Media Companies Cash In, at Cost of Unpaid Contributors
Date 11/02/21/08:33
At Media Companies, a Nation of Serfs

Some of the fizz, if not a great big bubble, seems to have returned to media, depending on how you define “media.”

There have been reports in The New York Times and elsewhere that Facebook is now valued at $50 billion, and The Wall Street Journal reported that Twitter had been in low-level talks with both Google and Facebook, with some estimates putting the value of the company at $10 billion. Tumblr, the short-form blogging service, is storming along a similar, if more demure path, while Quora, a site built on user-generated questions and answers, seems to be on its way. And at the beginning of last week, The Huffington Post agreed to be sold for $315 million to AOL.

The funny thing about all these frothy millions and billions piling up? Most of the value was created by people working free.

The Huffington Post, perhaps partly in an effort to polish the silver before going on the market, did hire a number of A-list journalists, but the site’s ecosystem of citizen bloggers and its community of commenters represent some share of its value. (How much is open to debate, as Nate Silver pointed out on the FiveThirtyEight blog.) Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Quora have been positioned as social networks, but each of them hosts timely content that can also be a backdrop for advertising, which makes them much more like a media company than, say, a phone utility.

The Huffington Post, social networks and traditional media may all seem like different animals, but as advertising, the mother’s milk of all media, flows toward social and amateur media, low-cost and no-cost content is becoming the norm.

For those of us who make a living typing, it’s all very scary, of course. It’s less about the diminution of authority and expertise, although there is that, and more about the growing perception that content is a commodity, and one that can be had for the price of zero. (Content manufacturers like Demand Media that gin up $15 articles based on searches, put the price only slightly above that.) Old-line media companies that are not only forced to compete with the currency and sexiness of social media, but also burdened by a cost structure for professionally produced content, are left at a profound disadvantage.

For the media, this is a Tom Sawyer moment. “Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” he says to his friends, and sure enough, they are soon lined up for the privilege of doing his chores. That’s a bit like how social networks get built. (Just imagine if Tom had also schooled them in the networking opportunities of the user-generated endeavor: “You’re not just painting a fence. You’re building an audience around your personal brand.”)

“The technology of a lot of these sites is very seductive, and it lulls you into contributing,” said Anthony De Rosa, a product manager at Reuters. “We are being played for suckers to feed the beast, to create content that ends up creating value for others.”

Last month, Mr. De Rosa wrote — on Tumblr, naturally — about how audiences became publishers, essentially painting the fence for the people who own the various platforms.

“We live in a world of Digital Feudalism,” he wrote. “The land many live on is owned by someone else, be it Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, or some other service that offers up free land and the content provided by the renter of that land essentially becomes owned by the platform that owns the land.”

That may sound extreme, but think of Facebook, which is composed of half a billion freely given user profiles, along with a daily stream of videos, posts and messages. It is both a media site and a social network, and all of the content is provided free of charge. By creating a template for information and a frame around it, along with a community that also serves as an audience, this new generation of content companies have created the equivalent of a refrigerator that manufactures and consumes its own food.

I ended up thinking about all this when I was encouraged to sign up for Quora, the burgeoning question-and-answer social site, by some of my more tech-minded friends. As I was going through the registration, I had a “hey, wait a minute” moment: right now, my in-box is full of all manners of questions and requests I can’t get to, some of them from my own family. What in the world am I doing wandering out into a community of strangers to answer and post questions?

It will be interesting to see how the legions of unpaid bloggers at The Huffington Post react to the merger with AOL. Typing away for an upstart blog — founded by the lefty pundit Arianna Huffington and the technology executive Kenneth Lerer — would seem to be a little different from cranking copy for AOL, a large American media company with a market capitalization of $2.2 billion.

(And it’s going to seem very different to some other media companies. The Huffington Post has perfected the art of — how shall we say it? — enthusiastic aggregation. Most of the news on the site is rewritten from other sources, then given a single link to the original. Many media companies, used to seeing their scoops get picked off by HuffPo and others, have decided that legal action isn’t worth the bother. They might feel differently now.)

Perhaps content will remain bifurcated into professional and amateur streams, but as social networks eat away at media mindshare and the advertising base, I’m not so sure. If it happens, I’ll have no one but myself to blame. Last time I checked, I had written or shared over 11,000 items on Twitter. It’s a nice collection of short-form work, and I’ve been rewarded with lot of followers ... and exactly no money. If and when the folks at Twitter cash out, some tiny fraction of that value will have been created by me.

The desire to create for the digital civic common stems from an ancient impulse, but finds remarkable expression in a digital age. Nobody knows more about that than Mayhill Fowler, the intrepid and unpaid citizen journalist working for The Huffington Post’s OffTheBus in the 2008 presidential campaign, who caught candidate Barack Obama talking about “bitter” voters who “cling to guns or religion.”

That scoop and tens of thousands of other posts are part of what AOL bought into and the owners of The Huffington Post cashed out on.

“I really don’t care that Arianna made all that money,” said Ms. Fowler. “More power to her. The original premise was not that we would get paid, so I didn’t expect to. But after the election and the fact that they nominated my work for a Pulitzer, I thought that might change. I talked to Arianna about getting paid for my work, and she strung me along for two years and then it never happened.”

Ms. Fowler no longer files free to The Huffington Post. Now, she prefers Twitter. The check is in the mail, Mayhill.


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