I have to say it's been a bit surreal for me to watch the recent pile-on regarding AOL's $315 million acquisition of The Huffington Post and hiring of Arianna Huffington as editor in chief.
The New York Times' David Carr, in a column titled "At Media Companies, a Nation of Serfs," bemoaned the downward pressure HuffPo has put on the value of content and content-makers. At Slate, Farhad Manjoo examined its "sketchy" SEO-humping practices. To grasp HuffPo's M.O., wrote Tim Rutten at the L.A. Times, "picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates. ... No child labor, yet, but if there were more page views in it ..." Meanwhile, some angry HuffPo bloggers have started a Facebook group called "Hey Arianna, Can You Spare a Dime?" ("We're asking you to give a little back to the unpaid writers who built the Huffington Post.")
Geez, what took everybody so long?
Back in October 2007, I wrote that "HuffPo sure seems willfully ignorant of American labor history." In June 2008, I noted that unpaid HuffPo blogger Mayhill Fowler -- who famously recorded Barack Obama's ruminations about "bitter" working-class voters -- had gotten the OK to post from Arianna herself.
"Vacationing on a yacht in Tahiti," the L.A. Times reported, "Huffington gave her assent." My reaction: "Ha! When the Huffington Post eventually sells, Fowler and the other industrious HuffPo bloggers sure aren't gonna get yachting vacations in Tahiti out of the deal." And I wondered "how quickly all those bloggers who have been dutifully tilling the fields will suddenly run screaming from Arianna's media plantation."
In January 2009, I wryly suggested that HuffPo could increase its valuation by offshoring its actually-paid staff positions to Third World child labor. In June of that year I wrote a column titled "Trashy Parasitism as a Get-Rich-Quick Scheme? Hi, HuffPo," in which I deconstructed the site's cynical SEO-friendly aggregation/theft. (Feeling like a broken record, I dropped my HuffPo-bashing after awhile.)
Why, in 2011, are so many people suddenly agreeing with me? Beyond the fact that money ($315 million) changes everything, I think HuffPo has just pushed its luck one too many times not only with its anti-journalistic practices, but with its audience.
Visiting HuffPo is, simply, an icky experience -- like visiting pre-Disney Times Square. (Click on this! Click on that! Girls Girls Girls!) As I type this, HuffPo is hyping "stories" including "All The Details On Irina's Bikini" and "Justin Bieber Leaves His Fly Down at the Grammys (PHOTOS, POLL)." Meanwhile, if you actually come to the site for some of its "serious" aggregated content, and then click through to the original source, you get to feel dirty and used (and complicit) in a whole different way.
HuffPo launched in 2005. Remember 2005? That's when Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought MySpace for $580 million. Back then, gaudy, cynical, trashy MySpace was "hot," drawing a huge audience. But that audience, and advertisers, ultimately grew tired of all that was gaudy, cynical and trashy.
As it turns out, though, those who fail to learn the lessons of internet history can get jobs at AOL.
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