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HuffPo America: From Arianna Huffington’s Unpaid Massage Therapists to Obama’s Bridge to Work Program

This article is cross-posted from In These Times 

Since its inception, the Huffington Post has relied heavily on unpaid bloggers. Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer said in 2007 that a key part of the plan of the website was to not pay these bloggers.

“That's not our financial model," Lerer told USA Today. "We offer them visibility, promotion and distribution with a great company."

And a 2011 Forbes article quoted a former editor-in-chief from AOL, which owns the Huffington Post, saying that around the offices, "It was always, ‘Arianna does it. That’s what she’s built her business on. Why don’t we do it, too?’”

Despite its massive growth and sale to AOL for $315 million, the Huffington Post still relies heavily on the work on unpaid workers, and has refused to sign an agreement with the National Writers Union to pay all of its reporters who are assigned stories or report to editors. The Huffington Post currently has 50 paid reporters and more than 400 other staff employed as editors, photo editors, graphic designers, and business staffers on payroll, according to Huffington Post spokesman Rhoades Alderson. But the majority of its content is still generated by its network of more than 8,000 unpaid bloggers.

Some of Huffington Post’s unpaid bloggers submit op-eds in the same fashion that letters to the editor have been done for generations. However, other unpaid Huffington Post bloggers do something that has not been done in the past. As unpaid bloggers, they are given topics to write about by editors and report to them. Leaked internal emails from Huffington Post founding editor Roy Sekoff shows that Huffington Post editors hold “daily conference calls with small groups of citizen reporters” to coordinate their reporting. According to Sekoff, on these calls, “the journalists run their pitches by our ... editors, get feedback and pointers, and are also able to discuss problems, questions, comments, etc with the other journalists on the call.”

In other words, they do all the work of reporters except for no paycheck, just exposure. According to Alderson, Huffington Post currently has four unpaid reporters from its Off the Bus program complementing more than a dozen paid reporters covering the Republican National Convention (RNC).

The unpaid so called "citizen journalists" are so important to Huffington Post's reporting model that star Huffington Post White House reporter Sam Stein recently said in an interview, "At the Huffington Post we employ citizen journalists who help us get stories that we simply couldn't get from Washington D.C. or New York. That doesn't guarantee sucess. You still have to work hard, scrape for stories, etc...But its a fun and exciting time to be in this field."

(Full disclosure, I previously cross-posted some of my work from other places on the Huffington Post as an unpaid blogger, but was fired after I participated in a protest of union construction workers at the Mortgage Bankers Association in January 2011. I guess only in this economy can you be fired from a job that doesn’t pay you anything)

However, at the RNC, the Huffington Post has shown just how quickly paying people for exposure can spread to professions beyond reporting.

“As part of its presence in Tampa, the Huffington Post offers convention attendees Oasis, a candle lit retreat that’s 'a reminder to find balance in the hustle and bustle of the conventions,' ” notes the National Writers Union in a statement. “Among the offerings are yoga classes, massages, mini-facials, and meditation. Like its thousands of citizen journalists and bloggers, the massage professionals are unpaid and working for 'exposure.' ”

Alderson confirms the Huffington Post did not pay the massage therapists rubbing down RNC attendees. Instead, the Huffington Post made a $40,000 donation to the non-profit group “Off the Mat into the World,” which promotes relaxation techniques like yoga and massage therapy. The group, which is not based in Tampa, then recruited a number of Tampa-area massage therapist to work at the RNC strictly for tips, no pay. Off the Mat into the World did not respond to a request for comment.

Irin Carmon, a staff writer at Salon who received one of the massages, says the unpaid massage therapist told her that he was basically doing it “for the exposure.” Massage therapists make on average $21,028 a year, but exposure and connections from working a high-profile event like the RNC could lead to paid work in the future.

Earlier this summer, the Obama administration enshrined the Huffington Post doctrine of having people work for free in order to gain exposure as an official policy for the unemployed. A new Department of Labor "Bridge to Work" demonstration program would build on Huffington model of working for exposure by allowing up to 10 states to let companies employ workers receiving unemployment compensation without the employer necessarily having to pay those workers. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis wrote on Twitter when announcing the program, "As we explore every avenue to help our workforce recover, #volunteerism is a way job-seekers can do good and become more marketable."

As construction worker Mike Daly, a member of Ironworker Local 377, told me last year, “If we as a labor movement allow the Huffington Post to get away with this pretty soon we are going to see young kids walking around construction sites working as unpaid apprentices,”.

The reality is that unpaid work such that at the Huffington Post rarely leads to real jobs.

“Unpaid work and volunteerism should not be seen as 'stepping stones' to a regular job: after all, today there are more unpaid internships around than ever before, and yet youth unemployment is near its all-time high,” says Ross Perlin, author of the book Intern Nation (which In These Times excerpted). “Unpaid internships and 'volunteer' situations (in cases where the person is really anything but) in fact tend to destroy jobs rather than create them, because firms learn that they don't have to pay for work, they don't have to hire.”

Since dropping its boycott of Huffington Post after many labor-funded progressives writers deseperate for publicity crossed the picket lines, the National Writers Union is now redoubling its efforts to get the company to pay writers who do original reporting and work with an editor.

“Refusing to pay workers, whether journalists or health professionals, is a sadly fitting tribute to the candidate of the one-percent. We know this is how Arianna operates. With the National Writers Union, writers and their allies are delivering a powerful message that this kind of exploitation must end,” says Andrew Van Alstyne, organizer of the National Writers Union’s "Pay the Writer" campaign.

This article is cross-posted from In These Times 

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