Thursday, March 3, 2011

The arts writers ‘strike’ against the Huffington Post is absurd!

The arts writers ‘strike’ against the Huffington Post is absurd!

On March 1st I read an article on The LA Times‘ Culture Monster blog titled, ‘Arts writers declare ‘strike‘ against Huffington Post‘. The article explored a ‘strike’ declared by writers for the websites ArtScene and Visual Art Source against the Huffington Post. Long story short-- the ArtScene and Visual Art Source writers agreed to be volunteer bloggers for the Huffington Post in 2010. They agreed with the understanding that the content they provided would not be paid for. Furthermore, they agreed knowing in advance that they would not be considered employed by the Huffington Post. Apparently this agreement is now in the wind. The volunteer art writers want paid-- and they are waving the banner of writers rights to position themselves as victims.

The call for ’strike’ was prompted by the Huffington Post’s recent sale to AOL for a reported $315 million. It appears that the volunteer contributors from ArtScene and Visual Art Source feel that their free contributions to the Huffington Post deserve some credit for that sale. My understanding is that these writers did not provide original content for Huffington Post-- they simply agreed to have their content republished on the site. That said, the writers-- according to Culture Monster-- are demanding that a pay schedule be proposed and initiated for all contributing writers and bloggers. Furthermore, the writers are demanding that paid promotional material be removed from editorial content. As an art writer I feel that their demands are ridiculous.

Upon reading the Culture Monster article I was quick to respond. However, my comment has yet to be moderated-- though I notice that comments made after my contribution have appeared. I can only assume that for whatever reason my comment did not make the cut. My comment below:

“I think a few of you need to cut the BS. You may want to cut this BS (me) after I get done saying what I want to say. Ha! Anyway, I'm an art writer-- I write for pay or I write for myself. If I write for free it is because I'm benefiting in some way. All of you knew what you were signing on for. You all benefited from a platform that helped you to receive a constant flow of readers-- numbers that most of you would have been unable to accomplish on your own. That is why you agreed to write for free. So cut the BS.

It is unethical to take on a free writing gig-- the reward being a high level of exposure for your writing-- only to end up demanding pay. You should have had the details worked out from the start-- or simply refused. The fact remains that there are many art writers who would gladly take on the level of exposure that you have all enjoyed.

"Being asked"... would you jump off a cliff if someone asked you to do it? I have to ask-- why did you agree to write for Huffington Post if you were not happy with the terms in the first place?”

Obviously my comment is borderline controversial since there is this idea floating around that all art writers should ban together in the face of opposition. For example, I discussed the issue on my Facebook page and a commenter was quick to play the victim card for the ArtScene and Visual Art Source writers, stating, “Will the Huf-Po still be a viable source of good info? I don’t understand how big companies can swallow little ones up and claim to be streamline... its like "BIG GOVERNMENT".. Doesn’t work for today's economics.”. Needless to say, I was not overly impressed with this persons view on the issue. He, like many, have missed the point-- that being that said writers willfully agreed to the terms knowing in advance that they would not be compensated.

These writers and the two websites involved were not ‘swallowed’ by the Huffington Post-- they agreed to provide content for free. It is not like the Huffington Post forced them to provide content. At the time I’m certain these art writers agreed to the terms out of desire for exposure and being included on a popular media site.

Will the Huffington Post still be able to provide viable art content if these writers leave? My guess is that there are hundreds of other art bloggers who write just as well who would gladly write for free in order to gain the exposure that these writers were first attracted to. It is not an uncommon practice-- contributing for free in exchange for exposure and being associated with a top brand. In other words, Huffington Post will not have a hard time replacing these volunteer writers if needed. Not to mention that sites in general rarely pay to re-post content if in fact that was the extent of their contribution.

The key point to remember is that these writers agreed to the terms. They agreed to provide content for free. If they desired money they should have stated that from the start. Now they are waving the banner of writers rights in order to gain support for paid positions-- when they knew from day one that it was not a paid position. As you can tell-- I'm frustrated by the unprofessional behavior these writers are displaying.

A few of these writers are claiming that Huffington Post is insulting all writers. Fair enough-- but they forget to stress that they knew what they were signing on to when they agreed to provide content. Their behavior is like doing community service only to demand a tip! To me that is unethical-- these writers, in my opinion, need to question their own integrity. Their behavior is very manipulative-- they are trying to muscle the Huffington Post by playing on our heart-strings. The ode of the poor writer... what did they expect? They agreed to provide content without compensation!

I have focused on art writing for half a decade-- the blunt of which has involved writing for online art-focused companies. I know how the game is played-- and, having been a Senior Editor in the past, I know how demanding volunteer writers can be. Honestly, if these writers don’t like the terms of their agreement they should just part ways instead of trying to shake down the Huffington Post.

The 'striking' writers are playing the worlds smallest violin-- and anyone who has worked in this industry can see that for what it is! They agreed with the terms offered by the Huffington Post because they wanted exposure-- and it is highly likely that they would have never enjoyed the exposure they have had if it were not for their involvement with the Huffington Post. It is almost as if these art writers are crying foul after they have already enjoyed their side of the bargain.

It would be different if the Huffington Post once paid them and stopped suddenly. As a writer I’ve had that happen to me in past-- and I parted ways with that company soon after. However, that is not the case here. These writers were not duped. They were not tricked. They knew what they were doing-- and they did it for exposure. Suddenly exposure is not enough. Fine. Part ways instead of making a controversy where there is none.

We live in an age of cultivated controversy. People are quick to wave the banner of their assumed rights when in reality greed is the motivation. The economy is tough-- these writers no doubt want more income rolling in. However, making absurd statements that fly in the face of the terms they agreed to is not the way to handle it in my opinion. If they expected pay they should not have signed on to work a free gig in exchange for high exposure and high brand association. It is as simple as that. They took advantage of themselves and now they play the role of victim!

In closing, call me a jerk if you want-- but the art writers 'striking' at Huffington Post knew what they were signing up for. They are either naive OR it is a pr stunt. Perhaps the powers that be at ArtScene and Visual Art Source should be questioned about that? That would be a more interesting controversy to expose-- if one exists-- rather than the absurd call for ‘strike’ that these writers have hyped. Furthermore, perhaps someone should explore why Culture Monster has apparently been very selective about which comments pass moderation. Is it California art writers protecting California art writers from criticism? There-- I just cultivated a controversy-- though I don’t think it is as absurd as the demands being made of the Huffington Post.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


  1. perhaps they will come to some agreement where they will continue to provide the same free content and also be allowed to do additional writing for pay -

  2. Based on what I’ve read so far that suggestion makes too much sense. From a legal AND ethical standpoint the Huffington Post has done nothing wrong. These writers could have walked away long before now if they honestly felt they were being used.

    This whole ‘we gotta stand up for the rights of writers!’ battle-cry makes no sense in this case. These writers knew what they were agreeing to. Honestly, what is next? Bloggers demanding pay from Google because they use Blogger and have helped Google profit? It is absurd.Common sense has went out the window.

  3. Although I agree with your logic on its face, I would need to explore how and if the roles evolved after the initial agreement. Have both sides behaved in such a way that renegotiation of those roles might be a reasonable approach?

    As there is no way for me to evaluate such, it would appear to be an opportunistic reaction. I find the growing trend to use formulaic rhetoric from rigid, polarized positions to be a sign of weakness. Always with the victimization on one side, and nothing but the scarcity model on the other.

  4. Those fools signed up for free in the first place.
    IF you expect a fee ask for it up-front and not afterwards. I'm with you well said Brian. glad you put the issue so concisely too. Meltemi will work for free in his own interests but always get paid if working for others, even if its a token payment.

  5. The issue of internet aggregators is an on-going problem and isn't as black and white as it is being presented here.

    Huffington Post is neither a news outlet nor a blog, it is an aggregator, like Yahoo! and Google, among others.

    We have not yet successfully defined the financial relationship of an aggregator to the writers; and every situation, like this, is another ray of light shone on the problem.

    Sure, they agreed to be aggregated to HuffPost, but not AOL. Huffington herself very much relied on the goodwill of many writers (creative writers and journalists alike) to build HuffPost, and I'm sure she would not deny that.

    Many have been surprised by the sale, not just the art writers.

    I don't think anyone denies Huffington her due, financially; but I also understand why some volunteers would feel as though they deserved a reward when that many hundreds of millions of dollars is changing hands.

    Sure, HuffPost is not required to do anything but honor the letter of the contract ("they agreed to it," as you like to point out); but I think Huffington herself has relied on the spirit of creativity and progressiveness in those agreements -- until now.

    Now, everyone is supposed to forget the mission of HuffPost and the collective efforts by many, many people to make it a success, so that the money can be deposited and the good-byes waved from a distance. Well, OK, that's one way the world works; but it is not the only way the world works.

    To refer to the writers' position as crying, to imply that their position is irrelevant and without merit, and that somehow AOL and Huffington are above the fray, is based on shallow arguments, at best, and downright anti-worker politics at worst.

    In the big picture, I don't care who gets the money (since I am getting none of it), but I think it's odd to dismiss the writers' position in a financial arena (aggregation) that has yet to be solidly defined.

    Good for them!

  6. I would think it was bad taste to sell a company that had contributions from volunteers. However, the business site was run for profit. I don't really understand why volunteers would want to get paid. Maybe some other type of compensation would be necessary. Artists still get exposure from their works right?