Huffington clarifies the blogger/ journalist divide

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I gave Arianna Huffington a pretty hard time yesterday for saying, in an interview with Kara Swisher of All Things D, that The Huffington Post doesn't pay its bloggers because they're "not really journalists" -- even though many of them are really journalists, and even though Huffington herself has often championed the value and legitimacy of "citizen journalism."

I asked Huffington to explain this seeming contradiction. Here's how she responded.

I was explaining to Kara the difference between those doing reporting on our site and those offering opinion. We pay for the former -- whether it is being done by our staff reporters, freelance writers, or those doing stories for the HuffPost Investigative Fund -- but not for the latter, whether it is being provided by an actor, a politician, a chef, or those who make their living as journalists.

Our bloggers have no deadlines or commitments. They contribute whenever they feel like adding their take to the national conversation, and are free to do so as often or as little as they like.

As for citizen journalists, they are rapidly emerging as an invaluable part of delivering the news. They are committing acts of journalism, but that's not how they make their living.

To be clear: I don't think Huffington has any ethical obligation to pay the people who choose to blog on her site, no matter how much money it eventually makes. (For now, it's still only flirting with profitability.) Adults are free to enter into any kinds of agreements they choose, and those who choose to write for HuffPo surely do it because they feel they're getting something out of the bargain, be it publicity for their money-making ventures or just a digital soapbox to preach from. Those writers who don't like it are free to offer their services to comparable blogsites that do pay, such as The Daily Beast and True/Slant. (Disclosure: I'm a contributor to the latter.)

Ultimately, it will be the success or failure of experiments like these that determine the market price for HuffPo-style blog content. If they succeed, HuffPo will be forced to share the wealth or face a shortage of blogging talent. If they fail, HuffPo will have that much more justification to keep doing what it's been doing.

In the meantime: Huffington will continue to endure criticism from those who think her enterprise devalues journalism, sucks the lifeblood from newspapers and exploits the plight of writers who've lost their jobs. (Remember when she told Jon Stewart that everyone who's been laid off should start blogging for her?)

She ought to respond not with equivocations, but with the simple truth: We don't pay our bloggers because we don't have to. Period. It may not be pleasant, but it's hard to argue with.
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