February8,2011

Huffington Post, AOL, And Why You Shouldn’t Write For Free

When Huffington Post founder Ariana Huffington and execs at AOL announced that AOL would be buying Huffington Post for $315 million dollars a lot of people were surprised. In the media world, people wondered if this was a good investment for the Grandaddy of the internet, and whether HuffPo would lose its original appeal of being disassociated with media giants.

To address those two issues, in my opinion, this is a great deal for AOL, and HuffPo has been connected to large media industry for at least the past 2 years if not more. The change to HuffPo’s original “value” was made a long time ago when Huffington decided to expand her core set of leftist writers beyond an original hand-selected few. From there HuffPo became a breaking news and tabloid paper no different from TMZ or any other scandal-driven site.

The reason this is a good deal for AOL is because 75-80% of AOL’s current profits come from people who have had AOL mail for a long time and believe that they still need to pay AOL $25 a month to continue to be able to access it. For many subscribers, that’s $25 a month on top of whatever they’re paying to their internet service provider—Comcast, Time warner etc.

Unfortunately, relying on customer ignorance isn’t really a failsafe plan, and HuffPo provides a pretty cutting edge route into the future—free aggregate content distributed through multiple channels, high click rates, and aggressive pursuit of ad dollars. As you can see, there’s every reason to believe their business strategy will still rely on ignorance, just contributors instead of customers.

What the hell am I talking about? I’m happy to explain.

Huffington has built a $300 million media empire off the backs of people who write for free. The excuse that many bloggers and writers give when writing for free is that it gives them exposure. I certainly am aware that “exposure” can be a form of payment, but there are limits. You have to be choosy especially if your eventual goal is to freelance write fulltime.

On a site like HuffPo which is crowded with content, readers rarely click through to links contained in posts or their skimpy author box. When you visit HuffPo it feels like you’re being attacked with information. If you follow my pattern when I visit the site you click from article to article paying little to no attention to who wrote what. Some exposure that is!

If you’re interested in reposting your work on HuffPo or anywhere else for free, that’s not a terrible idea. Reposting can bring some benefits (for example, it can increase the number of sites linking into your blog which can improve your traffic ranking) and it takes precious little time to send a few quick pitches and pastes text.

But to maximize your time and impact, I still say cling to old rugged Writer’s Market book. As a writer, your biggest concern should be two things: 1. Building a strong byline and 2. Making money.

If I’m trying to decide between submitting original content or altered reposted content to Huff Po OR some local or small magazine that pays $50, I choose the magazine. Most people know by now that almost anyone can be published on a site like Huffington Post while even small magazines have editorial standards and require some bit of expertise in the area in which you’re writing. Further, that $50 that you get from the magazine can be used to buy ads on blogads or some other site. There’s more exposure to be had advertising on a low traffic but relevant-to-your-niche blog than there is by having a couple posts on a crowded site.

Besides, if you plan to live off your writing you need to be submitting to publications that are likely to reject you if you suck. Rejected pitches and articles can be signs that your writing isn’t progressing. You don’t want to spend a huge amount of time blogging for free for other sites only to find out that when you want to be published your writing just isn’t there yet.

Plus, when you’re building your byline keep this in mind: Most of the people you need to “impress” with your byline are pretty aware of how to tell a publication or web site with editorial standards from a blog that lets anyone post provided they have a controversial topic or a lot of twitter followers. Whatever your goal is, pursue a byline that helps you get there. Don’t just go for what appears like a valuable idea.

You know the old saying, time is money? Well, it really is to writers.

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Comments

  1. That made TOTAL sense! Thanks for reminding me that my time IS money. I’ve already retweeted this on my timeline.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jerry Weinstein, Ms. Buuurry, Vihara Moi, _chynadoll_, David Cazares and others. David Cazares said: RT @NewBlackMan: RT @ImJDan: Huffington Post, AOL, And Why You Shouldn’t Write For Free http://goo.gl/fb/QQOzQ [...]

  3. Writing for free? For exposure, you can write for free on social networks

    http://www.lulu.com/darlenelewis
    NOTHING IN LIFE IS FREE BUT YOUR MIND

    • I don’t know, this is a toughie. Of course you have to make a living, but all avocations require an inordinate investment of free labor (or even costly requirements like years of grad school) before you make payroll. And with something like writing, exposure can be everything – after one angry post to Salon, my friend got offered a prestigious consulting job that paid off her extensive medical bills. I think this is a very personal decision based on the amount of experience, connections, and desperation for publication you have. Everybody has to get noticed somehow.

      • Agreed, to an extent. But I’d argue that the “investment of free labor” only goes so far. If I’m two years post-grad with a massive amount of clips and recommendations and I’m still asked to work pro bono? Problem. To paraphrase a scribe from Twitter: The problem isn’t working for free; the problem is that they expect you to continue writing for free.

      • I wouldn’t say “inordinate.” unpaid internships are common of course, so is grad school. But an argument can be made that spending a little more time working at the bottom of paid is better than spending money on a grad degree or spending a lot of time working for free. For the record, unless you’re going to professional school, paying for grad school can be a huge mistake. Lots has been written on this. In terms of networking, school is the EASIEST way to do it. Also the most expensive. You can take the $25, $50 you make off an article and join a professional organization and make connections from there. I think people have to, once again, stop looking at the most obvious paths.

  4. Great post with valid points. Just want to add that exposure doesn’t pay bills. As a newbie freelancer I often get discouraged bc my blog/blog exposure is slow or not RT’d like more established bloggers, but I must remember. I’m a writer first, and if my articles this month can pay my bills, I’m doing something right! I stay encouraged knowing it will all pay off in the end, and I don’t have to always write for free during the process. Thanks J!

  5. I would rather write for free on my blog than give it away for nothing to someone who can afford to pay for it but chooses instead not to. Ariana Huffington may be a hero to the Left, but she’s also a cheapskate who exploits freelancers.

  6. Great advice! And the Writer’s Market book is !!!! I’ve heard a lot of people underestimate its importance smh. Good article JDan!

    • I live by that thing. I love taking my highlighter and going through it marking magazines, papers, and sites I want to target.

  7. [...] Purify Herself in Lake Minnetonka [Gawker]At HuffPo/AOL and Writing for Free? Kind of A Sucker Move [Media Strut]And on That Pale Horse Rode Death…: Waka Flaka Flame to Be New Face of PETA [...]

  8. @Jeffwinbush- I agree! At least when you are writing on your own blog, people are coming to your site for your content. Submitting everywhere just spreads your work thin. Especially if you aren”t getting paid for it.

  9. [...] him to be a really respected and insightful thought leader on media and African American culture. His take this week following the news about HuffPo selling for a whopping $315 million allows us here at Feministing [...]

  10. [...] at Feministing, Rose posted a whole post about how you should get paid to write.  She links to a post by Mark Anthony Neal saying the same [...]

  11. Im an aspiring sports writer currently trying to get my journalism degree. I have my own blog and have been writing on it for a year. I agree that you shouldn’t write for free, but I don’t know where to start as far as getting paid to write. Since you seem to be well versed on the topic, any advice would be well appreciated. Thanks

    • The first place you start is with Writer’s Market. Get the book or subscribe to the web site. It’s like $20. You start searching out publications to target them and begin submitting content. You can also guest write for other people’s blogs and submit reposts of your blog posts to other sites. While you’re in school, you need to pursue internship opportunities as soon and as often as you can.

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