Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Arianne Huffington and Nick Cohen

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.


Willard said...

Of course, Brit, you know that I'd normally take Nick Cohen's side of this argument. However, I've now seen the light. When The Dabbler goes for $315m, I'm looking forward to getting a nice fat slice of the pie.

Brit said...

You're damn right you'd be getting a nice fat slice (of the 38p The Dabbler sells for).

worm said...

never read this huffington post thing

Brit said...

To be fair, it's crap.

David said...

It's also possible (more than possible, actually) that AOL is making a huge mistake, pissing away shareholder value in the biggest cock-up since, um, TimeWarner bought AOL.

In that case, it's not so much that Huffington profited off the labor of others (a consummation devoutly to be wished) but that she just happened to be standing their when it started to rain gold.

David said...

...there..., dammit.

Brit said...

Absolutely, that looks a nuts purchase at a nuts price by AOL.

Which brings us to another critical element of Nick's dud reasoning - namely, the romantic notion that a writer's efforts have an intrinsic value. The brutal truth is that anything is only worth what people are prepared to pay for it... but that can sometimes work in your (Arianne's) favour.

Uncle Stan Madeley said...

Not that I can add anything to this debate (it is a ridiculous price) but the only reason I know of the Huffington Post is that it boasts a series of high profile 'bloggers' who never post. For example this and this and this. Perhaps it explains both the high price and why it's not worth a tenth of that.

Brit said...

Bryan Appleyard: the Larry David of The Dabbler.

lurker #76 said...

Lord Byron disagreed with Johnson & Cohen and had the utmost contempt for paid scribblers.

A quick correction about the Huff Post's revenues - they were estimated to be a not inconsiderable $30m in 2010 (according to this article http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2011-02-07/huffington-post-and-aol-why-the-deals-a-mess). Which brings me to my other point: Nick is either moored and misted in the past, or wilfully insensible to modern media realities. Giving your work away has proven to be sound business. Quite apart from the delight of visibility or the thrill of influence, it brings an author an army of loyal followers who'll do more for him than any marketing agency - promoting books he might go on to write or endowing him with huge extra clout in salary negotiations with publishers. Johann Hari is an excellent example. So really, unpaid commentary is just like an actor's media interviews in promotion of a film. Nick may have ideological motives for rejecting this new system - which is quite fair. But he's crass to dismiss it on financial grounds.

Brit said...

Good comments, lurker.

My suspicion is that Nick strongly wishes his particular profession - the commentariat - could be thought of the same terms as, say, manual labour. It can't -certainly not now, if it ever could.

And there's no way you can appeal to the difference between hobbyists and pros on the grounds of quality - compare the best bloggers to a Sun hack, or the endless stream of 'deadline's-looming-will-this-do?' Guardian opinion pieces.

Another factor is that paid writers haven't all got there by talent and hard work, far from it. We live in the age of the ghosted celeb column.

Gaw said...

What I find extraordinary about HuffPo and its rival Gawker - the two meatiest online-only publishers of 'news'/gossip - is how low their revenues are: respectively $30m and $20m annually. In the context of media businesses this is naff-all. Combined, they are roughly equivalent to the revenues of 'Hello' magazine. I just don't believe advertising from these sources is ever going to grow big enough to compensate for what's been lost by old media in recent years.

So a permanent diminution in the money coming in to pay for journalism (which has always been funded by ad sales) and lots more writers being published who are willing to write for fun and for free... A terrible combination for the traditional full-time, paid journalist. A star like Nick Cohen should be OK but prospects for everyday hackery look pretty grim. Back to Grub Street...

Sophie King said...

As the Guardian says, Comment is Free. My old chum, Clare Sambrook, who won the Paul Foot and Bevins awards back in November, received nothing for her pieces which were part of a successful campaign aimed at getting the government to end the detention of asylum seekers' children. One could say she was mad to embark on such an undertaking as a freelance but I still find it objectionable that the Guardian was happy to publish her work but unwilling to pay. I'm sure they felt they were doing her a favour.

Gaw said...

Just as an aside, old lefty George Orwell gave four reasons to write (in his essay 'Why I Write'): sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impluse, political purpose. No mention of money.

Hey Skipper said...

And there's no way you can appeal to the difference between hobbyists and pros on the grounds of quality -

As your post, far more effectively written and tightly reasoned than practically anything that will appear in the MSM today, perfectly proves.

To be fair, it's crap.

It think the word you were looking for was "generous".

Wasn't HuffPo anti-vaccine central for awhile?


Who the heck was AOL bidding against to jack the price all the way to $315m?

malty said...

Veering between admiration for Cohen and feeling sorry for him must be a reasonably common pastime, another highly intelligent slightly dim seeker of Arcadia. Meanwhile real people in the real world push, shove or struggle, you'll never change that, sunshine.

Especially not with words.

Are the ever so humane, left leaning busybodies essentially parasitic.

malty said...

Give Cohen some credit, he did give the the present government a few weeks breathing space before he turned his tut-tuts on them.

Tories...spawn of the devil.
Liberals...class traitors.
Labour...in the pockets of the Muslim extremists.

Go on Nick, give us a clue, tell us who we can vote for next time.

Or go find a job in manufacturing for 12 months and then see if your strategy needs a tweak.

Brit said...

I greatly admire Nick - his prose is as relentlessly pounding as it gets. He's read this thread so wanted to point that out.

But that was one of those everything about it is wrong including 'and' and 'is' articles.

Which of course is another prob with being a pro. You've got to keep churning it out to deadline. That sometimes brings out the best in writers, and sometimes...not.

That said, I am generally bored of internet 'Fiske-ings' a la David Thompson's blog. Ripping apart Guardian columns is like shooting fish in a barrel.

malty said...

Writing for free at least incurs no outgoings, just time, and the world is awash with exploiters of the Huffington variety. It is however, no hanging offence, simply opportunism. Pity then the young actors who are exploited by the entertainment industry, often working for nothing and having to pay their own travelling expenses, taking time off from the temporary job and as a result losing wages.
It is widespread, endemic and an obscenity. Not a problem, of course, if you bathe in the glow of nepotism.

David said...

Academic journal publishing, a relatively large industry, depends entirely on free labor. Authors work for years to submit papers for free; associate editors work for free; and editors work for free. In Management, the editor over the last three years for our flagship journal read every paper submitted (and average of three a day) for three years, for free. (Editors and associate editors are reimbursed for travel to an editorial board meeting once a year and for certain other travel undertaken for the journal.)

On the other hand, I've seen estimates that publishing a single article in an "A" journal (generally, a journal with a 95% rejection rate) is associated with a $6000 bump in annual income for the next 10 years.

Of course, academia has a very odd business model.

lurker #76 said...

What David & Malty said.

I admire Nick's writing as well. But he was ultracrepidating on this occasion. And busting your pseudonym on his blog like that was boorish.

Brit said...

I took that as an admission of defeat.

Susan's Husband said...

I know I'm past the sell by date on this post, but let me say I completely agree with Brit. I would only add the famous Scott Adams quote on this -

"Pay people to write? You couldn't pay them to shut up."

Jonathon said...

I am also late to comment, and as it happens I am also Susan's Husband, albeit a different Susan, or so I assume.

I admire most of Nick Cohen's work and I see his point. But he is overly dogmatic. I too am a professional writer (albeit of dictionaries) and I'm willing (keen) to contribute for instance to the Dabbler and accept that (as yet) it's not helping with my bills. At the same time I have a website with a blog which I almost never touch.
For me it's the difference between being asked to do something on a subject which I know well and love dearly, and to offer expertise that I am keen to disseminate as widely as I can, and simply gazing into a mirror and, to be uncharacteristically euphemistic, playing with myself.
Call it ego: it probably is. The need for love. But in any case the money is so relative. Over a couple of days a few weeks ago I wrote three pieces of 1000 words apiece. One for the Mail, one for the FT, one for the Dabbler. They all required the same degree of effort, but the payments were vastly different. The reward, however, was the same: publication.
The bottom line, and I write as a reference book producer whose publishing options diminish every day, is that the world has changed. We have to change with it. It may not always be remunerative, but for me at least, it is enormous fun.

Brit said...

Thanks for that, Jonathon.

Looking at it again, the most striking thing about Nick's strict mercenary approach is its utter joylessness.