by Ben Elowitz

I sent the following thoughts to Fred Allen at Forbes.com about how bloggers made The Huffington Post what it ultimately became, and profited all along the way.  For Fred Allen, Lewis DVorkin, and all of Forbes’ leaders, they are taking on the challenge of merging world-class editorial and brand reputation with the new reality that one can’t pretend to serve one’s customers best by writing all the good stuff onself.

Just realizing that the formula needs to change though is only the beginning.  It immediately leads straight to serious questions to conceptualize and implement:  now they have to figure out how to combine two different philosophies – one of proprietary branded editorial, and one of curation.

It’s a live laboratory as we get to see them take on the challenge, even as AOL and Huffington Post have a similar challenge of bringing their own two approaches together.

My comments to Fred are reprinted below; and Fred’s thoughts are here at Forbes.com.

There has been a backlash against Huffington Post in light of its acquisition last week by AOL.

People who were willing to contribute to HuffPo for free are suddenly irritated that the AOL deal creates a payoff for shareholders but not for them.  Since AOL is a publicly held corporate entity, these contributors’ expectations have changed, and now they want to get paid.

It’s a noisy revolt, but I think HuffPo’s dissident contributors are waving spatulas in the air, rather than guns.

Underlying these revisionist claims of exploitation, one thing has been clear from the get-go: The dominant motivation of the bloggers who have posted on Huffington Post has always been far more about narcissism than altruism.

The reason Arianna Huffington was able to attract such thoughtful and provocative bloggers in the first place was because her site is a promotion machine. With each new post and blogger added, Huffington’s creation became a more powerful destination. And that meant that the site was even more attractive to the next potential blogger. The choice for a new contributor was simple: Set up your own blog, and patiently hope you can build audience over a period of years, or join the club and get instant exposure. Like the AAA automobile club or AARP, the more members in the club, the greater the value became.

The benefits of joining Arianna’s legions were numerous: Posting at HuffPo offered instant reach, credentialing, and ego gratification. Make no mistake about it, these benefits were valued by contributors all along the way. (If they weren’t, then Huffington Post wouldn’t have any contributors in the first place.) In fact, these non-financial benefits have proved far more valuable to contributors than cash.

Looking back, then, it’s definitely been a win-win: Bloggers built their own value while creating value for HuffPo at the same time.  And in the AOL transaction, absolutely nothing changes that value equation retrospectively—except jealousy.

Now, on a prospective basis, the only question is whether the value received by contributors going forward will be just as great.

In terms of traffic, there’s no doubt that it will be. But the real issue is whether the HuffPo brand under AOL’s auspices will be as valuable when it comes to providing the most important of all of Huffington Post’s assets—the halo of its brand prestige. From my perspective, this remains to be seen.

And, finally, consider this: If The New York Times had acquired HuffPo, would there be a blogger revolt at all?  Absolutely not!

This highlights the greatest opportunity and the greatest risk for AOL and Arianna Huffington. If they can truly enhance the Huffington Post Media Group so that it’s an even stronger and more prestigious media destination, then their pipeline of great content will expand further, because the benefits of contributing will continue to grow. On the other hand, if the brand is diluted down to “old AOL” standards, then all will be lost.

Tim Armstrong was wise to put Arianna Huffington personally in charge of this, because the success of last week’s deal may very well hinge on her ability to promise, persuade, and deliver at a high bar. AOL will be relying on her strength of vision, her standards, and her personal brand to bolster not only the Huffington Post’s brand, but AOL’s as well.

So the real threat to Huffington Post’s contributors is not that they will be exploited; rather, it’s the potential loss of the media machine that has been promoting them for so long.

  • Mhughes3500

    You wrote based on little evidence the following: >>”Underlying these revisionist claims of exploitation, one thing has
    been clear from the get-go: The dominant motivation of the bloggers who
    have posted on Huffington Post has always been far more about
    narcissism than altruism.”<<

    Spare us your moral indignation, pursuer of the almighty dollar. Your irritability over the fact that experts and well-credentialed contributors would dare NOT chase money as greedily as you is quite obvious. How annoying such people can be. God forbid we try to promote our work so that we can make some money rather than none at all.

    Being a writer is a fairly miserable occupation, a career path that is certainly not a guarantee of riches or prestige – the odds are against the typical scribe from making any money as a matter of and the numbers support this. Go to Glassdoor and tell me otherwise. Many writers I know sacrifice lucrative careers in pursuit of the craft that they love – most of us write for the sake of writing. Human rights activists that blog for the HuffPost are really trying to make the world a better place – and not posting for fame and fortune. Your very occupation is defined by chasing the almighty dollar. A company exists for no other reason than to make a profit. Period. If it exists for any other reason than making a profit it will likely fail.

    I agree with ripping on the idiot that thought we should have been paid for contributions we willingly agreed to provide for free. However, the rest of us don't need to hear a lecture about our intentions for writing our posts from the likes of you.  Most of the journalists, reporters, peace advocates, professors, human rights activists and countless others blogging on the HuffPost are driven by much more altruistic principles than profit motive.

  • http://www.digitalquarters.net Ben Elowitz

    MHughes, thanks for standing up for the most noble-minded among HuffPo's bloggers.  I'm sure there are those who are using the HuffPo influence machine for ideological purposes as a bully pulpit, with greater or lesser degrees of self-promotion as a part of that.  But either way, a significant portion of the value HuffPo brings to those contributors is its tremendous distribution.  Money was never part of the bargain.

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