At the New York Times, academics and activists and authors lend their time, name and authority to the publication. The payoff? A quote in the paper, some influence over the story, a bit of publicity for their work and a role in the broader debate. But no money. Never any money. The New York Times would fire a reporter for offering sources money.
At the Huffington Post, you’re seeing the same transaction, but run more efficiently: Academics, activists and authors lend their time, name and authority to work they’ve written themselves, that gets published at its full length, where their names always appear up at the top. The tradeoff is that, in most cases, fairly few people see their work. But that’s better than no one seeing their work, which is often the realistic alternative.
Are these unpaid writers helping to make Arianna Huffington rich? They are. But the insight, expertise and inside information of unpaid sources has made many newspapers rich, too. And the fact that the work those sources put into those subjects appeared under someone else’s byline made it worse, not better.
At its best, journalism brings a lot of different perspectives into the conversation. But it’s always been the people aggregating these perspectives who got paid. That remains true at the Huffington Post, and perhaps it’s something that the Huffington Post’s unpaid contributors should be angry about. But it’s not something that the journalists and news outlets have much standing to condemn. We’ve long been asking people to contribute pro bono labor to the products sold by our for-profit companies.