When Distribution Is Compensation
Over in Advertising Age, Simon Dumenco is irritated that Syracuse University’s j-school is going to give Arianna Huffington a lifetime-achievement award. The reason? The Huffington Post doesn’t pay its bloggers — and if its co-founder Ken Lerer sticks to his guns, it apparently doesn’t intend to ever do so. Dumenco is still steaming about this rather blunt quote Lerer gave USA Today in late 2007 when asked about compensation: “That’s not our financial model. We offer them visibility, promotion and distribution with a great company.” In fact, Dumenco is now more livid, since he thinks the Huffington Post is now beyond break-even and making money.
It’s pretty easy to get me worked up about most anything, but I’m having trouble joining Dumenco at the barricades on this one: His is a “what should happen” argument, one that strikes me as based on civic principles rather than economic ones.
The idea that journalists are now brands is an old one on this blog — heck, it’s a category — and the dark side of that is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
Earlier this spring, I spent two days at McGraw-Hill’s Media Summit, and one of the most interesting speakers was Smokey Fontaine, a veteran of the magazine world who’s now Interactive One’s chief content officer. Fontaine talked about having come to the online world expecting that compensation for online content would be a small slice of compensation in the magazine world, only to discover that in fact, that compensation was … nothing. In the new online order, he said, journalists were brands. So were online publishers — and what the little brands got was a chance to piggyback on the bigger ones.
“It’s a distribution deal for journalists,” he said, then added: “We are all freelancers now.”
A few weeks ago, I was down in Florida at the Poynter Institute, talking to a room full of young sportswriters about blogs. One of the questions I addressed was why a young, ambitious reporter should serve an apprenticeship covering high-school sports (or night cops, or whatever) when he or she could have a blog up and running in minutes, expounding on anything desired before a potentially global audience. The Internet really is the world’s greatest talent show, so why not sign up for it instead of trying to climb an industry ladder that seems to have more and more broken rungs?
By way of an answer, I used the New York Mets blog I co-write with my friend Greg Prince as a cautionary tale. A typical month’s traffic on Faith and Fear in Flushing is around 200,000 page views for more than 60,000 distinct hosts. We’re not the Huffington Post, but by most measures we’re a pretty big blog. We started Faith and Fear while I was still a columnist at the Wall Street Journal Online, and one of the ground rules for that arrangement was that we wouldn’t try to monetize the blog. With those ground rules no longer applicable, Greg and I probably will put ads on the blog sometime this year. But our dreams are pitifully modest — to be able to cover our server costs and stop running Faith and Fear as a charity.
Financially, Faith and Fear has been a sinkhole — Greg and I have no chance of being able to be full-time bloggers, even though most bloggers would kill for our numbers. But that’s an awfully narrow way of measuring its success. During our first year of writing for Faith and Fear, Greg and I appeared on SNY, the Mets’ TV network, and became sources for Mets writers — and Greg got a book deal for his memoirs of life as a particularly intense fan.
Faith and Fear has been a lousy money-maker, but it’s been a terrific billboard for Greg and me as writers. Our writing on the blog hasn’t directly paid us one thin dime, but it has created other opportunities — and some of those opportunities have come with chances to make money. Albeit on a different scale, it’s the same deal the Huffington Post offers its bloggers: Distribution that could lead to contribution.
Accepting this isn’t the same as liking it: Smokey Fontaine didn’t seem particularly happy about his analysis, and the reception to the Media Summit panel ran the gamut from sullen to stricken. Life under the distribution-drives-compensation model forces journalists to be brands, to get good at selling, to become hawkers of themselves as wares, and a lot of us rebel against the idea.
But Arianna Huffington didn’t create that model any more than Smokey Fontaine or a lot of unpaid bloggers like me and Greg did. Rather, the Internet revolutionized the distribution of journalism, which created a huge boom in its supply, which in turn gave a big advantage to the most-powerful distributors. Arianna Huffington may not deserve an award for having exploited that particularly well, but I fail to see why she deserves condemnation.