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Daily Connect: An Ethical Dilemma - Should I Write for Huffington Post Again?

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As you may know, the Huffington Post was recently sold by Arianna Huffington and other owners for $315 million to AOL. Huffington herself, a minority partner, is apparently making somewhere between $14 and $30 million off the deal.

This has stirred up something of a controversy, since bloggers who provide the content for the site are not paid for their work. Huffington is now being sued by 9000 of those unpaid bloggers, led by Jonathan Tasini

Huffington wrote a counterpoint as to the lack of merits of the lawsuit.

I have written four or five articles for Huffington Post, all of which have gotten a fair amount of attention, and the last two (Radical Buddhism and Mindful Social Networking) have gotten a lot of views. It's a great way to be part of a larger conversation in this globalized world.

Huffington argues very compellingly that there's no legal merits to the lawsuit, since no contract with a blogger has ever been violated. She writes:

"The key point that the lawsuit completely ignores (or perhaps fails to understand) is how new media, new technologies, and the linked economy have changed the game, enabling millions of people to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation -- from couch potato to self- expression."

I think she's absolutely write, legally.

But then there's that little thing that we seem to want to pretend doesn't exist - ethics. If an interdependent entity such as Huffington Post has arisen due to the work of thousands of people and the shared experience of millions, then how right is it for a tiny group to profit that much from a widely shared experience?

Do I want to write my next article for AOL, or do I want to help support and create platforms of interdependent ownership where both experience and benefits are more widely shared? I am unsure what to do.

This sounds like a question for What Would Sid Do (who also blogs for Huffpo). :~)


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Shirky and Rushkoff

This reminds me of a passage from Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody":

"Linus Torvalds offered Linux under the GPL because that was a way of assuring the developers that their work could never be taken from them. This was an important way he communicated his bona fides years before Linux was valuable enough to appropriate; Torvalds took this step early on to specifically forgo any possibility in the future that he could change his mind and patent or sell Linux. It became valuable precisely because he offered a bargain that limited his future freedom; adoption of the GPL was a serious token of his commitment. [The threat of alternate versions of Wikipedia] was enough to convince Jimmy Wales to formally forgo any future commercial plans for Wikipedia, and to move that site from Wikipedia.com to Wikipedia.org, in keeping with its nonprofit status. Similarly, he decided to adopt the GNU Free Documentation License for Wikipedia's content. As with Linus Torvald's adoption of a GNU license for Linux, the GFDL assured contributors that their contributions would remain freely available available, making them likelier to contribute...The creation of a formal guarantee that a site's content could never be alienated from its creators helped create the trust necessary for users to commit to it long term, even as it meant forgoing turning Wikipedia into a commercial offering."

So Linux and Wikipedia are thriving and vital in large part because of the actions they took to NOT alienate their contributors. It certainly seems, on the surface, that the sale of the Huffington Post is going the opposite direction, seeking to profit at the risk of alienating its community, or at least putting the relationship into question, as per Ethan. This strikes me as part and parcel of a larger phenomenon taking place all over the web, as Douglas Rushkoff expresses in "Program or be Programmed":

"... [on the net], companies are making the same money off text, music and movies - simply by different means. Value is still being extracted from everyone who creates content that ends up freely viewable online - whether it's me writing this book or a blogger writing posts. It's simply not being passed down anymore. The search engine company still profits off the ads accompanying every search for a text...Value is still being extracted from the work - it's just being taken from a different place in the production cycle, and not passed to the creators themselves. Those of us who do create for a living are told the free labor will garner us exposure necessary to get paid for something else we do - like talks or television. Of course, the people hiring us to do those appearances believe they should get us for free as well, because our live performances will help publicize our books and movies. And so it goes, all the while being characterized as the new openness of a digital society, when in fact we are less open to one another than we are to exploitation from the usual suspects at the top of the traditional food chain."

A Buddhist perspective

HuffPost provided exposure and audience to bloggers.  Bloggers provided content to HuffPost.  Symbiosis -- both benefit.  The resulting synergy created value for Arianna, and she decided to sell.  Did she take anything that was not freely given?  I don't think so.

Along comes Mara the tempter, in the form of millions of dollars.  Craving arises.  If no one had known about the sale, no one would have filed a lawsuit.  And what is a lawsuit, anyway?  It's an attempt to take, by force of law, something not freely given.

I don't think it would be particularly skillful to stop writing for HuffPost to punish Arianna, or to support the bloggers who are trying to get their hands in her pockets.

I suspect that a lot of bloggers are less concerned about the money, and more worried about what is going to happen to HuffPost.  New ownership, perhaps new editorial policies.  Change, which creates uncertainty, and we don't like uncertainty.  But change is inevitable.  Nothing is permanent.

If you stop writing for HuffPost, many beings will be deprived of the good things you have to say.  If you continue to write for them, you will be doing your small part to influence the way the site changes, or doesn't. 

At some point, HuffPost may change in ways that offend the ideals that are important to you.  Or maybe the site owners become involved in activities that you find abhorrent.  That would be the appropriate time to stop writing for them.

These are very good points

If I stopped writing, it would certainly not be to punish, but rather to place support where my values lie.

worker ownership

this is primarily the reason why I believe more and more, that worker ownership is the most (possibly the only) ethical way to organise a company.

Profit equivalent to benefit?

Ethan, you note how the few have "profited" from the sale, while the many bloggers have not. Financially, it is true that the bloggers have not profited directly. Some may have profited financially indirectly.

In terms of what you share, it would seem that you have a key opportunity to benefit beings when your work is published in places where it has an opportunity to shift perspectives and so on. Huff Post seems like one place where your writing might be able to be of benefit to readership, who otherwise might not see such notions of viewing the world, and our place within it.

Of course, each time someone reads a piece on Huff Post it provides another opportunity for them to get back to IDP and its wealth of resources. And in so doing, that one person might make shifts that lead to greater happiness for themselves and all that they touch.

Thanks for asking for comment,
George D.

I respect your deliberation.

I like that you are analyzing whether or not it is ethical (or whatever term you choose) to keep writing for that site.

Unlike Facebook, whose owner has catagorically refused all offers of a buyout, Huffington Post was sold seemingly too quickly, and for too little.  That, in my opinion, is probably why many people are angry at the sale.  People volunteered for something they believed in.  They worked for a cause, for an ideal, and for the greater benefit of those who also contributed.  Now that the ownership has changed, questions of "why am I here?" arise.

If the IDP site were suddely sold in the same way to an organization in no way connected to the greater ideals of IDP, I would stop writing for it, because I wouldn't know what the ideals of that new company were.

On the other had, I stopped liking the Huffington Post a long time ago, because on the cover, it seems to be a news organization, but in my opinion, it is not.  That turned me off.

I know that you'll do what you think is best for all parties involved, so I wish you the best in your deliberation.

Also Important to Acknowledge

That the folks who work at Huffington Post are really friendly.

It always seems, when just a very few people profit so tremendously, that it also pits them against the people who work at a job, who then are called upon to defend their own work environment and loyalties. That's why it's so hard to raise these dilemmas in a truly open and honest format without villifying anyone. I truly isn't personal, but of course we take it personally because we are people :~)

Sure, continue

I agree with others here that bloggers have not been legally harmed.  It would have been *nice* if HuffPo had shared some of the money it made from the AOL sale with bloggers, but bloggers shouldn't have expected any of the money.  That's how much of the web works right now -- Facebook makes billions selling ads on content we post, do we expect to be paid?  Should we sue Facebook for our cut?

(If you set up your own blog and sell ads on it, you share the revenue with Google or Wordpress.com or whatever -- but that agreement is explicit and up-front.)

The difference appears to be that HuffPo looks like a news site, so bloggers expect to be paid like journalists, whereas Facebook, etc. look like "social networking" sites where we feel we're receiving value *from* the site, rather than providing value.  But economically and legally, there's little difference between HuffPo and Facebook.

So Ethan, I think if you feel you've received enough value from blogging for HuffPo to compensate you for the effort, then you should continue.  I don't think you have to boycott the site out of solidarity with the other bloggers.


I'm not sure "legally harmed" is the standard to apply in this discussion. we're talking ethics, not law. presumably law reflects ethics, but ... eh, not so much, I'd say. what you "should" do doesn't matter; what you do do is how you show what matters to you. personally, I have no legal obligation to be nice to people. maybe there is a social obligation, although it's not necessarily expected across the board. but, as much as possible, I am nice to people because I try to recognize that we all are inherently good, even if our confusion causes us to believe that we need to exploit or abuse other people to feel good about ourselves.

bloggers knew they weren't being paid, so I don't know that huffpo owes them anything. but from a standpoint of basic decency, the company that profits from their work does owe them something. on the other hand, it gave them exposure to many times more people than they would have reached otherwise, so maybe that's all it owes them.

I'm not that interested in the legal aspects of it, more in the attitudes that the dispute puts on display and how things play out going forward now that everyone knows how the other parties feel.

like most decisions, you have to weigh the harm and benefit to yourself and others. I think that I would not provide free content to a profit-making company -- just writing that makes me cringe, physically -- but I see the value in the wider exposure ethan can get for his ideas.

As someone who has worked in

As someone who has worked in media for a super long time, yes I have seen the tides change, in particular the ones away from how much talented, valuable people are compensated for thier work.  While I see the value in being able to spread the knowledge in such a large capacity - I personally think its becoming increasingly counterproductive for the smaller folks to basically hand over content to giant media companies who are making money hand over fist and not really being fair towards the people who provide content.  It devalues people's work and so many people I know who are talented and smart can no longer make a living doing what they love.  While I realize there will always be an endless parade of people willing to work for free or pennies I would hope that the smarter, more interesting ones realize it would make more sense to work with platforms and entites that are more egalitarian in how they operate.  I strongly believe and hope that a more interdependant way of working would be the way of the furture especially with media compainies merging and setting prices in ways I couldn't even imagine when I started my career.   

So true!

This is so true, and AOL's really been at the forefront of this with their network of Patch sites, where they basically pay freelancers a tuppence to work as independent, poorly-supported local news bureaus. It's a horrifying vision of the future of news media.


with your comment and the one above.

Huffington and Hypocrisy

I've long had misgivings about the disconnect between Ariana Hugginfton's economic rhetoric and her pesonal finances.

I applied for a six-month internship with the Huffington Post's religion section in New York City last summer. They were asking people to work 50 to 60 hours per week for $10 per hour without benefits. I've made that much working as a barrista in Cambridge, and it's hardly a living wage in New York City. Ironically, this was right arond the time that Ariana published "Third World America."

It reminds me of a quote from the Sigalovada Sutta:

"In five ways should an employer respect workers and servants . . . : 1) by allocating work according to their aptitude, 2) by providing them with wages and food, 3) by looking after them when they are sick, 4) by sharing special treats with them, and 5) by giving them reasonable time off work."

Of course, there's also this quote from Nagarjuna's Precious Garland of Advice to the King:

"Even give poison to those whom poison will help."

Perhaps your next blog post for the Huffington Post should be a gentle ethical appeal to Ms. Huffington?


Practical self defense. I figured out the first time I "worked" for Huffington Post as a photographer that they were using my output to get free pictures the supported their interests and not mine. So I didn't do it again. Doesn't sound like a big problem to me.

To wite, or not to write, that is the ?

I too was / am a blogger for the Huff Po. What it lacked in monetary compensation, it made up for in exposure, cache and the ability to reach an extraordinary amount of people at once.
Everyone knew upon writing for them there would be no money exchanged. Why now, when Ms. Huffington is making this profit are people getting their 'ire up'? After all, it was she who created this platform and it is she who's decided to sell it, not the bloggers.
Seems to me that noone who began contributing to the Huff Po cared about the $, more than the message. Now suddenly circumstances change, and therefore people have lost their original focus. Nothing is "lost".
No contracts or Unions have been violated.
I say keep writing. Spread the good word. This is why we contributed in the first place.

I agree.

I think there is often a knee jerk negative reaction to people making money. Perhaps it is good for people to be compensated for providing such positive opportunities. Of course it would be wonderful if some of the money made were used to continue on in the same spirit. That said, I would somewhat carefully watch what unfolds with the new ownership.

Well said

Bloggers knew what they were signing up for...

The bloggers for HuffPo knew what they were getting into each time they wrote an article. Basically, they were volunteering/donating their material. No one forced them to do it. And there was no promise of compensation. The fact that HuffPo makes millions from their work is no secret. So, going back, I'd say no the bloggers are not entitled to compensation.

Going forward, whether you write for HuffPo or not... that's a tougher question. I guess you'd have to ask yourself why you write the articles? Are you putting out something to benefit the world? If so, does it matter if HuffPo makes money from it? You were doing it voluntarily before. What has changed?

I assume that what you contribute to HuffPo you could still publish elsewhere. If HuffPo is claiming exclusivity on your and you think you could better benefit more people (financially) by publishing elsewhere then you might have to make a choice. I certainly wouldn't give them exclusive rights to my work (for no compensation).

I don't think it was necessarily unethical for HuffPo to not pay their bloggers. But, now that they are rolling in the dough and have blown up into a multimillion dollar industry, it does seem that it would be the right thing to do to share the wealth.

Very much agree

Bloggers know what they are doing.

Also, Huffpo does not claim exclusive rights over any material, which is nice for bloggers.

The question is how to do the most good going forward.

keep writing for HuffPo and link to IDP

In service of Interdependence, keep writing for HuffPo and make sure you link prominently here. Ms. Huffington should share her riches with the bloggers, no doubt, but that's no reason not to use the platform to help spread the word on mindfulness and interdependence.

Even if all the HuffPo bloggers were to quit, what would be served by that? Then you've lost an opportunity to connect with millions of people about this important topic.

Here's an even better solution: build the IDP website into something that reaches millions of eyeballs, and we can reinvest the profits we make into projects that make a huge positive difference in the world.

^^^^ What Rubinstein said

That's my new mantra.

i'm hoping that mantra starts to spread

so far i'm not getting a lot of traction on it.

^ what he said. :):):) (great

^ what he said. :):):)

(great questions, crazy dilemma!)

Can we?

The Huffington Post has done a lot to provide access and a voice to those who didn't have it previously.  If I were Arianna, I'd pay respect where it was due, but it's up to her to watch the cause and effect of her actions and then make a decision.

To respond to the discussion Jon brings up, the IDP Blog has been one of the most respectful and clear discussion forums I've ever been a part of online.   What if the next big blog's main focus was not about "Hot Stories", "Insider Access" etc., but instead about "Leaving your personal Bull S%^t at the door"?  A.K.A "A place for respectful dialogue and information about current events."  -- sounds like the IDP Blog to me.

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