By Marilyn Ferdinand
Arianna Huffington’s come to town. Actually, she’s brought her “local” Huffington Post to my town specifically, but she intends to spread her wings and fly to metropolitan areas all over the United States in the months ahead.
The Huffington Post is something of a juggernaut on the blog scene and one that many bloggers of a liberal persuasion read regularly and blogroll on their sites. Plenty of nonbloggers read HuffPo as well. So did I. I even signed up for HuffPo’s OfftheBus project, in which ordinary people cover the election stories that Big Media can’t or won’t report, because I thought the idea of participating in the democratic process was an important action I could take. I also thought that because I was one of Barack Obama’s Illinois constituents, I’d have a more well-rounded view of a candidate who, frankly, the liberal world has gone gooey over.
I wrote a piece called “Obama’s Green Screen” that was critical of Senator Obama’s conspicuous absence when Lake Michigan was under threat of becoming, yet again, a dump for Big Energy’s waste. Opposition in Illinois to BP’s plans to dump waste from their Northern Indiana refinery was bipartisan, but our junior senator was absent and silent. We’ve seen now that this ducking and weaving from issues that might hurt his chances of election comprise part of his game plan. Back then, however, many of us believed his rhetoric of change, and for many of us, that meant taking unpopular or politically risky stands.
The Huffington Post was not yet headquarters of the Obama for President fan club, but that didn’t last long. The shriller the site’s boosterism, the more disenchanted I became with it. I stopped reading it and decided that my civic energies could be spent doing more effectual things than trying to report evenhandedly about Barack Obama for OfftheBus, hosted on The Huffington Post Web site.
As some of you know, our site has been affiliated with The Beachwood Reporter. I went to listen to some panel discussions at the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication conference held last week in Chicago, one of which included Steve Rhodes, the founder and general manager of The Beachwood. Afterwards, Steve, another journalist, and I chatted, and one topic that came up was the advance work The Huffington Post was doing to get writers for its Chicago site. I was not approached, but both of them had been and were asked to work “pro bono,” in other words, for free. Arianna Huffington is a multimillionaire, yet she is asking professional journalists to work for free. We all thought this was outrageous. If she wants to give space to unqualified celebrities like Deepak Chopra to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that’s her business. They don’t need the money, but they like the visibility.
However, asking professionals to consider her site one that serves “the public good” (which is what pro bono translates as) to which they should give willingly and liberally of their time is the ultimate in cheek at best and something that looks an awful lot like what liberals are supposed to be against—the labor abuses of Big Business—at worst.
Today, Steve posted a letter that appeared on Romenesko, a hugely popular site for journalists hosted by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, future journalists, and teachers of journalists. Since most of you probably don’t visit this site, I’ll duplicate the letter and Steve’s comments from The Beachwood:
“From KEVIN ALLMAN: Phil Rosenthal’s (Chicago Tribune media columnist) story on Arianna Huffington’s foray into the local blogging market included this line: ‘Writers work pro bono.’
“‘Pro bono’ means ‘for the public good.’ What Rosenthal should’ve said is that Huffington wants writers to work for free so she can sell ads around their work. That ain’t the public good. That ain’t good, period.
“The Huffington Post has been a winning formula, because it gives platforms to Huffington’s D.C. and L.A. buddies who need vanity exposure more than they need money. But when she comes into communities and applies the same formula, there’s another word for that formula, and it’s exploitation.
“It’s hard for me to take any ‘progressive’ site seriously that expects people to work for free while the founders make money. At least Wal-Mart pays minimum wage.”
Steve Rhodes said: “Like everyone else and their dog in Chicago, I’ve been asked to contribute to the new Chicago version of Huffington Post – for free.
“So let me get this straight. Arianna Huffington is incredibly rich and you want me to work for free to make her richer? And to help her put me out of business? Let me think about this while eating my ramen dinner and reading Arianna’s latest post about how the Republicans don’t care about working people.
“How about this? If Arianna writes for me for free, I’ll write for her.”
Regardless of whether you agree with letter-writer Allman or Steve Rhodes, they do make a case against Arianna Huffington’s business model. I have one more reason to oppose it.
The Huffington Post-Chicago premiered today. The comments thread under the site’s introductory post were very positive, thrilled that Ms. Huffington chose our terrific burg to splash down in. That’ll teach New York and Los Angeles who The Second City isn’t! I thought I’d like to greet HuffPo a little differently by posting Allman’s letter with my own comments. I’m still a registered HuffPo blogger from my brief stint with OfftheBus, so it should have gone up unmolested. It didn’t. I watched the “Comments Pending” number carefully, seeing it go up and down and eventually reach zero.
Strangely, my post didn’t appear. I wrote another post that said HuffPo was censoring my comment, and it didn’t appear. I tried another approach and responded to another comment with information that HuffPo doesn’t pay its writers. It didn’t appear either. I sent a final comment announcing my intention to write about this disgraceful disregard for working people and the censorship that seemed to be underway to ensure a lovefest for HuffPo’s entry into the Chicago market.
Two established sites, Chicagoist and Gapers Block, have been covering the local scene for several years. The Beachwood has been doing the same for the political landscape for nearly 3 years. Now, like megabucks Sam Zell’s slash-and-burn approach to his recent acquisition, The Tribune Company, Arianna Huffington is ready to run over our local bloggers. Those who are cheering her today may regret it tomorrow when, like Clear Channel, she becomes the dominant voice in Chicago-centric Internet publishing. It’s probable that local sites with fewer resources will dry up and blow away when HuffPo steals their advertisers.
HuffPo may seem liberal, but it doesn’t smell that way to me. When the odor reaches your city, duck and cover. l