I was just hanging out in the Twitterverse one night, when I stumbled upon a controversy. Some writers were giving Mia Freedman a hard time for not paying her contributors. Resentment had been building since Freedman announced she’d purchased the hotly-contested, Australian licence for iVillage. Now writers were asking: “If she can afford to do that. Why can’t she afford to pay contributors to Mamamia?”
No-one complained when Mamamia was new and still building an audience. But once the blog began making enough money to hire a full-time editor and staff-writers, some contributors began to feel cheated. The way they saw it, their written submissions had contributed to the site’s success. So now it was making money, wasn’t it only fair they be paid for their efforts?
A similar situation (but on a much larger scale) confronted Arianna Huffington when AOL acquired The Huffington Post in 2011, for US$315 million. Soon after the announcement was made, a group of unpaid contributors filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit for compensation. The law suit was dismissed because the writers had agreed to receive no payment when their contributions were published on The Huffington Post. So legally, the unpaid contributors had no leg to stand on. But some believe, myself included, that morally, Arianna Huffington owed them something.
Perhaps Mia Freedman owes her unpaid contributors a little something as well.
Mia Freedman defended her decision not to pay her contributors by pointing out that News Limited and Fairfax don’t pay their contributors either. She is absolutely right, they don’t. But maybe they should.
It has been industry practice not to pay for comment and opinion for close to one hundred years. The former editor of The Guardian, CP Scott, is quoted as saying: “Comment is free but facts are sacred.” However, back in 1921 when CP Scott was editor, there was no internet and comment didn’t contribute all that much to a newspaper’s bottom-line. But times have changed. These days it’s all about user engagement on the internet and it’s hard to engage with facts.
Comment and opinion is fast becoming a valuable property on the news sites. It’s cheap and it keeps internet users engaged with the website. User engagement is what sells advertising space and Mamamia is very good at keeping its users engaged. This is precisely why I don’t accept Freedman’s reasons for not paying her contributors.
Of course there are some circumstances where it is entirely appropriate not to pay a contributor. If a contributor is promoting a book, business, product or service, you wouldn’t pay them because they are already receiving compensation in the form of a free advertisement, or plug, on your website. However, this does not extend to bloggers, writers, journalists, tertiary students or anyone else who is not receiving such compensation for contributing a piece of writing. And no, I don’t consider a link back to their website, or getting some writing experience, as adequate compensation.
Frankly, I don’t see any difference between the quality of the content produced in-house and the content created by Mamamia’s unpaid contributors. It’s not like the in-house writers over at Mamamia are producing award-winning, investigative journalism. Is it?
I might also add that Mamamia has 12 unpaid interns on staff. That’s 12 unpaid staff members in a team of about 30. Shocking, isn’t it?
The Hoopla also writes engaging content. But they pay their contributors. While not knowing how much revenue Mamamia actually generates, with more than 500,000 unique site visitors a month, you can bet its a lot more than The Hoopla is getting.
But rather than simply not paying their contributors, Wendy Harmer and Jane Waterhouse established a Friends of the Hoopla Fund to help cover the costs of paying their contributors a little something. Kudos to The Hoopla for doing so and for also being transparent, publishing the amount of money they receive via the fund, on their website.
The reason given by The Hoopla for choosing to pay their contributors, is to support “Independent Journalism & Opinion in Australia”. I would also say that Harmer and Waterhouse actually value their contributors, where Mamamia, The Huffington Post, Fairfax, News Limited and others, obviously don’t.
At the end of the day, these unpaid contributors do have a choice and if they want to ‘donate’ their time and effort to generating profits for these sites, who am I to say they can’t.