Last week, the Huffington Post, the liberal news/political blog co-founded by Arianna Huffington and Ken Lerer, successfully lured Morgan away from CBSNews.com. The inevitable headlines and analysis -- about how the scrappy blog was edging ever closer to mainstreamness by luring a respected news veteran to be its CEO -- was helpful not only in underscoring Huffington's status as a national media power broker. It also helped everyone forget Lerer's astonishing statement in USA Today, just days earlier, that HuffPo has no plans to ever pay its bloggers. "That's not our financial model," he told the paper. "We offer them visibility, promotion and distribution with a great company."
Coming right out and saying that -- and saying it that way, with those particular words -- takes cojones. Not our financial model. Geez, wow. Not since the Pets.com sock puppet scored a deal to write his memoir (published in 2000 as "Me by Me: The Pets.com Sock Puppet Book") has there been a more tellingly, creepily poetic new-media moment. In fact, if it weren't for Betsy Morgan's vote of confidence in the Huffington Post -- if Morgan weren't willing to put her career on the line to endorse the blog's place in the media firmament -- Lerer's pronouncement could have been HuffPo's jump-the-shark moment.
Think about it: It wouldn't have cost Lerer anything to make some vague utterances about "eventual" profit sharing or stock options or page-view bonuses or some such. Instead, in a moment of delusional grandeur, he chose to announce that his and Arianna's celebrity-blogger serfs will always plow for free -- in exchange for not even for a bit of gristle and cold porridge, but for the PR!
Excuse me?!? First of all, arguably, it's the other way around: Despite Arianna's cable-news omnipresence, it's the excellent work of such regular bloggers as Harry Shearer, Nora Ephron and Bill Maher that gave HuffPo visibility, promotion and distribution. They lent their credibility and influence -- and their built-in audiences (Shearer with his radio show, Maher with his "Real Time" on HBO, Ephron with the fans of her books and movies) -- to Arianna and Ken. And for what? Bupkis now -- and bupkis forever! (Suckas!)
Second, the vast majority of the Huffington Post's bloggers get virtually no significant visibility, promotion or distribution simply because there are so damn many of them -- 1,800 at last count, which means that unless you're one of Arianna's favorites (and/or a scoop-slinging insider), you're probably rarely going to get on the home page -- and if you do, only fleetingly.
Third, the Huffington Post actually does pay some of its bloggers -- the ones it has on staff, such as "Eat the Press" media editor/blogger Rachel Sklar -- so the financial model is, well, what then? Pay some of the bloggers some of the time? Don't pay the bloggers who are wealthy enough from their real gigs not to care? That, to me, is not only not a real "financial model," it's a wacky, ad hoc, college-newspaper-esque compensation scheme unworthy of a self-proclaimed "great company."
Mind you, Lerer has also claimed that the Huffington Post will be profitable in 2008 -- after burning through at least $10 million in venture capital. If HuffPo ever gets a lofty valuation -- through an IPO or through the sale of a publicly valued stake -- the serfs will surely revolt as they watch Lady Arianna and Lord Ken and their backers get rich(er).
Keep in mind that I'm generally a fan of the Huffington Post, contentwise. In fact, a little more than two years ago, I was one of the first media commentators to give it its due when I reviewed the site's first 100 days and concluded that it had become, in its own way, a surprising success. In retrospect, it's amazing how quickly HuffPo overcame the early (deserved) snark it drew upon its launch. Arianna, I wrote at the time, set herself up for a world of hurt by initially casting herself as a sort of celebrity-gadfly wrangler intent on harvesting pearls of wisdom from Hollywood, of all places, bragging that her celebrity pals would blog for her (Gwyneth Paltrow! David Geffen! Mike Nichols! Warren Beatty!). Instead, almost immediately, she morphed into a surprisingly dedicated liberal den mother who took it upon herself to goad an ever-expanding group of smart, busy lefties to speak up in the place where it matters the most these days: online.
Getting mostly old, often cyber-illiterate lefties to work for free in exchange for a plot of cyberspace, though, isn't a sustainable business model long-term, which is why Betsy Morgan's arrival is so essential. High-profile celebrity blogs aside, what has really been making the Huffington Post grow as a brand is that it's become a vibrant, reliable news clearinghouse -- an identity and role that's dependent on the hard work of sifting, selecting and organizing that gets done by HuffPo's growing (paid) staff of reporters and editors.
HuffPo's hiring of a manager like Betsy Morgan -- who is used to working with paid professionals in real media operations -- is not only heartening, it's essential. Because some day soon -- hopefully very soon -- the site will have to bid adieu to its something-for-nothing "financial model." And once you rely more on paid professionals than on "Will Blog for PR" celebs, that (thank God) changes everything.