In his famous “Petition of the Candlemakers,” the great classical liberal thinker Frederic Bastiat lampooned the protectionist arguments of his day by imagining a campaign—launched by the producers of artificial illumination—against “ruinous competition” from that “merciless” scab… the sun. Via In These Times and the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog, I see that someone forgot to explain to the Newspaper Guild and National Writers Union that Bastiat’s petition was, you know, satire.
Borrowing a page from writer Jon Tasini, whose meritless lawsuit against the Huffington Post was roundly and justly ridiculed back in April, those two groups are advocating a boycott of the opinion and news site. They complain that, though HuffPo pays salaries to an enormous number of staff writers, reporters, and editors—apparently more than the New York Times does, if you count the whole AOL newsroom—the site also has the temerity to run lots of unpaid essays and blog posts from volunteer writers, comprising a motley assortment of entertainment celebrities, elected officials, veteran journalists, academics (both famous and obscure), and political activists. As we can see from the millions of individuals clacking away at their keyboards for lesser‐known personal or group blogs—or, for that matter, signing up for open‐mic nights or posting photos on Flickr—there’s no shortage of people who want the opportunity to share their ideas or their creativity with an audience, but aren’t necessarily looking to make a career of it. Isn’t it great that some companies have found a way to make a profit by providing so many amateur writers, photographers, moviemakers, and artists with a platform?
Not so great, apparently, if you’re among those who feel entitled to be paid for what many happily do gratis—but can’t improve on the amateurs enough to demand a premium for their copy (And all those heartless people in consensual sexual relationships—won’t someone think of the escorts!?). Since their target audience isn’t hugely sympathetic to a “sharing is evil” message (isn’t that what we Rand‐besotted Cato folks are supposed to believe?) they’re doing their best to persuade folks that if someone is making a buck, somebody else must be getting exploited:
Ultimately, HuffPo is surviving on the adjunct model. Like higher education with its hordes of PhDs with no job prospects, there is a huge supply of writers who want to make a living in journalism. HuffPo offers the promise of gaining valuable experience and readership so that someday, maybe, you can make it big.
This is a dishonest proposition by HuffPo. It is almost impossible in 2011 to go from a no one to a big name blogger. The blogosphere is ossified. During the explosion of the medium from 2004-06, young writers could produce excellent work and become big name people. Then, by 2007, those were the only blogs people read. Today, those are the prominent and still young writers of the progressive blogosphere. And they aren’t going anywhere.
Now, on a random Thursday evening at The Passenger in DC, I could probably pick out half a dozen successful young progressive writer‐bloggers who were unknown in 2007, but let that pass. Skimming the site’s current blog sidebar, I spot such naifs as veteran CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, American Prospect co‐founder Bob Kuttner, longtime Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham—all, apparently, hoping for their big break at the Huffington Post! Not to mention UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, movie star Nia Vardalos, or Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, all dreaming wistfully of an internship offer from the New Republic. And will nobody shed a tear for poor, powerless Sen. Claire McCaskill? Was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark satanic mills?
The reality, of course, is that lots of industries are finding it hard to adapt to an age where the Internet’s ability to harness, aggregate, and distribute so much amateur effort and creativity is creating disruptive abundance where scarcity once promised a steady income. How many of your friends have bought a hardcover dictionary or encyclopedia in the last five years? When did you last need to buy a map on a long car trip? How many of us have decided that, with so many clever people sharing their creative visions on YouTube (and the best of television available for purchase a‐la‐carte), paying for a cable subscription is a mug’s game? You can love the new reality or hate it, but it seems perverse to blame it on Arianna Huffington, who’s been among the few to find a viable model for turning a profit by fusing amateur contributions and paid professional content.