I’m in a right Huff

I got invited to write for the Huffington Post today.

I really did. A nice man from Huff had seen my tweets, read some of my blog, and wrote a very kind email to me suggesting that I’d make a good contributor.

Of course it appealed to my ego, which is as susceptible to flattery as yours is. About 2 years ago somebody in the USA read my early blogs about cancer, found them funny, and asked me if I’d be willing to give up my job and move to the USA to write for the little show she was involved in: the Daily Show. I almost did it, except I then researched how long people typically last writing for the Daily Show (about 6 weeks), and decided it was better for me if I locked my ego back in its box, and stayed here doing boring website work and earning a pittance.

But this would be different: I’d be able to work from my home, writing articles and expressing opinions. What a way to make a living.

And then I asked about the remuneration. None. Absolutely none. And so, instead of contributing an article, I decided to contribute a letter explaining why this business model is an utter disgrace. I suggested Huff could publish the letter. I doubt they will, but I’ll be delighted if they do: not because it appeals to my ego, but because it would give me hope that the class of people who own the world and control all the assets may finally begin to see the error of their ways.

Here’s the letter I wrote:

Hi Seamus,

Thanks for the offer.

I own a business, and although many people listening to my political opinions might describe me as a socialist, just as many who watch me chasing new work would describe me as a capitalist.

I suspect, like many realists, I’m a mixture of both; the key failing of current economic systems across the globe is the failure to recognise the benefits and failings of both systems. The purity of market capitalism is what has brought us to the current state, and only a re-balancing via a more social-democratic approach can ultimately resolve the crisis in capitalism. Everything else is a race to the bottom that, following the logic of neo-liberal capitalism, results in one person owning everything, and the rest of us fighting for scraps from the table. And losing.

The problems of capitalism are exacerbated by the current trend to run a rentier economy: the capture and control of assets, and imposition of rents to access those assets. The controllers of assets don’t need to develop them or invest in them: they simply need to possess them, and the money will come pouring in.

A prime example of this is the ownership of land. The wealthiest families in the UK are those of the Earl of Cadogan and the Duke of Westminster, both of which inherited ownership of prime London real estate. They have done nothing to develop that real estate, nothing to earn it, and their ownership benefits absolutely nobody except for themselves. In fact, their total control pushes housing costs so high that the entire nation has become indebted to pay excessive mortgage costs, simply to protect their ownership of land that is, in national and global terms, economically dormant.

They are a parasite, and their deep pockets and lavish support for political parties has ensured our socio-economic system has become warped to support their parasitic greed. No party will suggest the rational solutions: if hard work makes us rich, let’s tax inheritance at 85%, so the children of rich men have to work hard too. But no: that would never do. What we must do instead is ensure rich men hand down ever-more riches to their ever-lazier children, in a total inversion of the key argument of capitalism. In this regard, pure socialism produces better capitalism than Milton Friedman ever could.

The rentier outlook is reaching every corner of the economy. “Buy-to-let” is a prime example: the utterly destructive policy of attempting to make anybody with a retirement plan into a landowner. It inevitably robs banks of their assets, and renders them incapable of lending for innovation or growth. Instead, the wealth of pension plans turns into small-minded, economically null property ownership and rack-rents. It bleeds the economy, making those with few assets unable to make any investments in their (or the country’s) future: instead they pour their money into rents, purely to prop up those who control the assets. Many – perhaps even the majority – of the population now work for no personal benefit: they simply support those who own the assets.

In 2007 the sky darkened with the wings of chickens coming home to roost. The global economy had become an inverted pyramid, those with few assets working harder and harder to prop up those with huge assets. It was inevitable it would fall over, and only massive social lending – yes, more money being taken from the poor to prop up the rich – prevented total collapse… for a while.

Little has changed since then, and when – inevitably – the next crash happens, it will be even larger, even more destructive. And societies will not be able to afford to bail out banks and corporations for a second time. It will be the crash to end all crashes, and change will be forced upon us all in a uncontrollable, furious way. Leaders who argue for a bail-out will be defenestrated (certainly metaphorically, and probably literally) by a raging mass of people who finally recognise that they’ve been feeding a monster since the neo-con revolution of Thatcher and Reagan.

I’m sorry to say that the “unpaid contributor” model of the Huffington Post is part of the problem. While I admire Arianna Huffington, and recognise that old business models cannot last forever, I simply can’t allow myself to participate in actions which are identical to the dangerous rentier economy I criticise above. Arianna Huffington is reported to be worth over $50 million, yet refuses to pay for the content which makes her rich. She controls the asset. I work for no reason except to support her. And in doing so, I undermine legitimate newspapers who are foolish enough to pay their staff, therefore being uncompetitive, simply because they want to ensure people can eat.

Arianna Huffington may profess her liberal credentials, but the business she operates is undermining the social fabric by expecting people to work for nothing at all. You stroked my ego by inviting me to write for the Huff. Then you asked me to pitch a story, give my time, my effort, my skills and knowhow for free, simply so you can sell more ad revenue and enrich your owners. It’s the very apogee of rentier economics. I can’t be involved.

You stroked my ego. I won’t deny I briefly glowed. But although I was initially flattered to be asked to write a contribution, I refuse to do so. Unless, of course, you take the courageous step of publishing this email. It will be posted on my personal blog, but, as with your kind offer, I shall also offer you the right to reuse the post elsewhere. Bonne chance!

And now I will return to my job, where I pay my employees for the contribution they make, in the hope that they have enough money to participate in society. I may never be as rich as Arianna Huffington, but I sleep very soundly.

Best wishes

Russ

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65 thoughts on “I’m in a right Huff

      1. Well, a fiver at least! I get asked to write gardening articles for magazines as part of my job – always for free of course ! Once did eighteen, two-page articles for Kent Life Magazine. Took ages. Not a penny. Never again!

  1. There’s a fine line, isn’t there, between working for free and volunteering. In this case, it most certainly is working for free. Enriching others for no money yourself. It’s like unpaid internships but in writing format.

    I happily volunteer my time to write for a football blog and for a local Good News magazine based in Reading. The difference is, the football blog is entirely voluntary by everyone involved and the magazine editor can hardly pay himself, let alone others.

    Of course, if there came a time where either of those publications began to earn money off my writing, then I’d be a bit miffed; much like yourself, in this letter.

    Bravo!

    1. Precisely. I did exactly the same amount of writing and thinking to produce this blog as I would for Huff. And I made exactly the same amount of money. But I don’t feel I’ve been robbed, abused, ripped off or conned, which in my book is a result!

  2. Excellent, and very well put. Recently I established a rule about writing which is: if they make money, I should make money. I’m happy to write for free if it’s a guest blog, or helping out something I love that doesn’t make a profit, but a massive media company should be paying contributors – even a small payment demonstrate a willingness to accept that someone’s time and expertise is worth *something*. Bravo.

    Also – you got asked to write for the DAILY SHOW?! That is amazing, and well deserved. And you TURNED IT DOWN?! Gobsmacked.

    1. Yep, got asked about 2 years ago. A huge privilege to be asked, very difficult to refuse. But they go through writers like shit through a goose, and I’d have had to sacrifice everything – relationship, job, home – to take a risk on it working out. For most, it doesn’t. 6 weeks is average. I’m too practical (or cowardly) to go for it. Good opportunity to boast, though!

    2. “If they make money, I should make money”

      – This is exactly right. If the whole enterprise is non-profit, people are usually happy to contribute if they have time. But when *someone* starts making money, the first person to make it should be the person who did the work…

  3. I had a friend many a year ago who was asked to write a book (on military history – his specialism) for Harvester Books. He set out his basic demands and then asked ‘what budget are you working on?’ There was a long wait from John Spiers at the other end of the phone and then the answer ‘Oh, but I can get an academic to do this for nothing’. No book.

    1. And people wonder why market economies are in crisis: it’s because fewer and fewer people have enough money to spend. If you can always find someone to do it for free, you’re starving the very people who would buy your output!

      I’m no communist, but it doesn’t take Karl Marx to spot the flaws in the neoconservative dogma that says the poor must work for free to maintain the lifestyles of the rich: at some point, the poor will stop buying the things that made the rich wealthy. Or will kill the rich.

      It’s 100 years ago this year since Henry Ford, hardly a communist, doubled salaries for his shop-floor workers. Yes, he was forced into it by strikes and high training costs for workers he rarely kept for long due to under-paying them. But when he doubled salaries, his profits rose. Why? Because his workers could finally afford to buy the things they made. And they did, by the million. How many of us can truly say we can afford to buy the things we make?

    1. Reblogged? Hope you paid the usage fee! 😉 Only joking. This needs to be publicised as much as possible. I was “lured” to write for a struggling magazine a few years ago. Each edition would bring the promise of “the next article will attract payment”. Alas, the magazine folded, but not due to contributor pay.

      If you have time, please feel free to read about it here… http://dansiron.co.uk/2011/01/13/good-will-punting/

  4. Well said sir. I’m a wannabe writer, and an actor, so am often asked to work for free. I used to do it too, when I was less well trained (more gullible) and experienced and needed the footage for my reel. There didn’t seem to be any other way of getting on in the business, not least because I started acting late in life and there was no time to waste. And of course young film-makers constantly tell us they have no money to pay actors. “All the budget has gone on getting the best equipment, so the film will look great and will make perfect showreel material” was a constant refrain. I’ve always wondered why equipment is deemed to be more valuable than people.
    I hope you’ll be publishing any reply you get from the Post?

  5. Not only that, but they don’t even promote your work once you’ve done it – so it doesn’t pay you OR give you a platform to grow your audience from.

  6. This…I can’t…so perfectly well put. I do like the idea of “fuck off”, but it’s not as wonderfully said as this. The unpaid contributor, as I’ve heard elsewhere, is usually followed up with the, “it’s unpaid, but for will look really good for you when you apply or draw work from other clients.” Yeah, no.
    I Love this.

  7. Great piece and very well said! It does seem fewer people value the work of creatives these days. You really would hope that those whose businesses rely on quality content from creatives would know better. As a photographer, I regularly get contacted by companies wanting to use my images on their website or in their magazine for no payment, just a credit. Well the answer to that is very easy, no…

    1. Saying no would be effective if enough people did it. But sadly, I think that’s improbably.

      Legislation would be more effective, but we live in a universe where governments have persuaded us that legislation is the enemy (even though legislation used to prevent people putting horse-meat in your lasagne, feeding your thalidomide during pregnancy, and fixing the Libor rate).

      So legislation is unlikely either.

      I hope I’m just ahead of the curve, and that more people will start to think through the consequences of this sort of behaviour. And then pressure will be applied to politicians (always the last to think of anything). And finally, it will be outlawed.

      But I don’t live with much hope.

      1. Got to agree with your pessimism here. Far too many will tut when you tell them about the lack of pay, but then send in an application to replace you as soon as you finish the sentence.

        Too many people are willing to stand on others to reach the next highest anus to kiss.

  8. I started writing for The Huffington Post last year and it was the best decision I ever made. I don’t expect to make money from my writing. However, I do believe professionally trained writers should be paid for their work.

    For someone like me, HP has been a nice platform to share my work. I was invited to come on their webshow, HuffPost Live, to discuss various topics. These experiences seeded other experiences. I have since add WSJ and Fox (I’m a moderate and strive to see both sides) to my list of platforms and have been contacted by producers of talk shows regarding my HuffPost Live work.

    1. Well, it’s not an opinion I share (you won’t be shocked to hear it).

      Here in the UK, the government is always thinking up new strategies to make the unemployment figures look better. A recent plan was to make the unemployed work for their benefits – workfare, as it’s know in many parts of the world.

      So they took people who had once been paid well to do a job, but were now without an income. And they gave those people jobs such as emptying the trash, clearing litter, and removing graffiti.

      So now, the people who once were paid to clear trash and remove graffiti were unemployed. So they gave those people jobs as hospital porters. Which made the hospital porters unemployed. And so on.

      The end result was that the same number of people were unemployed as previously, but in every strata of society, people were working for less than before. And as a result, there is more profit being moved off-shore into tax havens (therefore reducing the ability of the state to pay its own way); and national wages have fallen 12%, meaning nobody can afford to buy our own produce.

      Naturally, this is a major factor in our 8 year recession.

      Each word you write for free removes money from the pocket of somebody who used to be paid to do it. And that person can no longer contribute to society – can’t pay tax, can’t buy produce, can’t invest in the future. And, because you do it for free, neither can you.

      I’m sure it led to some opportunities for you. I’m sure it had previously led to opportunities for somebody else, somebody who relied on it for his or her mortgage and groceries.

      As Ghandi said: “be the change you want to see in the world”. If you want to see wage growth, more investment, better service, you have to demand an income. If you want to see a race to the bottom, give your skills away for free to the billionaires who own Fox.

      1. I disagree.

        The fact is that HP does pay in a currency called ‘professional visibility’ (PRV) vs. ‘USD’ – For some people PRV goes a long way in helping them grow in their existing careers.

        And the quote was by an individual whose name is spelt Gandhi.

      2. Excuse the typo.

        Your choice to accept PRV is robbing other people of actual money. Banks accept money, not PRV. So it has a negative affect on many, many people. IMHO.

      3. No, it does not rob people of money.

        The fact is that articles in HP allow readers like me to gain an insight into the opinions of experts and other notables such as Shinzo Abe ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shinzoabe/ ) Ban-Ki-Moon ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ban-kimoon/ ) and more.. – whose expert and individual opinions can’t be replaced by ‘paid reporters’ i.e. their space on HP does not rob anyone of money.

        I think there is a tectonic shift underway and HP and others like the recent SCOTUSBlog skirmish are vanguards of ‘expert journalism’ (see quote below from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/06/23/party-like-its-1999-the-denial-of-a-press-credential-to-scotusblog/ )

        “” And you can read these items without the filtering, oversimplification, and distortion that usually happen when nonexpert journalists write about technical issues — and that often happen even when the best, most knowledgeable nonexpert journalists write about such issues “”

      4. Experts have always contributed to quality press. The problem I – and thousands of others – have with the Huff model is that it devalues everybody except for the rentier, except for the person controlling the asset. If you don’t agree with that analysis, fine, I recommend you write an article about it in the Huff, and see if you get 19,000 retweets, Facebook likes and follows in 24 hours. Cos my analysis did, which suggests I’m on to something.

      5. I’m in the UK, I don’t know these people from Adam and Steve. But I’m sure they’re big, important people who get paid. Less important people, like you and I, get screwed over and Huff attempts to con us into accepting it by placing us alongside paid contributors. Well, as another reply to my post eloquently put it, they can “fuck off”.

      6. No, the people I’ve highlighted “do not get paid” i.e. Shinzo Abe (PM Japan), Ban-KiMoon (UN Sec. Gen) & Tom Goldstein (Publisher SCOTUSBlog)

        For an explanation of How HP works and its’ mix of paid employees, paid news (AP , Reuters), aggregated news & unpaid contributors like John Kerry (US Sec. of State) please read http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/10/huffington-post-bloggers_n_821446.html

        I don’t agree with your analysis and the fact that you got 19000 retweets does not make you right, it just indicates that you a) have tapped into an interesting topic on the fault line of modern news/journalism and b) are a good writer 🙂 and c) have a lot of fellow writers commiserating on the shrinking writing profession.

  9. In all things some balance is required. When you’re starting out – gaining experience is very valuable, and may be more important that real money. That is assuming that the experience leads to some real money real soon. If one is already experienced then the equation changes. The siren call of ‘exposure’ is no longer as appealing.

    There will always be those who benefit from giving away their expertise, those that are in the right place at the right time and can leverage that gift into paying opportunities.

    For the most part – an experienced person working for free does just what the writer claims: it fills a position that otherwise would deliver benefit to someone else, most likely that inexperienced person who actually needs the ‘exposure’.

    By the way – it isn’t just ‘Creatives’ who are asked to work for free. I’ve always been good at seeing the ‘how to do it’ part after a Creative gets an idea. Many ask me ‘how’ but very few want to pay. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, either read the books I’ve read, do the courses I did, work as hard as I have (and do it yourself) or pay me. I used to do quite a bit for no payment – mostly because I enjoy my work. That was until I noticed that my bank balance didn’t change and they were driving around in fancy imports.

    By the way – I see this as my ‘tuition fee’. I’ve paid for a lot of education over the years, some in formal institutions and some outside them. Learning that giving my expertise away for free doesn’t work is just another lesson.

  10. This is without question the most succinct critique of the rentier system I’ve read. Eat your heart out Piketty!

  11. Cartoonists get this a lot too. With us, I think we’re perceived as a ‘fun’ provider, therefore, it can’t be ‘work’, therefore we should be delighted to supply it free of charge. “But I ONLY want a CARTOON!” said one surprised non-client on receiving my modest suggestion of payment. An ex-journalist friend, whose contract publishing business has folded, has been looking for freelance work. The last offer he had was $5.00 for 1,000 words. He’s now demonstrating and selling knives in department stores. The trouble is, these days, everyone is ‘a writer’. The internet has become the most powerful form of self-publishing narcissism with the result that thousands are actually willing to do it for nothing, downgrading the general perception of the craft for the rest of us. If more and more professionals (or semi-professionals) stuck to their guns and resisted the flattery of being asked, then the situation might improve.

    1. In a way, I would have thought being a cartoonist is “safer” than being a writer. As you say, anyone with a computer can write, even if badly and from an ill-informed position. But not everyone has artistic ability, and in a sense it’s easier to spot if your drawing is crap than it is to spot if your writing is crap.

      But I speak without much knowledge in this regard. I do a few portraits as a hobby (http://russelljonespaintings.wordpress.com) but nobody is willing to spend money on them – the few commissions I’ve had have been bad experiences for me, because the customers always expect to come out looking like Brad Pitt, and refuse to pay more than £50. And they seem to assume I can just change everything in 5 minutes for free – “Hey, I like it, but can you make me look like I’m standing on a yacht”. Yeah sure, I’ll just get out my “looks like your standing on a yacht” brush.

      C’est la Vie.

      1. You should see the current turmoil being caused by my latest client – for her soon-to-be-Bat Mitzvah’d daughter. Fortunately, the pay’s great for this one, but the continual changes, all the opposite to the last ones, are infuriating!

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  13. isn’t there someone who could code a ‘sticky widgit’ that would attach this letter to every instance of a Huff Post spamcicle landing in one of anyone’s ‘feed’? Perhaps as a sort of automated form reply thing. That would get you some wide circulation too, and be a contribution worth the work…

  14. A bit too erudite and analytical for my taste but still a subject close to my heart. I tend to go straight to asking if they are getting paid for making the call. Is their editor getting paid? Are the ad sales team getting paid? Are the software team getting paid? Are the computer suppliers getting paid? By this time they’ve usually hung up and left me to work for those who do pay me.

  15. Or as Ms Huffington should know, given her expensive education,

    “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
    – SAmuel Johnson

  16. Fantastic post. There’s an additional irony embedded in all of this, and it directly relates to your comments regarding rich inheritors. As I recall, Ms. Huffington launched HuffPo not with money she earned herself, but with the proceeds from her divorce.

  17. This is so true about everything – the push for people to “work for free” and the economy issues in the UK. I love your writing style and I’m so glad that I found your blog

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