As some but by no means all progressives know, the Newspapers Guild and the National Writers Union have called a boycott against Huffington Post for refusing to pay its writers. Unlike unionized workplaces like the New York Times, Huffington Post exploits laborers desperate to get in print by offering them a byline without compensation while Ariana Huffington makes millions. The unions want the writers to get paid and to have greater editorial control over their content.
I completely support this boycott. I refuse to read anything at HuffPo or to link there. Ultimately, HuffPo is surviving on the adjunct model. Like higher education with its hordes of PhDs with no job prospects, there is a huge supply of writers who want to make a living in journalism. HuffPo offers the promise of gaining valuable experience and readership so that someday, maybe, you can make it big.
This is a dishonest proposition by HuffPo. It is almost impossible in 2011 to go from a no one to a big name blogger. The blogosphere is ossified. During the explosion of the medium from 2004-06, young writers could produce excellent work and become big name people. Then, by 2007, those were the only blogs people read. Today, those are the prominent and still young writers of the progressive blogosphere. And they aren’t going anywhere.
There are a few exceptions to this. You can have extremely specialized skills like Nate Silver. You can learn Arabic and become a specialist in the Middle East like Matt Duss. I have no doubt there is room for some people to learn Chinese and get a job writing at quality sites. Those people deserve the readership they have gained. But what HuffPo promises, that a jerk like me or you can come to their site and get started in a long career in journalism is precisely the same exploitative relationship that allows universities to hire legions of adjuncts and continue to produce PhDs. It ensures a supply of cheap or unpaid labor that allows for a corporate model to maximize profit at the top while serving readers/students for the foreseeable future with workers desperate enough to live their dreams that they will do a heck of a job.
One of my biggest critiques of the progressive blogosphere and young progressives in general is a lack of concern over labor. Almost inevitably, when a major site discusses labor, a big section of the comments devolve into people normally good on most issues questioning whether unions are outdated. Class consciousness and solidarity among young educated people is almost dead in this country. A whole lot of people see an information society as a workplace they can succeed in on merit if only they just work a little bit harder, write that one more article, etc.
Remarkably, even labor-oriented progressives are split about this boycott. Robert Reich for instance continues to write at HuffPo, arguing, as this Mike Elk piece at In These Times shows, that he is writing op-eds for free, as he would to the New York Times. But Reich is also supporting a large and profitable corporation who undermines unionization attempts, yet makes false claims to being supportive of social justice in this nation and the world.
Robert Reich is absolutely wrong on this issue.
From Elk’s piece:
“Now it appears that even leading progressives who should be setting a good behavioral example for younger activists care little about respecting a labor boycott with growing support,” says labor journalist, former CWA union organizer Steve Early, who is honoring the boycott of the Huffington Post. (He’s also a contributor to Working In These Times.) “Who’s going to take these guys seriously when they preach to us about the need for social and workplace solidarity but then completely ignore the collective efforts of the Guild and the National Writers Union to make HuffPo a more responsible employer of freelance labor?”
Wherever one stands on the issue of the Huffington Post’s use of unpaid labor, it’s progressives—who are both participating and not participating in the picket line—who will determine the future of what’s acceptable for labor practices in the journalism industry.