I fear for students who plan on entering the brave new world of media.
Although journalism professionals and academics teaching journalism and non-fiction writing often believe there will be more opportunities for writers in the future because of the internet and new technology, that optimism has to be qualified when you look at the media deal that was done between Adrianna Huffington and AOL Corp for a cool $315 million.
All for her, none for most of her staff.
Since Huffington Post has been built on the backs of writers who exchange national exposure for no pay, the question now becomes, will those who write for the new company be compensated for their effort? Well, if you look at the model so far and how well it has worked for HuffPo, why change now? And, since Huffington herself will head the new company, it's unlikely she will volunteer pay and benefits for existing or new recruits.
In fact, the memo that went out to the thousands who blog for Huffington basically said "thanks" for all the hard work and, by the way, expect nothing more than an expanded readership. "Thank you," Arianna Huffington wrote, "for being such a vital part of the HuffPost family—which has suddenly gotten a whole lot bigger."
This has been going on since 2005 when Huffington launched the Post, which really is little more than an aggregator and blogging site with some paid reporters and editors. Brilliantly, Huffington has capitalized on free labor and she just pocketed the rewards.
Bloomberg's BusinessWeek interviewed Roy Sekoff, HuffPo's founding editor who said bloggers and writers came to them for exposure, not pay. And the site does have paid employees:
"Currently, the Huffington Post has 255 paid employees, including 148 editorial staffers. Sekoff says the site invests much time and money in preparing bloggers' submissions for publication—editing the content, optimizing it for search engines, and moderating the millions of comments attached to posts every month. "It's a symbiotic relationship," says Sekoff."
Huffington's new business partner, AOL, doesn't offer much hope for decent pay, either. AOL put a reported $50 million into starting Patch, a network of hyperlocal "bureaus" that put out the hiring call last year for editors and reporters.
But there, too, if you don't have much experience, you are likely to be a reporter—not an editor—in one of these markets and get about $50 a piece.
Students realize that there are plenty of places to park their writing, but the prospect of little or no pay really hasn't sunk in yet. Unlike journalists who were starting out 30 years ago—many of them now out of real journalism jobs—the pay was low but it was a regular salary and it often came with benefits. Young writers stayed long enough to get smart and they moved on to better professional opportunities and usually, better pay. Not great pay, but better.
Freelancing never was a great way to make a living wage but it really wasn't until Huffington came along that the idea that professionals should write for free insidiously took hold. Plus the site constantly brags that big name contributors beg to be posted by HuffPo.
Of course, there still are writing jobs, on and off the internet, that do pay. Just not as much as Huffington put in her pocket.
Cindy Skrzycki is a Worldview correspondent for GlobalPost and has been a business writer and columnist for 30 years. She is also a senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh.