Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream,” but both have been on my “want to read” list for quite a while.

And when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert responded to internet demand for an anti-Tea Party (and thus, really, anti-corporatist) rally on the National Mall last fall, Arianna was there to bus my whole city to the protests on the HuffPo’s dime. I wanted to cover her sweet, aging-resistant face with kisses.

So why is she so hell-bent on not paying writers?

Despite Huffington’s massive financial coup in selling her well-trafficked namesake property to AOL a month ago, HuffPo has a minor image problem on the internet. The site has been lambasted time and time again for a few large issues with which it is associated- one being low-quality content based on search trends, and one being reposting something that is already posted elsewhere (Stewart poked fun at this facet just after the rally buses were announced on his show, and Colbert has even created the “Colbuffington Repost” to repost the reposting.)

Perhaps the most frequently recurring bad press Huffington and the HuffPo is subject to, however, surrounds treatment of the very people who supply the content that enabled such a big cash infusion in February. The site’s big name writers- celebrities, politicians and their ilk- are not the ones driving traffic to the site in numbers enough to support it. It’s an army of unpaid freelancers who better know which topics are currently driving traffic right now- writers the vocally anti-exploitation Huffington laughs at when confronted with the idea that perhaps they should be compensated for the work they put in to power her very-successful blog empire.

When asked late last week at a conference about HuffPo contributors calling for a strike, Huffington pooh-poohed the idea that writers should be paid, and likened the free labor to a high profile television appearance:

She argued that blogging on the Huffington Post is equivalent to going on Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart or the “Today” show to promote their ideas.

And, she said, there are plenty of people willing to take their place if they do.

“The idea of going on strike when no one really notices,” Huffington said. “Go ahead, go on strike.”

The issue is sticky, to be sure, and many hobbyist writers are happy to do decent quality work in exchange for exposure (quick: name a HuffPo writer than isn’t Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman or Russell Simmons.) And I speak from a point of great bias- as you know, I am a full-time blogger myself. To say I frequently reflect upon how lucky I was to receive my first real writing gig from an editor that not only treats me more fairly and compensates me more proportionately than any on-site employer I have had in my nearly 32 years of life is an understatement, and being able to afford to do what I do is a luxury I never take for granted. The fact of the matter remains, though, that if writers are not compensated for their efforts, no one could possibly afford to be a singularly-focused, dedicated writer for the web- a circumstance Huffington seems fine with perpetuating and even helping to establish as a new media model of revenue.

It’s not just Huffington’s writers that suffer from her notion that the amount of time spent culling, researching, editing and adding images to content is not worth any sort of compensation whatsoever- writers everywhere who must turn to the web in increasing numbers to supplement plummeting interest and employment opportunities in old media and print are similarly harmed. To devalue this emerging profession at this critical time is not just harmful to the writers currently locked into being compensated unfairly or just not at all in this horrific job market, it’s setting the stage for grossly under-compensating the people who will provide content for the web in the future-and ensuring that people who wish to pursue this sort of work will never be able to do so as a full-time job.

Given Huffington’s repeated dismissal of the idea she pay her writers even a pittance, it’s unlikely she will revise this stance in the near future. Which is a shame, because it really does serve to undermine her many valid points about the poor treatment of regular working schmucks in this country, and the wealthy people determined to profit off their hard work guiltlessly while pocketing massive profits.