AOL Fires A Ton Of Freelancers, HuffPost Doesn't Pay Most Of Its Writers. I Approve.

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Can anyone else hear that? The whining? Like a dentist’s drill, or those ultrasonic Mosquito ring tones that kids use at school; only more annoying, and more persistent.

Mzzzzz…. The Huffington Post should pay its writers tttzzzzzzzz… it’s modern-day slave labor bbzzzzzz…. AOL payout should be shared equally…. pzzzzzz…. calls herself a liberal…. ZZZZZZ…. EXPLOITATION… And now she’s fired all those freelancers…. OUTRAGEOUS!

Jesus Christ, can someone please shut that freaking thing OFF?

After careful investigation, the main source of the whining seems to be the Newspaper Guild, a 26,000-member -strong group representing the rights of media workers. The union is angry that my paymasters at Huffington Post Media Group are refusing to share their Aol-provided wealth with the thousands of unpaid writers who produce the bulk of the content on HuffPost.com. In order to force a change in policy, they’re calling for those writers – and anyone else who supports the idea of fair compensation for editorial contributors – to go on strike.

Yeah, and then they should take a razor sharp hunting knife and slice of their nose. That’ll show their face!

Today, though, those calls got a little more urgent as Business Insider revealed that Aol has laid off the bulk of its stay-at-home freelance contributors in favour of New York, DC and LA-based full-timers. Those dumped from a paying gig have been told that they are still welcome to contribute their content for free to the Huffington Post. Ooof. Low blow.

And yet, two facts remain. First – and this is absolutely, verifiably true – a huge number of Aol editorial freelancers let go today were churning out utter garbage and deserved to be (at worst) fired or (at best) downgraded to volunteer status. A mass cull of non-talent is exactly what Arianna Huffington needed to do to assert her editorial authority over Aol’s content.

Second — the people calling for Arianna Huffington to pay every one of her 3,000+ contributors are either a) stupid b) disingenuous or c) both. Despite what you might have read, Huffington doesn’t send leather-clad storm troopers door-to-door to demand that writers contribute their content to the Huffington Post. Quite the opposite: every day dozens (hundreds?) of would-be contributors line at Huffington’s virtual door, begging to be allowed inside.

They do this because the benefits of being published on the HuffPost far outweigh the opportunity costs of not contributing. At last count, the site reached 40 million readers every month. If you have something to promote — as every single one of HuffPost’s unpaid contributors does — then that’s a hell of a big audience to reach for free. The simple fact is that, even with Aol’s money in the bank, HuffPost afford to pay even fifty dollars per post to each of the thousands of people who currently contribute for free. With that option off the table, the choice for the majority of contributors is to either write for free, and enjoy the self-promotional benefits that brings, or don’t write at all.

And it’s not just authors, speakers, consultants and other self-promotional hacks who see the value in writing for the HuffPost. Even for superstar contributors like Alec Baldwin or Ben Affleck, the same economics are at play: writing an op-ed for HuffPost is a great way to promote yourself, your movie, your TV show or just your personal agenda. There’s no doubt that some celebrities contribute to the site just because they’re friends of Arianna – but that’s just another kind of economics; the give-and-take barter economy of friendship.

Still, it’s easy for well-paid Aol-contributors like me to tell our unpaid brethren to put up or shut up. After all, you don’t see me writing for free, do you?

Well, actually, yes. You do. An hour or so ago, I joined the great unpaid ranks of Arianna’s content army (I’m keeping my paid gig here at TechCrunch too, obviously). As regular readers might recall, I’m heading to Las Vegas for the month of April (and some of May), where I’ll be staying a single night in each of the hotels on the Vegas Strip. While there, I’ll write a daily diary of the trip for the HuffPost. For free. I’m not even claiming expenses from Aol.

Why? Economics, stupid.

In a month’s time, my new book – about my adventures living in hotels – will be published in the UK. As part of the marketing efforts for the book, Jess, my publisher’s Publicity Manager, is doing everything she can to whore me out to the media: arranging radio interviews, convincing editors of newspapers to run extracts, setting up readings — that kind of thing.

When I mentioned that I was going to be writing about my adventures in Vegas hotels for the Huffington Post, Jess did the email equivalent of giving me a high-five. When I followed up a few days later saying it was going to be a daily feature, promoted on the front page, I thought she was going to explode with joy. She, or I, literally couldn’t buy that kind of positioning.

The truth is, for as long as there has been media, there have been unpaid contributors who provide huge value for no direct financial reward. Talk radio has been “exploiting” free contributors for decades: otherwise it would have to be renamed “listen radio”. Newspapers and magazines have letters pages, which are frequently the first pages that readers head for. News channels have vox pops, TV shows have audience voting — and yet no-one demanded a piece of the commercial pie. And then came social media. Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, YouPorn — none of those sites would be worth a brass dime without uncompensated user generated content.

Weirdly though, it’s only the online entrepreneurs who are criticised for relying on unpaid content to make money. As Facebook’s valuation has grown, so has the chorus of users who feel they are entitled to their fair share of Zuckerberg’s wealth. Flickr and YouTube users have demanded similar. The Newspaper Guild’s animosity towards Aol/HuffPost is just the latest example.

So what is it about new media that makes everyone so entitled; so greedy even? If I were a cynical man I’d suggest that it’s the a symptom of a more self-entitled age, where everyone and their dog believes they have the right to be a billionaire, or at least share in a billionaire’s wealth. I’d suggest that for all the shouting and screaming about “doing what’s right” and “fairness”, the truth is we don’t like to see someone else getting rich, even if they’re doing so by providing us with something valuable, and free.

Moreover, I’d  suggest that if the Aol contributors who were let go today were good enough at their jobs, then they’d still be doing them. And if the unpaid writers on the Huffington Post are good enough at what they do, then they’ll make plenty enough money elsewhere not to have to beg for financial scraps from Arianna.

But I’m not a cynical man; I’m just a lowly blogger with a book to promote.

Hey! You should pre-order a copy. Jess will love that.