Dr Johnson and Ms Huffington

Nick Cohen
Monday, 7th February 2011

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” declared Dr Johnson. Boswell did not like the maxim and explained it away as an example of Johnson’s lazy nature. “Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature,” he puffed.

If they were numerous in the 18th century, they are legion now. Take the contributors to the Huffington Post. They sided with Boswell, as they blogged away. The thought of payment never entered their pure minds. I wonder how they felt today when they heard that Arianne Huffington had taken the website, the fruit of their unpaid labour, and sold it for $315 million. Light-headed? Dunder-headed? Bone-headed?
Carry on reading

15 thoughts on “Dr Johnson and Ms Huffington

  1. You make it sound like she tricked people with a dastardly long-term scheme. Nobody could have predicted it’d be worth $315m (it isn’t).

    Maybe her old pals and writers are pleased for her, and proud they are part of the phenomenon, rather than consumed with jealousy. Maybe some of them have made friends, had their lives enriched and gained careers out of her energy and organisational skills.

  2. I don’t think that’s directly analagous. The Huffington Post grew from nothing. Entrepreneurs sell the businesses they’ve created for squillions all the time – 99% will have started off living on favours and payments-in-kind.

    Now she’s in a position to pay columnists she can, presumably, afford to recruit ones not prepared to write for free, or even, being optimistic, reward the ones she’s leaned on previously.

  3. Right then Andrew, so she’s going to pay all her contributors the money she owes them? She’s not saying that. This is the greatest vanity publishing scam yet.

  4. Btw, your take on this is v interesting and gives me an insight into why you still really are a left-winger despite it all.

    Where I see laudable business success and perfectly fair play, you see the exploitation of the worker.

    It’s in the bones, innit.

  5. Not if my client was Arianna Huffington. And would you mind changing the references above to ‘Brit’ please, Nick. The other name is merely my pseudonym in real life.

  6. I have a book of sixteenth century verse and before each poet or playwright’s work a little paragraph of their biography usually says they lived hand-to- mouth or lived in obscurity etc, etc. Yet their talent is of the first water. And for that, they were skint. That was/is wrong.
    As Nick pointed out at the end his article about the Gay Hussar (where he developed his skills with a kitchen knife proper), if people in other employment were treated as they are in a lot of kitchens, there would be uproar. But too many writers are not adequately paid, while many and various sorts in other professions who bring nothing good to peoples lives really are overpaid. It’s always the same.
    After a little while, the staff on the Huffy should have said, “Er, can we like start getting paid now? I really like my job an all but I’ve got mouths to feed and that extra money would come in really handy…Miss”

  7. I should bloody well hope Nick’s on a good whack.
    That letter to Private Eye is a masterpiece in how to write.

  8. What I find extraordinary about HuffPo and its rival Gawker – the two meatiest online-only publishers of ‘news’/gossip – is how low their revenues are: respectively $30m and $20m annually. In the context of media businesses this is naff-all. Combined, they are roughly equivalent to the revenues of ‘Hello’ magazine. I just don’t believe advertising from these sources is ever going to grow big enough to compensate for what’s been lost by old media in recent years.

    So a permanent diminution in the money coming in to pay for journalism (which has always been funded by ad sales) and lots more writers being published who are willing to write for fun and for free… A terrible combination for the traditional full-time, paid journalist. A star like Nick Cohen should be OK but prospects for everyday hackery look pretty grim. Back to Grub Street…

  9. Nick, it’d be a shame to let the salient facts get in the way of a dig at new media, eh? The Huffington Post has been run very plainly as a business for years. It has undertaken several funding rounds. Last year it made revenues of $30m. As romantic as the notion of Arianna’s legion of victim journalists might be, it’s difficult to believe that any were unaware of these facts, or sufficiently naive to think they weren’t writing for a business. Do some research next time.

    You also seem insensible to the possibility that there might be indirect rewards for journalists in writing gratis for prominent site like the Huff, far juicier than the pittance they’d otherwise have earned. Extraordinarily, it turns out that visibility, influence and a gigantic audience can have a big effect on your income…

    None of which is to say that this deal is good, or the Huff Post is worth reading. Just that your article was piss-poor.

  10. @Gaw, just looking at the wikipedia entry for gawker media, it’s profit last year was $30m. Nothing to be sniffed at. And it’s important to realise that the various new media empires are not just in competition with each other, but with old media presences online. Google and Facebook both welter in the advertising money that once would have been spent in newspapers, so the compensation is there, if the new media companies can find the right model.

  11. If that’s what Wikipedia is saying, it is wrong.

    One counter point might be they’re growing quickly. But for how much longer, how sustainably and how profitably? Does the free blogging model scale? Etc.

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