First the Cart, Then the Horse

What’s on the iPod: Hick Town by Jason Aldean

Unless you’ve been unconscious the last few days, you’ve probably heard about the lawsuit filed by angry writers against Arianna Huffington, demanding $105 million in payment from the Huffington Post’s founder. The writers, upset over Ms. Huffington’s deal with AOL to sell the online venue for $315 million, are calling her a “plantation owner” and demanding restitution for what they feel was her using them to increase the value of her commodity. And now they want money.

To that I say good luck. But don’t look for the check any time soon.

The sad fact is these writers agreed to write for free – and in some cases defended their actions when the rest of the writing community, hit them with a lot of “WTF?” style commentary. It was raising their profile! It was a prestigious site that helped them get noticed! They can have their own columns there! They’re getting noticed!

What you ain’t gettin’ is any money, dudes.

The best thing to have done here was to ask for payment before you started working for HuffPo. See, the bargaining power you may have had, the rights you’re so pissed at losing were there at the beginning. Not now. So far after the fact is your outrage that I wonder if the outrage isn’t due to the sheer embarrassment of working for free and being chided for it in public by more discerning writers. And that, dear HuffPo writers, is a choice you made – maybe even gleefully so – without any thought to how rich you were making that site.

And content farm writers, this is your wake-up call. That five bucks you’re so damned proud to earn “without having to market,” as I’ve heard until my eardrums bleed, pales in comparison to the deal your so-called “journalistic clients” (I can’t even type that without wanting to wretch) will someday make, leaving you in an equally cold, lonely place.

And before you argue that at least they’re paying you for your troubles, ask yourself if what they pay you comes anywhere near what an employee at McDonald’s makes for much less work than you have to do to get minimum wage (which is $7.25, not $5). Imagine – you’re making less than minimum wage for an article that any other writer could make $450 or better for. Really? That’s not going to wake you up?

I hope the HuffPo writers do succeed. I hope they set a precedent that warns these scum-churning farms and mills that the current business model could cost them in the long run. Any action that causes one or more of these places to close up shop is a good thing, especially for those modern-day serfs who grind out keywords for crap wages because they think it’s the only gig in town. It’s time writers like that were dropped into the real writing world and learn how to build a respectable business that sustains them, not chains them.

But remember this – these chains were not slapped on any writer without their permission. The choices they made enslaved them. The word “no” never entered into the equation. For that, the blame should be shared.

My words are harsh. My intentions are good. Make better choices now and you’ll not have to sue greedy businesses that wouldn’t pay you in the first place because you weren’t professional enough to ask for what you’re worth. And you are worth more – much more. Now go prove it to them by getting a better gig.

Writers, thoughts on the HuffPo lawsuit?

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Comments

  • Lisa Vella April 14, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Very well said, Lori.

    When I started freelancing several years ago, it literally boggled my mind how people would bargain as low as $2 an article on places like Guru.com or elance.com. It made me angry then, as it does today because they've driven the market down. It's those people, who are willing to accept less who have made it harder for real professionals to ask for more.

    Fortunately, with a little effort and some excellent writing, there's still plenty of legitimate and decent paying jobs out there.

    Hope you are having a great day and thanks for a great post!

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  • Devon Ellington April 14, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    I'm glad they filed it, so at least it might make a few people think. Because, if someone presents an "opportunity", says they "can't afford to pay" and then turns around and sells the site for a lot of money, yes, the writers should get deferred payment.

    It happens a lot in indie film — you want to get your project out there NOW with the agreement that, if it succeeds, you are paid later a particular percentage.

    However it is all in the contract up front.

    I have no idea what kind of contracts these writers were, if they even bothered to put one into place.

    I was approached to write a piece for them a few years ago; I refused to do it without pay. They came back with the whole "prestige" thing. I said, "First of all, if you expect me to believe you're not making a profit from this publication, you must think I'm REALLY dumb. You're all getting paid; why shouldn't I be paid? Plus, I don't write for PRESTIGE. I write to put food on the table and keep a roof over my head. For the same reasons you edit — it's a JOB, as well as a passion."

    And that was that.

    I don't believe they'll win, but maybe these writers have learned something.

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  • Lori April 14, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Lisa, I think it's a cycle. I cycled through the anger, through the indignant notes back to fools paying these rates (and no, they don't care), to shouting at the top of my lungs to writers to make better choices, to believing that the level of jobs at which these writers are wallowing are so low they don't have any effect on our profession. I'm not sure that last bit is true. It does have an effect, and perhaps it's creating more stupidity from the job posters and a handful of clients. In general, however, I think if we're searching correctly, if we're actively looking, we're not going to come across these things very often. Amen, huh?

    Glad you liked the post. 🙂 I hope you have a wonderful day, too. It's sunny and gorgeous here today. If I can get twelve things done in a few hours, I might just get some sun on my shoulders later on. :))

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  • Lori April 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Devon, I agree. I'm glad they filed it, too. I think they're foolish for working for free, but this lawsuit could raise a TON of awareness in the writing community. Don't work for free, people. I'd bet the lion's share of the HuffPo writers will now work much smarter.

    Yep, they rode the prestige train – and did so under the power of a lot of writers – to the bank. What I feel about Arianna Huffington is the polar opposite of pity.

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  • Wendy April 14, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    I'm very happy to see it. I don't think there's much of a case monetary-wise, but it does make a great statement. Hopefully, people will think twice before jumping into waters like this.

    And, hopefully, Huffpo wannabes will think twice before they try to take advantage of others.

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  • Gabriella F. April 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I'm glad they filed it, but I'm not sure it's going to have a long-term effect. I hope it does.

    I think the writers may get a settlement because it might be easier for HuffPo/AOL to settle than to fight. Not sure yet, though, and I haven't seen the complaint or, as you mentioned, contracts, if any.

    But I did read that the lead plaintiff is the same guy who sued to keep his stuff out of databases like Lexis/Nexis without giving him payment. And I think he won, so maybe he's got some smart lawyers who can keep this suit from being dismissed summarily.

    That said, it should be a huge wake-up call that writers should NEVER work for free or peanuts for sites that are trying to make a profit. Did you hear that? Never.

    I never wrote for HuffPo, but I did read it. I unbookmarked it the minute I learned it was purchased for scads and hadn't paid writers a cent. Sorry, I won't support such a model. I also refuse to click on ask.com or demand pieces that come up in any Internet search I perform.

    Lori, I'm behind you 100% on this crusade. Underpaid writers are fools who are damaging the pay and respect of an entire profession.

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  • Jake P April 14, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    I'm going to politely dissent here, as far as being glad they filed or hoping they succeed. I wish they hadn't and hope they don't.

    The writers who did this weren't forced to do anything, and the bottom line is they thought that they were going to get famous by transitivity. And I'm disgusted at them trotting out the plantation owner meme. That is despicable.

    They cut a crappy deal — trading a "Get Famous!" lottery ticket for a living wage — and now they feel stupid. Well, guess what? Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want. Rub some dirt on it, and get back out there.

    I'm reminded of the scene in "Airplane!" where there's the fake Point-Counterpoint TV show: "Shayna, they bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into. I say, let 'em crash!"

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  • Gabriella F. April 14, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Jake, I totally see your point. But if this lawsuit wakes other writers up to the dangers of writing for free–or gives places like HuffPo or Demand pause–I think it's a good thing. Perhaps Demand's potential investors in its IPO are looking at its crappy accounting methods and potential value more closely and will end up being less interested.

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  • Lori April 14, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Jake, in an odd way, we're on the same page here. I'm glad they filed for one reason – it raises awareness among those who need awareness desperately. But damn, they agreed to free, right? Free is what they got.

    My reasons for wanting them to succeed are purely selfish. If it sinks a single content farm, it's worth it. Do I think so? Hell no. I think the snakes will find a new method by which to charm naive writers.

    In that sense, the mere filing of the case should have other writers doing the palm slap to the head. If not, they deserve the measly five bucks they get for working their tails off.

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  • Lori April 14, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Wendy, that's my hope. I don't want them to win because they deserve anything. They don't. I would like to see other writers say "Wait a minute…." when looking at their own practices.

    Gabriella, I never read anything over there. I have this aversion to places that deem themselves lords of the new media. I'd seen Arianna on Morning Joe enough to know she didn't have much to say that I cared to hear.

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  • Jake P April 14, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Lori, I think we're on *exactly* the same page in everything you've said, with the exception of the suit itself. Heck, I loathe both HuffPo and Ariana (though I respect her business acumen).

    Nonetheless, from a business and legal-precedent perspective, I hope the suit gets tossed out. People need to grow the heck up instead of looking for attorneys to undo their foolish, shortsighted mistakes. (And that reaches far, far beyond these types of freelance follies.)

    In the famous words of Rodney Dangerfield, "Hey, you gotta look out for #1…but don't step in #2."

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  • Jake P April 14, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    "Airplane!" and Rodney Dangerfield. Yes, I am really glad I'm citing such sophisticated sources 🙂

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  • Gabriella F. April 14, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    Interesting take by Andrew Sullivan on this exact discussion: http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/04/huffpo-vs-tasini.html

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  • Paula April 14, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Interesting points by everyone here.

    I can't help but wonder if some mill-providers will view this suit as some sort of justification or verification of the whole content mill model. "Look – we're paid more than Huffington post writers, so we must be doing something right."

    It's not much, but at least the HuffPo writers gave their work to a site they can list on a resume without too much embarrassment. Can't say that about the other mills.

    It will be interesting to follow the progress of the suit.

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  • hugh.c.mcbride April 14, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  • Lori April 14, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    That's the reference! Jake, I love that you dropped both Rodney and Airplane! quotes. 🙂

    I agree. People should adopt a LOT more personal responsibility. Let's see, if I own a company and I say "Hey, you can work here for free" and you accept, you've just agreed to the terms stated. If I sell my business, that doesn't mean I owe you a cent for your labor. You'd agreed to free.

    I don't know, Paula. I'd be embarrassed to admit I'd worked for nothing and helped someone gain $315 million that I didn't see a dime of….

    Interesting, Gabriella. His take is pretty spot on.

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  • hugh.c.mcbride April 14, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    Just wrote a comment that appears to have been eaten by the Internet Gods, so I'll try again. (Apologies for the quasi-duplication if the first one suddenly resurfaces):

    1) If I'm a carpenter, & I agree to build you a house FOR FREE (in order to put my mad buildin' skillz on display for all the world to see), unless we've entered into an EXPLICIT WRITTEN AGREEMENT ahead of time, how can I expect to be entitled to a share of the profits should you decide to sell the house?

    2) We all knew Arianna was making big $$$ before the AOL deal, & we all know she's making big $$$ now. As far as I can tell, the only difference is that the *amount* of big $$$ is now a matter of public record, at least as it pertains to the AOL deal. Not sure how that justifies a lawsuit.

    3) Though I agree it would be downright wonderful if this lawsuit suddenly caused the masses to rise up in newfound awareness of the true value of the world's ink-stained wretches (virtual & actual ink, of course), I'm not as optimistic of that outcome as some here appear to be. To paraphrase the great philosopher Donaldus Rumsfeldius, I expect that the effort to promote writers' worth will remain "a long slog."

    4. Not sure what this says about *my* level of sophistication, but I was nodding my head in agreement w/ Jake P's comment before I got to his "sophisticated sources" — and then I found my self nodding even more enthusiastically. Looks like I picked the wrong week to start feeling all refined & cultured 🙂

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  • Lori April 14, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Got your comment out of the Spam folder, Hugh. Sorry. Occasionally it demands food. I saw it was very close to what you'd written before, so I went ahead and deleted the repeat. Is that okay?

    That's what I'm not quite aligning with in terms of this lawsuit. She made money prior to selling. She was raking in ad revenue.

    Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue…..

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  • Gabriella F. April 14, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    I agree with much of what's said, but don't forget that in the law, you can have a claim whether there's a contract or not.

    In this case, the writers' claim might be for unjust enrichment, which essentially means someone is so unjustly enriched by the work of another that it creates an obligation to pay for the services he's been enriched by.

    There's also a concept of unconscionability, which says the terms of a contract are so unconscionable as to be shocking.

    I'm guessing the idea of profiting to the tune of $315 million off of unpaid labor might make a claim of unjust enrichment or unconscionability more colorable than most people think.

    Not saying either is destined to work, just that there are equitable concepts in the law that may work for these writers.

    And that, my friends, is about all of the law I can stomach in one day anymore! (Just kidding!)

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  • WordVixen April 14, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    "and demanding restitution for what they feel was her using them to increase the value of her commodity." = Duh?

    Seriously, what did they think Huffpo was doing? Generously offering a place to showcase their talents out of the goodness of their hearts?

    Sorry to be a little snarky towards the writers, but this is the problem when someone jumps into a new profession without learning at least a little about all ends of the business. In a business, the top level is always out to maximize profits. While the business model itself changes from industry to industry, it's always about profits at the top, and the best employees one can get for the least amount of money at the bottom. That doesn't change just because it's the internet.

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  • Lori April 14, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    LOL! I hear you, Gabriella. You sounded really smart, though. 🙂 Thanks for the info – it'll be interesting to see how it plays out.

    Amen, WordVixen, amen! And there is the whole issue. These writers cannot convince anyone that they were unaware the site was making money. Yes, they were offered "exposure" but honestly, who falls for that? People who think they can't make it on their own?

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  • Paula April 15, 2011 at 12:01 am

    Ah but Lori, I've run into more than one mill writer who lists the mills on their resumes.

    Rational people would be embarrassed to admit it, but…

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  • Wendy April 15, 2011 at 10:36 am

    I agree that they don’t deserve to win any money, since they knew what they were doing when they signed on. They do look like fools and will look like bigger fools if they lose the case. But, I’m still happy to see it, because of the statement that’s been made.

    Those that wrote for them, probably never realized that their hard work would get stampeded on like it did with the big sale of the site. I can see their outrage, but again, it’s something that should’ve been looked at in the beginning . Not after the fact.

    Use them as examples for new writers or those who have been around a few years, but are still struggling to make it. Signing up for places like this can have implications that they need to take into consideration before giving the go ahead.

    Writer’s Worth day is coming up, isn’t it? This would be a good example to show our worth, don’t you think? LOL.

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  • Lori April 15, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Exactly, Wendy! They are the PRIME example of understanding your own worth and not letting someone take advantage.

    Paula, true. You'd think people would be embarrassed. Alas, the world is full of proud, naive people…

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  • Bill Swan April 19, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    There's a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt – "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." In other words, writers who give their time and words away now don't have the right to demand it later.

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  • Lori April 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Bill, I agree completely. And I think a lot of the kerfluffle is stemming from their feeling of outrage – they may feel duped into helping someone grow a business with nothing in it for them. That's true. But it was as true at the beginning of the relationship as it is now. So maybe this is seated in embarrassment? I don't know.

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