The Astonishing AOL/Huffington Post Plan to Profit on the Backs of Unpaid 13-Year-Old Bloggers (Seriously)

Well, That's One Way to Improve AOL's Balance Sheet: Persuade Children to Shovel Free Content Into Its Page-View Oven

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'Breaker boys' -- children who broke coal into manageable chunks by hand -- circa 1884
'Breaker boys' -- children who broke coal into manageable chunks by hand -- circa 1884

You need to read this post if you haven't already: "Huffpo and Patch Recruiting Bloggers as Young as 13." It perhaps fell under the radar a bit because of when it was published -- Friday afternoon during the lunch hour for many North American readers -- so I'm calling attention to it here. In it, Forbes reporter/blogger Jeff Bercovici notes that AOL's Huffington Post Media Group (HPMG) is prepping the launch of a vertical called HuffPost High School, which will be edited by a (paid) 17-year-old staffer, but which will apparently solicit unpaid blog contributions from teenagers.

That may not bother you so much -- maybe some teen journalists can get some class credit or something out of blogging for HuffPo -- but Bercovici goes on to report that Patch, AOL's massive (and highly risky) experiment in creating more than 800 hyperlocal news sites across the country, will also be soliciting unpaid contributions from young'uns. How young? Bercovici posed the question to a Patch spokeswoman, who responded: "Patch is not geared toward users under 13." She basically suggested that AOL is engaging in an act of generosity: "We'll be expanding our sharing platform to teens" is how she put it to Bercovici.

This, of course, is a semantic feint: AOL refers to unpaid bloggers as "users" because they're using its "sharing platform." Don't you see? AOL is just sharin' and carin'!

But make no mistake: HuffPo High may or may not prove to be a traffic juggernaut, but Patch is already a massive undertaking that was specifically designed to steal readers -- and page views and revenues -- from local newspapers. As AOL/HuffPo further sets its sights on the turf once dominated by those now-embattled, ever-shrinking journalistic institutions, it intends to compete with them by deploying an army of unpaid children.

Bercovici's piece is a must-read because he coolly and calmly lays out the multiple ethical/privacy/managerial issues at play here. For one thing, he cites an (adult) former HuffPo blogger's ongoing $105 million class-action lawsuit against AOL/HuffPo and points out that "For AOL's use of underage bloggers to constitute child labor, it would first have to be established that unpaid blogging is labor, period."

Let's get real here: AOL is not just another benign outlet for aspiring teen writers; it's not the school newspaper writ large. It is , thanks to its combo with HuffPo, a massive, highly aggressive, cynically SEO'd page-view machine with a history of dubious ethics -- and let's not forget that AOL, despite all its troubles, still had second-quarter revenue of $542.2 million.

Back in February, AOL property TechCrunch reported that Patch "is churning out one piece of content every 9 seconds." That's what this is about, folks: churn. Page views. And getting unpaid children to help AOL shovel content -- digital coal -- into its page-view oven.

Quite simply, AOL/HuffPo intends to monetize the work of minors earning $0/hour. On Patch and HuffPost High School, it will sell ads against content created by minors -- but it will not share advertising revenue with those minors.

Self-respecting advertisers have to ask if they really want to be a part of something like this.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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