The Huffington Post unethically made over $100 million in profit from its unpaid bloggers when the news web site merged with AOL in February, according to a lawsuit filed last week.
The Huffington Post, which launched in 2005, collects news articles, blog posts and opinion pieces from approximately 9,000 unpaid writers. Co-founder Arianna Huffington sold the web site to AOL for $315 million in a highly publicized merger; the class-action suit, filed by freelance journalist Jonathan Tasini, alleges that the posts created by unpaid writers were worth an estimated $105 million, and that the profit should have been used as compensation.
“The Huffington Post was, is and will never be, anything without the thousands of people who created the content,” Tasini wrote in a blog post after filing the suit. “Ms. Huffington is acting like every Robber Baron CEO – from Lloyd Blankfein to the Waltons – who believes that they, and only they, should pocket huge riches, while the rest of the peons struggle to survive.” Tasini wrote more than 250 posts for the web site.
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The suit also calls for the web site to release data on its online traffic, stating that Tasini and other bloggers were asked to direct Internet users to The Huffington Post through their personal social networks and other marketing efforts, which “drew substantial internet traffic.”
But not all of The Huffington Post's former unpaid writers have jumped on board. Mike Elk, who was dismissed as a blogger earlier this year for “unprofessional behavior,” recently stated that he does not support Tasini's suit and that he has no plans to take legal action against The Huffington Post.
In a blog post for Daily Kos, Elk wrote that “being dismissed or 'fired' from the Huffington Post puts me in a unique legal position to claim an employee like relationship” with the web site. “If I could claim my relationship with the Huffington Post was more employee like than volunteer like, some labor lawyers argue I might … be able to persuade a judge that I was entitled to back wages from the Huffington Post for my free work.”
But Elk said he did indirectly receive compensation for his work – by virtue of being published on The Huffington Post, Elk's blog posts were seen by a number of outside publications, many of which paid him reprint fees.
Of the 105 articles he wrote for The Huffington Post, Elk stated, only five or six were truly unpaid.
Elk was dismissed after he used his press credentials to help 200 construction workers enter a mortgage bankers' press conference to stage a protest against a taxpayer-funded bailout.
Mario Ruiz, a spokesman for the web site, called Tasini's allegations “completely baseless.”
“Our bloggers utilize our platform to connect and ensure that their ideas and views are seen by as many people as possible,” Ruiz said. “It's the same reason hundreds of people go on TV shows to broadcast their views to as wide an audience as possible.”
Huffington called the lawsuit “a pile of bile.”
“It seems that AOL's purchase of HuffPost suddenly opened [Tasini's] eyes to the fact that we are a business,” Huffington wrote in a response to the suit. “The vast majority of our bloggers are thrilled to contribute – and we're thrilled to have them.”
The lawsuit also reflects a boycott movement started by a number of former Huffington Post bloggers after the web site's acquisition by AOL. The Newspaper Guild of America, the National Writers Union and the AFL-CIO have all endorsed the boycott, with many of their members refusing to contribute to the web site until Huffington agrees to talk with the unions about how best to approach the changing landscape of online journalism. Huffington has yet to respond to their requests.