Farewell, unpaid blogger: HuffPost drops free contributor platform that drove its growth

As the US media, tech world and the powers that be in Washington continue to try to figure out how to tackle things like fake news, the level of discourse, and how to keep the business of publishing from falling off a virtual cliff, one of the media properties that has been instrumental in influencing how news is framed online is making a big change. HuffPost in the US today announced that it is sunsetting its contributors platform — also known as its unpaid blogger platform.

The news was broken by HuffPost itself (which, like TechCrunch, is part of Oath, owned by gigantic carrier Verizon), which directly tied the move to the changing tides (not Tide Pods, although I personally think there is a connection) in the world of news media and how technology is used to distribute it.

“Now, there are many places where people can share and exchange ideas,” HuffPost editor in chief Lydia Polgreen writes in a post on the site.

“Perhaps a few too many: One of the biggest challenges we all face, in an era where everyone has a platform, is figuring out whom to listen to. Open platforms that once seemed radically democratizing now threaten, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy. When everyone has a megaphone, no one can be heard. Our hope is that by listening carefully through all the noise, we can find the voices that need to be heard and elevate them for all of you.”

The news was quietly slipped underneath an announcement of two new sections of HuffPost where the blog would now be commissioning (that is, paying) for contributions, Opinions and Personal.

You might, in fact, say that she buried the lede, given how big the contributors platform had become. Between the launch of the contributors’ network in 2005 and today, it had amassed over 100,000 unpaid writers on the US site.

“The real achievement of the platform was giving a spotlight to a huge number of people who weren’t previously afforded one,” Polgreen writes. “In a time before the ubiquity of social media, the HuffPost platform was a public square where Americans of all walks of life could have a voice on matters both political and personal.”

Notably, the UK version of HuffPost is not abandoning its unpaid blogger platform — although it is scaling it down quite a bit. Canada is also keeping it. It’s not clear what other outposts of the HuffPost plan to do. (I’m going to ask and see if I get a response: to be clear, I didn’t have a heads-up about today’s news.)

The free-content surge on HuffPost definitely had its critics, including some of the bloggers themselves.

After The Huffington Post (as it was known at the time) was acquired by AOL in 2011 for $315 million, the company saw a group of them raise the alarm and claim that they were due a cut, given that their content helped contribute to the traffic surge for the blog, which at the time was getting 15.6 million pageviews per day, making it one of the biggest news sites in the world.

The founder of TechCrunch, Michael Arrington — who had his own issues with the Huffington Post and upper management at Aol — used the issue to goad them all when he was still the head honcho here, by sporting a shirt in TC green with the words “Unpaid Blogger” printed on it, at the Disrupt conference not long after AOL bought TC.

Ultimately, the unpaid bloggers didn’t get what they wanted, twice seeing the case dismissed.

More generally, critics believed that the process of running unpaid posts was optimised for traffic and clicks above all else.

A lot of that kind of content gets a terrible wrap — even if there are some diamonds among the dirt — and today it may not even be serving its original purpose very well.

The converse of what Polgreen writes — that there are a number of places where you can share ideas — is that perhaps contributor networks are starting to lose traffic steam, on top of appearing like enablers of sub-par content, at a time when we’re seeing an eroding of credibility of what we read online and need more quality, more than ever before.

I’ll be interested to see if HuffPost’s move signals more of these unpaid blogger platforms (ahem, Forbes) changing tack, and just as significantly whether these sites can find the magic formula to replace it in their revenue streams if and when they do.