At 7:48 a.m. on Feb. 7, the morning after AOL (AOL) executives had completed a deal to purchase the Huffington Post for $315 million, the thousands of actors, authors, activists, academics, and comedians who collectively make up the blogging corps of the Huffington Post received an e-mail from the site's founder.
"Thank you," Arianna Huffington wrote, "for being such a vital part of the HuffPost family—which has suddenly gotten a whole lot bigger."
Huffington assured the bloggers that although her role is shifting—she will oversee all content at the new, merged venture—their roles aren't. "Together, our companies will have a combined base of 117 million unique U.S. visitors a month—and 250 million around the world—so your posts will have an even bigger impact on the national and global conversation," she wrote. "That's the only real change you'll notice—more people reading what you wrote." Conspicuously unmentioned: the subject of pay.
Since its launch in 2005, the Huffington Post has relied on unpaid contributors to stock the news-and-aggregation site with myriad opinions on everything from health care to Palin hair. It's an arrangement unlikely to change soon. "We're in the business of paying people for original reporting," says Roy Sekoff, the site's founding editor. "If people want to express their opinions, they do so on the site for free."
Sekoff, who will play a major (so far unspecified) editorial role in the new organization, says it's too early to say how the volunteer model might apply to the AOL blogs that do pay, which include TechCrunch, Engadget, and PopEater. "We haven't done all the nuts and bolts yet," says Sekoff. As rumors circulated about the size of Arianna Huffington's payday, some questioned the fairness of the compensation model. Dan Gillmor, the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, wrote that Huffington should cut checks to "the most productive contributors on whose work she's built a significant part of her new fortune."
Sekoff says the grumblers are a minority who show up whenever the site's finances are in the news. "No one has ever tried to fool anybody," says Sekoff. "When we started we had 500 contributors. Now we've had close to 15,000 people blogging at least once. They came to us and said, 'Please, can my stuff be on your site?' "
Currently, the Huffington Post has 255 paid employees, including 148 editorial staffers. Sekoff says the site invests much time and money in preparing bloggers' submissions for publication—editing the content, optimizing it for search engines, and moderating the millions of comments attached to posts every month. "It's a symbiotic relationship," says Sekoff.
Loyal contributors have long since grown accustomed to laboring gratis. "I'd love to be paid, but it doesn't seem like it's in the cards," says Bob Cesca, who has been writing a popular weekly political column since August 2005. He says his exposure on the Huffington Post helped him land a book deal in 2008, and that traffic from his columns generates enough ad revenue on his personal blog to cover "beer money."
Sekoff points out that plenty of bloggers don't need the money. Dan Rather, the former CBS Evening News (CBS) anchor, who writes roughly three items a month for the Huffington Post, says he's "empathetic to those who are scrambling for an income and take the position, 'well, it's time to start paying something.' "
Comedian and regular Huffington Post contributor Andy Borowitz recently took to Twitter to weigh in on the deal. "My share of the Huffington Post sale, zero dollars, was a little disappointing," he tweeted. Asked by Bloomberg Businessweek to elaborate, Borowitz seemed ready to explore a new pay model. "I will be happy to make a comment," Borowitz replied via e-mail, "if you will pay me."
The bottom line: The Huffington Post, bought by AOL for $315 million, prospered with an army of unpaid bloggers. Some want a piece of the action.