Aggregation Killed the Journalism Star

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In 2003 I was fresh out of college and interning at Ms. Magazine. I first saw Arianna Huffington at the magazine’s editorial offices, where she was holding a press conference to discuss the numerous sexual harassment charges against her gubernatorial opponent, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Huffington was there to explain why his track record made him unfit to be California’s next governor.

I can’t recall precisely what she said, but I do remember her mentioning how Schwarzenegger’s cavalier attitude about his abuses of power on a personal level would likely manifest in the political sphere. I was deeply impressed by Huffington’s poise and intelligence (not to mention her tailored power suit and perfectly coiffed hair). It was a revelation: a woman could be classy and tough, assertive without being bitchy, and radical without sporting dreadlocks and Birkenstocks. So it was possible to be progressive and possess fashion sense!  Huffington was a self-made woman who I thought would stand up for what she believed in—and perhaps even for those who couldn’t advocate for themselves.

Six years later, Ms. Huffington was a featured speaker at my graduate journalism program. A number of my friends protested her appearance, citing the fact that she essentially “pimped out” students from our program to produce investigative content for the Huffington Post without compensation, and she didn’t offer paid internships to boot.  I debated ditching the lecture, but in the end I felt it worth my time. Whether or not I agreed with her methods, she had created quite a clever business model—and she was still one of the most powerful women in media. Paid or not, a clip from the Huffington Post carried a certain cachet, and I wasn’t going to dismiss her or her unpaid bloggers so easily. As we are taught, beggars can’t be choosers.

At the lecture, Huffington was once again articulate, passionate and tailored to a tee, but when the question and answer part came things got a little dicey. Someone asked why she didn’t pay her interns; another student asked if she thought the model of aggregation/blogging she implemented was detrimental to the future journalism. Things got a little tense. She wasn’t giving straight answers, and her lofty platitudes about game changers and the future of journalism left me without a clear sense of how to achieve my first practical goal—a paying job after graduation—or my long term one—writing those pie-in-the-sky in-depth pieces a la Joan Didion or Gay Talese. I went from feeling inspired to being disempowered in 0 to 60. I left early.

Still, I wasn’t totally cynical about the Huffpo model or the future of journalism—yet. I had a good education and plenty of spunk, so even if the Post wouldn’t pay, other places would, right? I graduated from J-school, snagged a fellowship at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, and was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to write and report in-depth, long-form stories. That was six months ago, and since then I’ve struggled to find paid writing gigs that can sustain me financially, much less a full time job.

My story is all too typical. I have, however, freelanced–not blogged, but reported, fact-checked, and written–for the Huffington Post. For free. I pounded the pavement from polling places to voting rallies, conducted phone interviews with Chicago election experts, political science professors and voters, and hounded press secretaries for decent quotes from candidates during the city’s mayoral elections. So why would I go to all the trouble for free? Because I think there’s inherent value in quality journalism. Or is there?

The controversy surrounding the recent class action lawsuit filed by former Huffpo blogger and labor rights activist Jonathan Tasini against Arianna Huffington for unpaid wages isn’t really about whether or not she violated a legal contract (she didn’t, and in my opinion the case has no merit). The lawsuit speaks to a far greater issue at the crux of journalism in America. Its main function is to draw attention to a media landscape in which disillusioned journalists are becoming increasingly frustrated with their dwindling prospects for satisfying work and living wages—a landscape that Huffington is helping to perpetuate.

Before I continue, let me make one thing clear: I understand the game has changed. I’ve been inculcated in a new media world, and I get it.  Why wait for some hotshot publication to hire me when I have the tools to report and publish at my fingertips, right? I blog and tweet, and I even go “on assignment” when I care about a story, whether or not I actually have an assignment. I understand that defining my online brand and making my voice heard in multiple platforms is now just as much a part of any journalism career as reporting the facts and shaping a narrative.

I’ve embraced the change, but I don’t always feel an evolving media model embraces journalists. Despite the fact we have scores of citizen journalists who can contribute to information gathering (which is all and all a good thing), we’ve conflated content farming with bona fide journalism—thoroughly reported, exhaustively researched, well written, fact-checked, copy edited, the whole nine.

In her rebuttal to the lawsuit, Huffington wrote a slightly dismissive and sardonic response in which she explains that the Post is just like countless other media platforms in which bloggers benefit from engaging in an online community. “The key point that the lawsuit completely ignores (or perhaps fails to understand) is how new media, new technologies, and the linked economy have changed the game, enabling millions of people to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation–from couch potato to self-expression,” writes Huffington.

Very true. But what Huffington completely ignores is that in the shift from an old media model to one of engagement and interaction, we’ve also shifted from telling stories to creating content. We’ve turned “self-expression” into self-promotion, and “active participation” into a means for everyone with an Internet connection and an opinion to be considered on par with journalists, which dilutes the importance of those who deeply probe the issues and privilege information about ideas and events above their online brand. The result? Exposure and attention have become a new sort of currency measured in traffic potential, page views, comment threads and click-through rates.

I thought of the piece I wrote for HuffPo on early voting in Chicago’s mayoral elections. My article got only one Facebook share and three comments. So does it matter if it’s newsworthy if it falls short according to Internet measuring sticks? Can content even be deemed worthwhile if it can’t be monetized?

Huffington also mentioned that some of her bloggers have gone on to get their own television shows or columns, but the truth is that most journalists don’t get plucked from obscurity. Most I know, including myself, slog along writing for sites paid and non-paid in hopes of gaining experience, exposure, and yes, a job–specifically, one that pays.  In the past four months, I’ve written approximately twelve articles for various media outlets including The Daily Beast, Women’s eNews, Gaper’s Block, Bookslut, The Rumpus, TimeOut Chicago, and the Huffington Post.  Some have paid me, others have not.

But I already write for the Huffington Post. If one the wealthiest media companies can’t pay me, then who will?

If Huffington wonders why some of her bloggers and journalists are now spewing venom in her direction, it’s because the The Huffington Post has come to epitomize everything that’s problematic with “modern” journalism: the millionaire media mogul in one corner and a legion of disgruntled, over-trained and underpaid “content creators” who once fancied themselves writers, reporters, and storytellers in the other.  She many not be the only one (see Rupert Murdoch) but as a woman who built her image on being a salt of the earth kind of gal, she’s the one who seems to have betrayed those she once claimed to represent.

It would be unfair to conclude that Huffington is single-handedly responsible for shifting the media landscape, but it’s not unfair to mention that with power comes responsibility.

At what point in a journalist’s career is it fair to ask for monetary compensation? Or perhaps the question is at what point should I accept that the career formerly known as journalism is simply unattainable? (Unless, of course, I want to blog for free.) Is it fair to expect that after two internships, one fellowship, and numerous freelancing gigs I should desire a job–any job–that pays me to write and report, not aggregate content or put together slideshows of kittens? (Oh, and benefits would be nice, too. I’d love to get my teeth cleaned and work out some of my commitment issues in therapy.) But what happens if I can’t find a job because they’ve all been eaten up by your multi-million dollar merger?

Arianna Huffington didn’t violate a business contract, but she did fracture a powerful social contract protecting value and production. Many people around the world don’t have the privilege or freedom to rise above their circumstances (without starting a revolution), but in the U.S. we’re taught to believe that with hard work, a good education and a little persistence you can make your dreams come true. Isn’t that why Huffington came to this country in the first place?

It’s treacherous territory to examine the dynamics of writing for free, and easy to sound whiny and self-righteous. (Why does Arianna get $315 million and I get zero?) But my beef is not with not getting paid right now, it’s with the diminished opportunities I see in my journalism future. If my best option is to continue writing for free, then should I consider the ability to express myself as compensation enough?

What will happen (and is already happening) is that journalists will defect to other professions because writing and reporting are anything but easy. But what happens when it becomes downright near impossible? Huffington might consider her site and her vision the future of journalism, and yes, it’s one version. Here’s another one: mine.

I was tired of reading job postings describing the James Francos of journalism: “A qualified candidate must know how to create Web sites, shoot and edit video, use Facebook and Twitter, have a masters degree, five years of experience as a reporter, have published a book of short stories and know how to change a flat tire and cook a damn good key lime pie.” Or something like that.

I was offered a job as an editorial assistant with a massive media company. It wasn’t actually journalism–I’d be working in their custom publishing division, a close cousin of marketing and PR. I decided to do it–it offered a full salary and benefits-–but in the end, I didn’t get the job because it no longer existed. They had decided to merge two positions and a senior editor had his eye on someone he wanted to hire. They still wanted me–on a temp basis doing the same thing, just without benefits or job security. I scooped it up. It was also in New York, so I’d have to move. Now I spend my days in an office for an hourly wage working at a job that will end soon. At night, I write the stories I want to tell-–ones that I find important and meaningful, and ones I don’t often get paid for. I still wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s not glamorous or easy and I don’t expect to earn a small fraction of what Huffington makes. Ever.

Perhaps I was entitled and naive to ever expect more. I’ve started to feel that the whole “writing stuff that matters and getting paid for it” thing was about as realistic as the part of my glamorous writer fantasy where I’m living in cute brownstone with a gigantic closet and dating some arrogant prick named Big. This, I think, is the future of journalism: moving in with strangers in a different city in order to take jobs obliquely related to journalism, continuing to supplement my income with tutoring, trying to do the “real’ journalism on the side and never really knowing if the constant motion is taking me forward or laterally.

This winter, Huffington was speaking at the Hyatt in Chicago. “You should go and introduce yourself,” my mother said. “Tell her you’re  part Greek, too.” I didn’t think she’d care what I was or wasn’t. Besides, at most it could get me, what? An unpaid internship? I guess I’m better off on my own.


Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist living in New York. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Women's eNews, at the Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. She blogs at www.alizahsalario.com. More from this author →