I have been having an exchange with Nick Cohen about the sale of super-blog The Huffington Post to AOL for $315m. Nick argues that any bloggers who provided free content to Arianne Huffington over the years ought to feel aggrieved, even humiliated in the light of the sale, on the grounds that she has exploited their labour to get rich – ‘ripped them off’.
I don’t know what agreements Arianne Huffington had with her contributors, but Cohen wants to make a wider point so we’ll assume she didn’t make false promises or mislead them, merely asked them if they’d like to contribute free material. Assuming that, she’s done nothing wrong and they have no right to feel aggrieved. They might even feel proud to have been involved in such a success story. They’ve almost certainly made friends, had their horizons immeasurably broadened and gained a degree of status that would have been impossible without the Huffington Post.
The Huffington Post started from nothing. Entrepreneurs sell the businesses they’ve created for fat sums all the time, and nearly of them relied on favours and payments-in-kind when starting up, simply because they lacked the capital and income. It’d be nice to think that once they’re in a position to reward those who’ve helped them along the way, they will do so, but there’s no contractual obligation and only an ambiguous moral one. To say that Huffington gave her writers nothing in return for their copy is nonsense - she gave them what virtually all writers crave: an audience.
Nick Cohen is a professional writer who, it seems, insists on cash payment for everything he emits. Fair enough, but his argument that everyone else who wants to write ought to think the same doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. You can justifiably make a case for news reporters, staff copywriters, sub-eds etc being ‘labourers’ in the same way that widget-makers are labourers, but when it comes to opinion columns, movie reviews, fiction, poetry, memoirs etc, the line between professionals and hobbyists is extremely fuzzy and has always been so. The blogosphere didn’t create this fuzziness, it merely proved it was there and vastly increased the number of outlets beyond fanzines, local mags and diaries.
Cohen sneers at ‘dilettantes with day jobs’ but the line between pros and hobbyists is not defined by talent and there are many reasons why talented writers might choose to stay amateur: top of the list being the freedom to write about whatever they like while paying the mortgage. Turning pro would force them instead to write whatever they can sell. Then at the other end of the scale are the pros who write free bloggery in addition to paid work because they want things from blogs that paid work can’t give them: instant commenter feedback perhaps, or, such as in the (extreme, compulsive) case of Norm Geras, the freedom to write about whatever pops into his head from moment to moment – very often instant responses to other bloggers.
The most interesting thing about Cohen’s argument is that it reveals why he still considers himself a man of the ‘Left’ despite rejecting so much of the off-the-shelf ‘leftist’ package of contemporary views on America, Israel etc. (See his excellent and highly recommended book 'What's Left?' - available online for 1p, funnily enough - welcome to the modern world, Nick.) The idea that Huffington has ‘exploited’ workers, in effect stealing their surplus value, looks like old-fashioned Marxist economics.
Cohen says I wouldn’t make a very good financial adviser. I’m not sure anyone makes a good financial adviser any more, but I can at least claim to be able to read a basic set of business accounts. The Huffington Post’s $315m might be an extreme example of the value of ‘goodwill’ – ie the difference between the purchase price of a business and the book value (sum of the net assets) – but nearly all businesses have some sort of difference because goodwill (generally meaning a readymade customer base) is usually what bigger businesses want to buy. AOL have bought Huffington’s goodwill, which consists of its name, URL and audience. Its current roster of writers are a fair way behind these lot in terms of significance (even lower than its turnover, whatever paltry sum that might be), just as The Guardian or Spectator’s writers of the moment make no difference to the value of those organisations. Writers come and go, the Guardian endures.
Huffington created this value through her own energies, luck, acumen, organisational skills etc. Sure she will have got people to help her along the way by writing for free, but let’s not pretend their copy wasn’t interchangeable with any number of other writers prepared to work for fame and glory rather than dough – the supply hugely outweighs the demand in that commodity. She owes them nothing; but she can reward them now if she chooses. Had the Huffington Post never sold out, the writers would still have nothing, and she wouldn’t be able to make that choice.