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Last week was a milestone in journalism, as the Huffington Post exceeded the New York Times in Web traffic and cemented its role as a main rival to the Gray Lady. It was also noted that the combined AOL-Huffington Post newsroom staff of 1,300 people is now bigger than the Times’ 1,200 person newsroom staff. While much of the debate about the rivalry has focused on Huffington Post’s adoption of savvy Internet tactics versus the much more old-school New York Times, very little of the discussion has focused on where the two newsroom differ the most: their labor practices.
The Times’ newsroom staff is entirely unionized, while the AOL-Huffington Post staff is entirely nonunionized. Also unlike the Times, which insists on paying every professional writer (even op-ed contributors), the Huffington Post has relied on a network of over 8,000 unpaid bloggers to establish itself and drive traffic to its site. In a Forbes magazine article, AOL executives were quoted as saying that AOL CEO Tim Armstrong “talked a lot about the importance of recruiting hordes of free bloggers . “It was always, ‘Arianna does it. That’s what she’s built her business on. Why don’t we do it, too?'” says a former AOL editor-in-chief.”
Labor leaders claim that with 11,000 journalists having lost their jobs due to newsrooms cutbacks in the last three years, AOL-Huffington Post has risen to its stature by exploiting journalists desperate to establish names for themselves as writers, and thus willing to work for free in the hopes that they may someday find paid work. They say that the fact the Huffington Post doesn’t pay its writers is an unfair business advantage that is sure to lower the standards of journalists.