Politics & Media
Jan 15, 2009, 09:31AM

Where the professionals work for free

Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader talks with accomplished freelance writer and author Carol Felsenthal, who contributes to The Huffington Post for the same fee as everyone else: nothing. For some reason, this is a problem.

The lead to Miner's article is, "If the Huffington Post is the future of journalism, I don’t believe in the future." What follows is a by-the-books straw-man argument that somehow "they" anointed HuffPo the "future of journalism" and "we"—the print people—see it for the sham that it really is. (Blogging isn't journalism!) The piece focuses on Carol Felsenthal—a freelanced and author turned unpaid HuffPo blogger—and asks the really important question, "Why? Why would she write for a site that doesn't pay anyone?"

In response to my comment on the article (which spurred this blog post), commentator Whet Moley Moser wrote, "I think Miner's addressing the strawman argument, made in the Atlantic, the NY'er and similar places, more than making it." But there's that pesky lead, and then:

But it’s not Steve’s enthusiasm that puzzles me. It’s Carol’s. She’s not an academic or celebrity, the sort of contributor for whom the blogging is not, as Huffington puts it, “their primary job.” Felsenthal is a professional writer. Her most recent book, Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, came out in May. Her latest magazine article, on Michelle Obama, will run in the next issue of Chicago magazine. Felsenthal is an old-school freelancer—she takes the assignment, does the work, and cashes the check. And yet she—like everyone else on the site—writes for HuffPo for nothing.

Miner and Felsnthal's beef and/or confusion seem to involve several issues: business models, journalistic integrity and the afore mentioned "future of journalism."

Yet in this very article we see that HuffPo a. provides a great opportunity for the amateur writer to have a well-trafficked space to speak to and b. allows an established writer to drum up support for an upcoming book (which results in more money, right?) and build a following (and, as my boss Russ Smith pointed out, no one is forcing Felsenthal to contribute). That one site can accomplish both goals is not the "future of journalism" (indeed, HuffPo damaged its credibility with the Chicago Reader issue) but it's a future slightly better than what we're looking at now.

Full disclosure: I repost my columns and blog posts on Huffington Post. I obviously don't think it's such a bad place, but I don't find it to be the be-all and end-all for journalism and/or the Web.

A force behind Miner's view of HuffPo is the site's visibilty. Celebrities get to selflessly offer their opinions on issues they have no expertise in. Arianna is a burning fundraiser. The site was responsible for many breaking stories through the election season. The site is a good starting point for future-of-media discussions.

But the conversation does not end there. Indeed, there will eventually be a breaking point between well-funded journalism and unfunded journalism. No one has found the perfect mix, yet. While HuffPo employs thousands of unpaid writers, Talking Points Memo uses a small staff like a scalpel and individual bloggers such as Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan carry a lot of weight on both sides of the media divide. There is no one, magical model for Web journalism. We're figuring it out as we go.


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