It was just a week ago when AOL stunned the media world by announcing a deal to purchase the left leaning website The Huffington Post for $315 million. Since that time, many of the unpaid bloggers have risen up in protest complaining that Arianna Huffington will profit from their work and that they deserve a share of the sale price.
Huffington has avoided commenting on the controversy but based on an informal study done by the New York Times’ Five Thirty Eight blog, the bloggers do not have a leg to stand on. Nate Silver looked at stories that ran in HuffPo’s news section and compared them to blogs from the site, finding that the news articles drove far more traffic and was probably worth more to HuffPo than the blogs.
Early on Friday morning, I counted the number of comments in two types of Huffington Post articles — those, respectively, in its news (paid) and blog (unpaid) feeds. The count covered articles that were published over a three-day period from Tuesday, Feb. 8 through Thursday, Feb. 10, and which the site had labeled as politics pieces.
Over the course of these three days, The Huffington Post published 143 unpaid blog posts. Collectively, they received 6,084 comments, or an average of 43 per article.
By contrast, it published 161 articles in its politics news feed. Not all of these reflected original reporting, like that of Sam Stein or Howard Fineman, but they were all articles that The Huffington Post was paying for in one way or another: whether to reporters, or to editors who curate and repackage content (sometimes brushing up against fair use guidelines) generated at other Web sites, or to news wires like The Associated Press.
The articles in its politics news feed received 133,404 comments: more than 800 per article, and roughly 20 times as many as its blog posts. Some of the numbers are truly astounding — an article by Mr. Stein on proposed cuts to energy assistance programs in President Obama’s budget received almost 13,000 comments just on its own.
Silver then went on to assign an economic value to each blog post, based on the ad revenues HuffPo generated last year and the number of estimated page views each blog post attracts. What he discovered was interesting. The average blog post receives 43 comments and the median post just 11. Using an estimate of 50 page views per post, Silver calculated that the average generates $13.44 in ad revenue. This compares to my calculation of the average news feed post generating $258.75 in revenues, a shade more than 19 times greater than a blog. It would be difficult for HuffPo to even pay the bloggers a nominal fee of $10 as the median post generates less than $3.50 in revenue, no doubt a money losing proposition for the website. If the bloggers want to get paid, they need to come up with an economic argument that shows they are adding significant value to the site; which does not appear to be the case.
As the Times’ David Carr mentions in his column about the rapid changes in online media, as a result of some 11,000 tweets on Twitter, he has helped create value, and should the owners cash out, all he will have to show for it is a lot of followers and no money. The same goes for Facebook, where users have created the value but will receive none of the proceeds of any IPO or buyout; nor did they expect to.
While Twitter and Facebook aren’t exactly the same as HuffPo, why should bloggers expect anything from Huffington? As far as I know, she did not force them to write and they were always free to take their posts elsewhere. What the bloggers received in return for writing for HuffPo was exposure that would have been hard to replicate on their own.
Taking a page from William Shakespeare, I think the bloggers doth protest too much.