You may have seen recent coverage of a Google controversy having to do with an increasingly wooly notion: the very value of creative work. The mind-bogglingly profitable internet giant, as The New York Times reported, got in contact with a number of prominent artists to commission them to create special illustrated "skins" that would allow users to customize their Google Chrome web browsers.
The pay? $0 -- in other words, nothing but exposure.
The response from the artists? Generally, to their credit: Screw you, Google!
Hmmm. Where'd Google get the idea that creative people should work for free -- to further enrich the already very rich? If you read my recent column about the Huffington Post, you know that's a rhetorical question.
I created a minor tempest in the media teapot a few weeks back when I awarded the Most Bitterly Ironic Media Award to the Fred Dressler Lifetime Achievement Award, which Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications bestowed upon Arianna Huffington as part of its annual Mirror Awards. My annoyance had to do with the fact that the Newhouse School, which trains journalists, was rewarding a woman who has helped to further devalue content -- like, you know, that stuff Newhouse graduates hope to make a living producing -- because the Huffington Post doesn't pay most of its bloggers.
I said my piece and intended to move on, but I'm revisiting HuffPo not only because the response to my outrage has been so interesting but because last week HuffPo CEO Betsy Morgan was forced out. Her successor, Eric Hippeau, has been making lots of noise about how the company could be profitable if it wanted to be but is choosing to invest its spoils and venture-capital war chest to grow the brand.
First, it's worth noting the Newhouse School's defensive response. Richard Prince, the Journal-isms columnist for the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, posted a piece titled, "Branham Won't Retreat on Huffington Honor." He put Newhouse School Dean Lorraine Branham on the hot seat, and she blathered on about how Huffington is deserving of a journalism award "whether you support her or not," because she's been "willing to experiment and take risks and embrace change." Prince also quoted a HuffPo spokesman who said that while it's true the site doesn't pay its thousands of bloggers, it does pay its "reporters." And how many reporters does the site have? A whopping five.
Then came Arianna Huffington's own defensive explanation, at the Mirror Awards, for why her bloggers earn nothing. As Jeff Bercovici of DailyFinance reported, she declared, "Our bloggers come and go. They write when the spirit moves them, and they do it because they want to be part of the conversation."
Yikes. So after all these years of Huffington giving lip service to the idea that her legions of bloggers are the heart and soul of her supposedly revolutionary über-blog, it turns out she thinks they're marginal, fly-by-night, "come and go" wannabes. Nice.
Meanwhile, over at "The Sexist" blog at WashingtonCityPaper.com, Amanda Hess (not responding to my column but nonetheless joining the sudden HuffPo pile-on) was noting just how often HuffPo -- the supposed liberal voice of reason -- uses shameless objectification of women to drum up page views, citing posts like "NAKED RIHANNA! Nude Photos Hit Web -- With a Nipple Ring." As I write this column, in fact, as chaos spreads in Iran, one of the most popular stories (with nearly 200,000 page views) on HuffPo is titled, "Megan Fox's Open Thigh Snake Dress (PHOTOS)." Meanwhile, Nico Pitney is "Live-Blogging the Uprising" in Iran -- under the "HuffPost Reporting" rubric -- but that "reporting" consists largely of summarizing reports from organizations like The New York Times and the BBC that actually devote tons of money (and put their actual reporters at risk) to have journalists on the ground in the Middle East.
What it comes down to is this: What is the Huffington Post, really? It likes to pretend that it's a respectable voice in the mediasphere, but it shamelessly pumps up its traffic by being just as trashy as, say, Maxim. It also likes to masquerade as a forward-thinking, paradigm-shifting journalistic institution, but it pays only a handful of actual journalists, and its idea of "journalism" is often downright parasitic of the work of real journalistic institutions.
And it gets worse: On the day, last week, that a Norwegian journalist interviewed me about why Arianna Huffington is so controversial, the most popular story on HuffPo was "Heather Graham: Tantric Sex 'Works For Me.'" I decided to do some math so I could explain to this journalist why HuffPo's brand of blogging and "aggregating" is so often problematic. By HuffPo's own tally, more than a quarter million readers viewed the Heather Graham post, which quoted 13 sentences, totaling 142 words, from Britain's Daily Mail -- a paper that (stupidly, naively, I suppose) pays its entertainment reporters. HuffPo's contribution to the, uh, discourse? Just 58 words of its own -- which simply set up the Daily Mail's interview with Graham and further summarized the article.
And that, folks, is HuffPo's true business model (which Newhouse Dean Lorraine Branham could have figured out if she bothered to try to pierce through the fog of Arianna Huffington's celeb-tastic Reality Distortion Field). In fact, at the rate we're going, if the Newhouse School can stay in business by continuing to sucker students into paying tuition, I fully expect this course to end up on the curriculum:
Building Value by Devaluing Content: How to Make Your Investors Rich By Being Cheap, Trashy and Parasitic.
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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco