There is ethical indignation in Left-leaning Blogger Land, where Ariana Huffington’s Huffington Post just got $315 million to become part of AOL’s media stable. The six-year-old online news site supplements its staff of 2oo with an estimated 3000 volunteer bloggers of widely varying talent, reliability, and sanity. Those writers, who traded periodic contributions to “HuffPo” in exchange for more traffic and notoriety than they would have received in months of laboring, pajama-clad, on their own obscure sites, now are loudly complaining that they were exploited. Their unpaid labor built the site into a multi-million dollar asset, they cry, and yet Ariana is pocketing all of the profits. Where is the justice in that? There is talk of boycotts and mass defections.
Ethically, as well as contractually, the bloggers don’t have a leg to stand on. They agreed to write for nothing but exposure, and if one insisted on payment, there were twenty more bloggers of similar ability and orientation eager to take the deal in his or her place. The freebie bloggers were a part of the business plan, certainly, drawing search engines and providing a forum for commenters, the real source of the Huffington Post’s success. When you make a contractual arrangement you are pleased with, and suddenly something occurs that makes it look less appealing, it is neither fair nor reasonable to insist that the deal be retroactively sweetened. The sad truth is that a lot of those bloggers were and are worth just about what they were paid. They only contributed to the Huffington Post’s AOL bonanza in that they filled slots that could and would have been filled by others.
Would it be admirable, kind, generous and fair for Ariana to give some portion of the $315 million to the independent bloggers, or at least the most prolific? Absolutely, just as it would have been generous and fair for Francis Ford Coppola to give a bit extra to his actors not named Marlon Brando, other than their salaries, when “The Godfather” made him a fortune. He didn’t, and he wasn’t obligated to: the actors sure wouldn’t have given their salaries back if he lost his shirt on the film. On the other side of the spectrum is director George Lucas, who was famously generous to his unknown “Star Wars” stars, giving them pieces of his film after it was a runaway hit. Lucas’s ethics were exemplary, but that doesn’t mean Coppola was unethical. He was right: a deal’s a deal.
A deal’s a deal for the volunteer bloggers, too. It would be nice, ethically exemplary and Lucas-like if Huffington acknowledged their contributions with a contribution of her own. But not getting something you have no right to expect isn’t mistreatment.
It’s called “business.”