Newspaper Guild Boycott Call for Huffington Post Will Go Nowhere

Last Updated Mar 18, 2011 12:36 AM EDT

The Newspaper Guild, a media workers union with 26,000 members, has called for unpaid Huffington Post bloggers to boycott the site because of its "unprofessional and unethical practices." The Guild has requested a meeting with HuffPo management, but so far has been ignored.

Not surprising. Huffington Post doesn't want to involve the Guild, which represents neither the paid staff nor the unpaid contributors. However, the situation isn't neatly black and white, with the Guild wearing the dazzling alabaster hat. Both sides ignore certain uncomfortable and unflattering things.

The Guild is certainly on its high moral horse in calling for unpaid bloggers contributing to HuffPo to lay down their keyboards:
We feel it is unethical to expect trained and qualified professionals to contribute quality content for nothing. It is unethical to cannibalize the investment of other organizations that bear the cost of compensation and other overhead without payment for the usage of their content. It is extremely unethical to not merely blur but eradicate the distinction between the independent and informed voice of news and opinion and the voice of a shill.
Although it starts with attention on the bloggers -- many, maybe even most, of whom aren't the trained professional journalists or writers addressed -- notice how the the reference shifts from them to organizations that benefit from the work of others. That's code for aggregation of material from publications that employ writers, photographers, and graphic artists who work under Guild contracts.

That's the real focus, not the bloggers that, after all, HuffPo has used for years. There's never been a squeak from the Guild in the past. If it were so concerned about unpaid writers, why not do something before? Why not look at Forbes.com or Salon's Open Salon? Perhaps the organization hopes to gain something for itself and its members from the current attention on AOL and Huffington Post.

On HuffPo's side, I got a response from Mario Ruiz, senior vice president of media relations. Here's part of it:
We couldn't agree more with your goal of ensuring journalists are paid for their work. It's why HuffPost has 143 editors, writers, and reporters on our edit team. But we feel there's a critical distinction between our editors and reporters and the people who contribute to our group blog. While we pay our editors and reporters, we don't pay for the opinion pieces submitted by our thousands of bloggers. The vast majority of our bloggers understand the value of having a platform that reaches a very large audience. People blog on HuffPost for free for the same reason they go on cable TV shows every night for free â€" because they are passionate about their ideas, want them to be heard by the largest possible audience, and understand the value that that kind of visibility can bring (the visibility of being on HuffPost has led to our bloggers being invited on TV to discuss their posts, to paid speeches, to book deals, to a TV show â€" Greg Gutfeld claims he was offered his Fox show because of his writing on HuffPost). Our bloggers can choose to write for HuffPost â€" or not write for HuffPost. They can write as often as like they like or as little as they like. It's both wrong and offensive to insist that HuffPost is exploiting journalists.
Let's break this down. First, the company does have paid editorial staff. There are no demands or schedules placed on the bloggers, and relatively few of them are "professional" writers. That said, the entire argument about making a platform available is questionable.

There is an enormous difference between going on a television show and blogging for the Huffington Post. First, people are only on television briefly, and it's a rare person whose appearance will make a significant difference to a show. Also, even on a cable talking heads show, there is at least some visibility.

HuffPo blogs are something else entirely. Although the company may want to frame them as giving people a chance for exposure, the site benefits greatly from their presence. Having that much new material go up on a regular basis has significant search engine optimization value, whether or not many people go to those individual pages. It's like Demand Media (DMD) paying tiny amounts to many writers to generate huge amounts of content. The mere presence of the content helps give all pages on the site higher search engine rankings.

Higher rankings, in turn, means that HuffPo has prominent placement in search results and, thus, gets a lot of traffic. Furthermore, for the vast majority of HuffPo boggers, there is no visibility. The promises that Arianna Huffington has dangled at times about how many visitors the site gets are misdirection. The visitors go to the news sections. A handful of blogs are well read. Most get next to no traffic.

Unless you do the analysis I did last October, or that Nate Silver did on the New York Times web site in February, there is no way to know this. From what I've learned from inside sources, the bloggers do not get traffic reports. They just assume that they'll get a significant piece of the traffic pie. Huffington, who clearly does get traffic reports, is happy to never disturb their uninformed reverie. When asked about bloggers striking early in March, Huffington herself told them to go ahead because no one would notice. Ah, a brief moment of truth. But that was clearly a mistake. Much of what you'll hear from either HuffPo or the Guild on this issue will be spin for their own purposes.

Related: Image: Flickr user SEIU Local 1, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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