What Price Media?
Arianna Huffington has the privilege of being the subject of Hundred Eighty Degrees' very first spotlight on media "moguls." The cash prize? Nothing. Which is the same amount she pays 100,000+ contributing writers (those she dubs "citizen journalists") and likely not much less than what she pays staffers.
Hundred Eighty Degrees founder, Doug Forbes, contributed to HuffPo, not nearly with the same vim and vigor nor feet-on-the-street journalistic commitment of others, but he did what he did. After gifting a few dozen pieces over the past few years, he decided that the future of such gifting is in limbo.
One of the goals at Hundred Eighty Degrees is to let folks know that mega-media sites like HuffPo must be seen for what it is: a marketing scheme. At best, these aggregators are big biz ATMs, and at worst, they are the very embodiment of an disinformation infection that has zombified America.
Arianna has an undeniably fertile history of clearly seeing forests for their trees so that she can raze them to lay straight road toward the pot of gold waiting on the other side. In her 2011 book, Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream, you pronounce, "It's no longer an exaggeration to say that middle-class Americans are an endangered species." And her contribution to the cause is to write a book about it so she can cash in on the very folk for whom she so ardently cheers.
She pocketed over $20 million from her sale of HuffPo to AOL, for $315 million in 2011, and she commands a $4+ million dollar salary since. As writers began to rebel against her no-pay policy, she proudly exclaimed, "Go ahead. Go on strike." This response clearly indicated that she was willing to bet on those who would continue to toil pro bono. She was right, so far. Such a model enables her to afford her platinum-plated toilet paper holders in her 4,200sf $8.15 million SoHo loft and her 8,000sf $11 million estate in Los Angeles.
The claim that her unpaid writers receive massive if not unparalleled visibility is inane. She and her staff are too busy either aggregating or outright stealing content (some of the myriad examples are here and here and here and here) to the point that information overload is the understatement of the decade. The average Joe or Jill does not reach the masses, but Arianna, however, is the beneficiary of the incremental traffic that their hard work bears. We believe aggregation (especially attribution of research) is fair to a degree. "Footnotes" have been a writer's friend for eons. But repackaging and claiming content as her own - especially in her take-no-prisoners context - is stupefying and sleazy.
HuffPo is largely fueled by ad revenue. Perhaps content generated by unpaid HuffPo bloggers generates but a small fraction of traffic to the site as purported by numbers guru, Nate Silver, in a previous FiveThirtyEight blog analysis. However, what Nate fails to understand is:
- Ad revenue pales in comparison to what Arianna and her new cohort, Jeff Zuckerberg, TRULY vie for: the personal profile information of folks that they can sell to the boundless bidders waiting like wolves to make them their next marketing victims.
- Arianna has spent her life caring about people as long as they can sustain her ability to, as Gordon Gekko once said, water ski behind as many yachts as possible. More on that in a moment.
- And by the way, Nate Silver got lured from The New York Times to the ESPN (Walt Disney Company) machine - 2nd largest media conglomerate (TV/radio/cable/telecom/print/Internet) in the world - where he himself now commands a hefty salary, not to mention his prior $700,000 book deal advance and ancillary revenue streams. Welcome to the top of the world, Nate.
Eric Frazier is a Charlotte Observer journalist who covers economic development. Regarding the issue of unpaid content providers at HuffPo, perhaps he sums it best with, "Just because you can get people to work for you for free doesn't mean you should." Chris Hedges, famed author, speaker, thinker, could not agree more. "Any business owner who uses largely unpaid labor, with a handful of underpaid, nonunion employees, to build a company that is sold for a few hundred million dollars [the AOL merger], no matter how he or she (Arianna) is introduced to you on the television screen, is not a liberal or a progressive. Those who take advantage of workers, whatever their outward ideological veneer, to make profits of that magnitude are charter members of the exploitative class."
18 months ago, something began to curdle inside Doug Forbes. After the HuffPo team denied to publish a piece titled, "America's New Slavery" which addressed absurd income disparity and slovenly conditions that consume the average 21st century American, it became clear that something was afoot. Clearly, deploying the word "slavery" could not be the issue. Or could it? In absolutely no way was the content a wholly compare-contrast narrative. The average citizen knows that slave trade centuries before is not comparable. That being said, slavery, defined as submission to a dominating influence, is precisely what modern America suffers through today. Having worked at nonprofits serving the poor and homeless, Forbes knows this to be true.
In any event, the above story denial sparked a need to litmus test the HuffPo. Since the HuffPo editorial team loves to litter its daily front page with TMZ-like headers, surely a more poisonous pen would yield better results.
So Forbes submitted a highly researched, fact-filled column on gun control with a little more satire than usual. Rejection. He submitted a similarly constructed column on media misdeeds. Rejection. And so on. And this after never having entertained such rejection from HuffPo. Hey, rejection is a way of life. Likely deserved more often than not. But something stunk here.
And here's the point.
How do Arianna's think-pieces such as how butt implants are on the rise or what happens when you put pit bulls in a photo booth deserve HuffPo front page gold every time? Likely answer: because they are low-hanging fruit for gluttons of idiocy they can call their most beloved faithful.
Mayhill Fowler is one of Arianna's greatest conquests. Graduate of Vassar, some high profile work on major media outlets, etc. She covered the 2008 presidential campaign for the HuffPo "Off the Bus" initiative. That's about 80 hard news stories over the course of 15-16 grueling months. Mayhill is the journalist who broke the Obama "clinging to guns and religion" story which was played out en masse and for which you were a jubilant heiress. All tolled, she gave HuffPo about 200 stories. And Arianna gave her nothing. Not even the decency to offer her any form of stipend as she says "to do original reportage." This is shameful manipulation. And for all of those of you out there who think Mayhill was naive, think again. What she was and is, is full of integrity, talent and belief that there would be a greatly deserved payoff in the end. Read her story here.
But Arianna's buddy, Bill Maher (for whom she used to write on the original Politically Incorrect) has been on countless front pages, which, of course, props up his ratings and bottom line. Or formerly John Stewart or Stephen Colbert for the same reasons. As much as we may admire their wit and smarts, the joke is on us for watching them. Word is Maher makes about $2.5 million per season for Real Time on HBO and who only knows how much for his standup shows. Must be enough to sink $20 million into the New York Mets as a minority partner. John Stewart was the highest paid host on TV earning upwards of $25 million a year, and poor Colbert earned but a measly $6 million for his former satire xtravaganza. The irony? They earned a living railing against titans of news, industry and policy, and yet they worked for Viacom, the fourth largest media conglomerate in the world. Like all such empires, Viacom monopolizes and controls what we are able to see, hear and read. Those three sure weren't choosing to work for a web-based comedy platform where they may have earned enough to afford cable television in their 200 sf studio in Hell.
But we digress.
Maybe most infuriating about Arianna and her ilk is that they are given absurd money and celebrity only to fail. HuffPo has failed to turn a profit since the $315 million dollar AOL purchase. In fact, Arianna only turned a profit one year to date since launching in 2005. How many small to medium sized businesses that power this economy can survive if they fail to turn a profit in nearly 10 years? Arianna's boss at AOL, Tim Armstrong, made a jaw-dropping comment in 2013, calling it “AOL’s most successful year in the last decade.” And this is after net income for the year plummeted 91 percent! HuffPo followed that up by breaking even in 2014 with $146 million!
When Verizon bought AOL for $4.4 billion, and Arianna was scrambling to identify with her new overlords, multiple parties reportedly approached her with billion dollar plus offers. This is what makes her brand of mass media massively foul. She pays puny wages to her sleepless, lunchless, dinnerless, exploited employees, she doesn't pay contributors a penny for their time or research or relevance, she largely lifts content from outside providers, she uses the platform to sell her spiritual books and secure $100K speaking gigs, and yet she is somehow adored, valued and venerated for creating such an inimitable hydra.
This piece on Gawker sheds brilliant light on just how little Arianna cares about "journalism" and just how much she cares about walking in diamond-dappled heels.
As AdAge said, "So, if The Huffington Post -- which is 10-years-old, hauls in more than 200 million unique visitors a month and cranks out roughly 1,200 posts daily [note: actually 1,900] on the backs of reportedly poorly paid or unpaid writers -- can't turn a profit on $146 million in revenue, then how are the other, venture-capital fueled sites with smaller audiences and fewer relationships with advertisers supposed to achieve profitability?" Whaddya think, Arianna?
We mentioned, the issue of attribution above. Here's some attribution worth checking out. Head on over to shameproject.com. This ultra-compelling illustration of a woman who will sell herself to her other self epitomizes the cult of personality that has barnstormed if not brainwashed a nation.
Or check out a former employee acutely describing Arianna's soulless, thankless work environment.
Perhaps the best illustration of her HuffPo empire came via The New York Times piece in which one employee described her working conditions as "a jury-rigged, discombobulated chaos machine."
The despot formula is all-too-familiar. Convince people that a sea change is coming. Use fear, celebrity, connectivity, magnetism, head games, money or any combination thereof to convince them that you can lead them through such change unto a better tomorrow. Build a kingdom that believers can be in awe of and non-believers can be denied access to. Require a handsome fee for protection. And finally, and most importantly, screw over as many folks as possible on ones' way to touching clouds.
We understand that this honor will likely reach but a grain of the HuffPo faithful. We are relative nobodys and Arianna is an everybody of the one percent. Is this harsh treatment? Indeed. But it is nowhere near as harsh as the role she plays in scamming millions into believing her media empire is worth a fraction of what it pretends.