Iconic Fear Of Flying author Erica Jong has publicly criticized Arianna Huffington — who uses the unpaid labor of thousands of bloggers on The Huffington Post — and accused her of “hurting writing as a profession.” A feisty Ms. Jong spoke to The Slant, a journalism blog, about Huffington’s effect on the media biz and, wow-ee, she did not hold back. (Which is precisely why I love her.)
I won’t write for free anymore. The idea that everybody’s writing for free is hurting writing as a profession. I wrote many articles for Arianna when she was establishing her aggregator blog and attracting all those eyeballs. When she got $300 million from the AOL acquisition, I said: ‘OK, Arianna, we all helped you get there so now you’re going to pay writers.’ She said, ‘No, I pay my editors.’ I’ve known Arianna for years. Before she married a gay billionaire, she was a writer — A poor. Greek. Writer. …
But “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” as Madeleine Albright once said. Artists who turncoat and exploit other artists — I have no words. …
Now authors are blogging everywhere for free, and it’s not a good development. They are starving. I care about artists — the oxygen of society. Suppress them and you asphyxiate discussion and change. Arianna was a writer once. Then she married an ambivalent gay billionaire and became part of the one percent. She forgot her origins. Writers are part of the 99 percent. We need to be paid! We cannot barter poems for food.
In theory, I absolutely agree with Erica Jong. As a writer, it’s troubling to see freelance writing budgets slashed and paid-writing gigs being shut down to promote “user-generated content” instead. Media outlets suppose they are being very clever, I think, by assuming they can just post content people make them for free. But my general theory about that stuff — unpaid blogging/”journalism” which takes place outside an editorial team’s purview — is that you get what you pay for.
Yet as compelling as Erica Jong’s argument may be, I also have a hard time feeling sympathetic for people who choose to provide labor without pay. I don’t see how it is Arianna Huffington’s fault if people are willing blog for her for free, especially if they’re lining her pockets by doing so yet not “getting anything out of it” themselves. Her model may be exploitative — and I’m not saying it isn’t — but bloggers are choosing to participate in that model. Lots of other people do some kind of unpaid labor to advance their career, usually for only a short time or just occasionally. Presumably these individuals do a cost/benefit analysis of what is worth it to them to work “unpaid.” Do they get more exposure for their name/brand? Do they get something to put on their resume? Do they simply get more practice? For instance, many moons ago as a young sprite, I used to contribute to the blog Feministing without being paid, just to get the blogging “clips” to put on my resume. I’d say it was worth it.
I worked on the blog at Huffington Post from 2007 to 2008. (To be clear, Huffington Post also has a large salaried staff of reporters and editors as well — I was one of those.) I recruited many of these unpaid bloggers myself and copyedited their pieces, and have also blogged for free for the site for the same resume-boosting reasons. Prior to HuffPost and after HuffPost, I’ve worked in the media — sometimes cobbling together two or three jobs at a time to make ends meet. Writing professionally has not been an easy life and it has come with sacrifices — like, say, no health insurance for three years — but it has been my choice to take on those hardships and make the best of them. Like Erica Jong, in 99.9 percent of scenarios, I wouldn’t do unpaid writing today. I have bills to pay and enough experience and talent to pursue paid outlets to pay those bills. Yet if I was offered some really amazing writing opportunity that happened to be unpaid? Like say, writing a Michael Fassbender profile, or a travel piece where I get to hug all the baby pandas in China? Sure. Hells yeah. That would be worth it to me for the experience and possible exposure alone. And, again, I certainly wouldn’t turn around and be resentful about doing unpaid labor when I willingly chose to do it.
What do you think about Erica Jong’s arguments? Do you Arianna Huffington’s actions are defensible? Let us know in the comments.