More details on the class action lawsuit a group of unpaid bloggers have filed against Arianna Huffington have emerged.
The group, led by a freelancer, activist, and union organiser by the name of Jonathan Tasini — who has contributed more than 250 blog posts to HuffPost since 2005 — filed the complaint in a New York court Tuesday.
They are seeking $105 million in damages on behalf of bloggers and other Huffington Post writers who submitted work for which they weren’t paid.
$105 million. That is one third of what Arianna made on the sale.
According to WaPo, Tasini said “HuffPost was engaging in breach of contract with its contributors because of an “implied promise” of compensation. ‘Some people were given some promises about future payments,” he said, declining to provide specifics.'”
It’s worth noting Tasini has some experience with lawsuits; in 2001 he was lead plaintiff in the landmark freelancer case of New York Times Co. v. Tasini. In that case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favour of the plaintiff, arguing for the copyright claims of writers whose work was republished in electronic databases without their permission.
Some disclosure before we move on. I have blogged for the Huffington Post, both as a paid and unpaid contributor since February 2007. The paid part came when I wrote for the Eat the Press blog between Feb and May of 2007. At the time HuffPo was only two pages — the main page and the Eat The Press page, which was edited by Rachel Sklar who initially brought me on as a contributor. That I would be paid (a small amount) for it was very clearly laid out before I started contributing.
In May or June of that year HuffPo was overhauled and following that I wrote for Huffington Post on and off as a regular unpaid blogger until I was hired to edit the Mediabistro Fishbowl blog in April 2008. This blogging included more hours than I care to remember of liveblogging election debates (liveblogs were still a new and useful-ish thing in those days) all for free.
In all that time I was never made any “promises about future payments.” None. (I just searched all my emails in case I missed something…nada.) And to the best of my knowledge neither were any of the people who blogged with me.
The understanding was Arianna provided the platform, I provided the content, and the hope was (on my part anyway) that at some point the combination of the two would land me a paying gig, or up my profile (or in the case of people I know, up their consulting fees and/or land them publishing deals) etc.
It was (and is) the same principle behind TV appearances — also unpaid, also content the networks run advertising against. I understood that and made the best use of it that I could, as did any number of people I know. Many of these same people, as a result of their time at HuffPo, now have paid writing gigs, or books deals, or consulting gigs, etc.
Take my word for it, people who could get paid for their writing in other venues weren’t giving it away for free on HuffPo, unless the higher profile of the site was more valuable to them than whatever they might get paid elsewhere.
Essentially what Arianna was providing wa a place for writers to advertise their wares — a sort of classifieds for wannabe writers, except unlike the classifieds she wasn’t charging. That’s not to say she couldn’t have — at the height of the 2008 election cycle, before Twitter fully arrived, people were so eager to make their opinions known I’m quite sure Arianna could have successfully charged some sort of small fee to post at HuffPo if she’d wanted.
Arianna was simply smart enough to understand that if she provided the space — and in the beginning HuffPo was more or less a letter to the editor space, writ large — people would be more than happy to use it to air their opinions. And she was right. And now she is benefiting from that.
Meanwhile, instead of applying for overly expensive graduate writing programs and/or journalism school and/or Gotham writers workshops, and or any mediabistro class or party, one could just post directly to HuffPo. Voila, a link to add to your clips (if they’re still called that).
The underlying premise of this lawsuit appears to be that the writing all these unpaid bloggers were contributing to the site was worth paying for, and somehow they were hoodwinked by Arianna into doing it for free. The harsh reality is much of it isn’t, and wasn’t, worth paying for.
Of course if any of these writers can produce evidence that they were in fact promised any sort of payment beyond visibility they might have a case. But based on all my experience with Huffington Post I’d be shocked to hear any promise of the sort was made.
To be clear, this is not to suggest there isn’t a larger problem that needs to be solved of how we pay for the sort of reporting the NYTimes provides, and how magazines are to make a profit in a media world built on aggregation and free content, and how we value writing (though I would argue good writing generally gets paid for).
But it seems to me that is a far different problem than a group of writers, who agreed to provide content in exchange for exposure, suddenly seeing someone else’s gravy train come in and deciding they retroactively want a piece of it. It’s a bit like the guy who writes regular letter to the NYT editors suddenly deciding he wants a piece of the paywall profit.