HuffPost, Breaking From Its Roots, Ends Unpaid Contributions

Since its founding nearly 13 years ago, The Huffington Post has relied heavily on unpaid contributors, whose ranks included aspiring writers, citizen journalists and celebrities from the Rolodex of the site’s co-founder Arianna Huffington.

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HuffPost, Breaking From Its Roots, Ends Unpaid Contributions
, New York Times

Since its founding nearly 13 years ago, The Huffington Post has relied heavily on unpaid contributors, whose ranks included aspiring writers, citizen journalists and celebrities from the Rolodex of the site’s co-founder Arianna Huffington.

An early example of the unfiltered amateur journalism that propagated on the internet, the contributor pages were a mix of reported pieces and personal essays, and even generated national news. In 2008, Mayhill Fowler, a woman who said she had sold her car to fund travel on the campaign trail, set off a firestorm when she quoted Barack Obama at a fundraiser saying that working-class voters “cling to guns or religion.”

But the site’s days of encouraging everyday citizens to report on the news are over. On Thursday, it said it was immediately dissolving its self-publishing contributors platform — which has mushroomed to include 100,000 writers — in what is perhaps the most significant break from the past under its editor-in-chief, Lydia Polgreen, who joined the news site, which is now called HuffPost, a year ago.

The decision was rooted as much in a move to declutter the site as in Polgreen’s desire to focus on quality reporting and minimize unvetted stories at a time when there is so much misinformation online.

The site’s everyone-is-welcome ethos was once seen as a democratizing force in news. But Polgreen said in an interview that unfiltered platforms had devolved into “cacophonous, messy, hard-to-hear places where voices get drowned out and where the loudest shouting voice prevails.”

“Certainly the environment where fake news is flourishing is one where it gets harder and harder to support the idea of a ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ kind of publishing platform,” Polgreen said.

Recently, for instance, a contributor with the byline Waqas KH published an article about Felix Sater, an associate of President Donald Trump, that he had been paid to post. The site has since deleted the article.

In place of the unpaid contributors platform, the site introduced new opinion and personal sections that will include paid contributors who will work with HuffPost editors.

The elimination of the platform, which drove 10 to 15 percent of the site’s traffic, is only the latest change for the site since Polgreen, 42, took the helm after Huffington stepped down. In short order, she changed the site’s name and redesigned its home page. Though she is closing one of the site’s most populist components, she has also articulated an inclusive vision for the site inspired by big-city tabloids and local television news and aimed at an ideologically agnostic population of Americans who are “never going to pay for news.”

Her first year has not been without its challenges. Over the summer, HuffPost laid off some 40 employees, including the site’s only Pulitzer Prize winner, David Wood. (HuffPost has roughly 210 editorial employees in the United States, in addition to the 340 who work for its international editions.) Within the company, there was a sense that the Washington bureau had been hit particularly hard, which some viewed as unsettling given HuffPost’s long association with political reporting.

Also, Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief, and Sam Stein, the senior politics editor, left the site last year. Polgreen has refocused the political coverage to include more in-depth reporting beyond Washington and New York.

“We’re thinking less about how many people are crawling around the halls of Congress asking the same questions to the same senators all day every day,” she said. She added that she wanted to have “a large cadre of journalists” who reported from around the country.

And while Polgreen has not been shy about sharing her vision for HuffPost and her opinions about journalism — she has appeared three times on CNN’s media analysis program, “Reliable Sources,” since joining HuffPost and is a frequent presence at media events — not all of her ambitious plans have been borne out yet. Polgreen, for instance, has yet to hire any reporters outside Washington and New York. She said in the interview that she had been focused first on building out an editing team and intended to hire more reporters this year.

Traffic to the site has fallen in the last several years, though Polgreen said she cared more about connecting with readers than audience size. Neither she nor Jared Grusd, HuffPost’s chief executive, would comment on whether the company was profitable.

During the interview, in a conference room that serves as her makeshift office, Polgreen, a former correspondent and editor at The New York Times, spoke enthusiastically about her global ambitions (almost 60 percent of the site’s traffic comes from outside the United States) and her plans for HuffPost’s business model (she did not rule out offering some sort of subscription product in the future).

She also showed no concerns about running a historically left-leaning, labor-supporting website owned by the corporate giant Verizon.

“We’re working as part of a company that’s developing really exciting new products that will be consumed on mobile phones,” she said. “And we actually work for the phone company.”

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