Over the weekend, Nate Silver apllied his statistical acumen to the Huffington Post’s unpaid contributorship, trying to put a value on the writing that has powered the site since 2005.
In an effort to assign value to content on The Huffington Post, which is facing renewed attention over its unpaid contributors in the wake of Aol’s blockbuster $315 million agreement to buy the web traffic behemoth, Silver takes an imperfect snapshot of the business that ignores its history.
“Although The Huffington Post does not pay those who volunteer to write blogs for it, this content represents only a small share of its traffic. And, to put it bluntly, many of those blog posts aren’t worth very much,” writes Mr. Silver.
By his reckoning, unpaid bloggers only contribute 4 percent of traffic to The Huffington Post’s politics vertical. That’s based on a comparison of the comments on posts from paid staffers, aggregated news and unpaid contributors.
But the number of comments is a poor metric for what these staffers contribute. The premium content that HuffPo can now afford, after growing largely on free work and aggregation, gets prime placement on its homepage and social feeds, meaning it also gets a ton more user engagement.
As David Carr points out in a column today, unpaid contributors played a huge role in developing the personality and following of the site. Carr writes about Mayhill Fowler, the “citizen journalist” working for The Huffington Post’s OffTheBus in the 2008 presidential campaign. It was Fowler who, unpaid, reported on Barack Obama talking about “bitter” voters who cling to guns or religion.
Major scoops like that built the traffic that allowed HuffPo to hire a few A-list writers. It’s revisionist history by Silver to ignore the value that content like this has added to the site.
“I really don’t care that Arianna made all that money,” Fowler told Carr. “More power to her. The original premise was not that we would get paid, so I didn’t expect to. But after the election and the fact that they nominated my work for a Pulitzer, I thought that might change. I talked to Arianna about getting paid for my work, and she strung me along for two years and then it never happened.”
Fowler has since left HuffPo, happier to give her content away via Twitter.
bpopper [at] observer.com | @benpopper