Ian Burrell: HuffPo's writers may be overplaying their importance

Did the contributors to YouTube claim a windfall when the site was bought by Google for $1.65bn?

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"If people go on Newsnight, they don't get paid," said Arianna Huffington on a recent visit to London, trying to explain the difference between someone who works professionally for the media and someone who merely contributes to it.

The Greek-born liberal entrepreneur does not pay bloggers who write for her Huffington Post website and some of them have likened her to a slave master, while suing her for a $105m (£64.5m) slice of the $315m she recently received for selling the site to AOL.

Do they have a case? It depends on how you categorise "content" in an era where almost everybody uses a keyboard and a camera phone. Do those who comment on message boards deserve a stake in the web platform which provides them with an outlet for their views? Did the contributors to YouTube – from schoolchildren to professional film-makers – claim a windfall when the site was bought by Google for $1.65bn in 2006? No.

The Huffington Post is somewhat different. It's not an open house but depends on quality – professional, you might say – writing. Some of her writers gave their services because they believed her promises to be creating a liberal alternative to America's right-leaning networks. They didn't expect her to sell out to a media behemoth.

Others operate differently. Tina Brown, publisher of rival site The Daily Beast, said recently that "as a writer myself, I cannot look other writers in the face and ask them to do things for nothing".

In its early days, the HuffPo could not have afforded to pay all its bloggers but, having acquired 26 million unique monthly visitors it had moved into profit. Not everyone worked for free: Ms Huffington hired 97 full-time editorial staff and 203 employees in total.

None of which means she owes those unpaid bloggers a living. James Brown, founder of the popular British site Sabotage Times, compares the relationship to that of a nightclub and its patrons. "They enjoy dancing at a club and being part of a great atmosphere but get angry when the bloke sells up," he said. "Those people are volunteering to make a great scene."

Sabotage Times, he said, gives its writers a platform for their work to be syndicated and then provides them with 55 per cent of the earnings, above the standard rate. Brown also questioned whether the litigants would have offered to bail Ms Huffington out if she had gone bust.

According to Sunny Hundal of the Liberal Conspiracy blog site: "Bloggers think they're the backbone of a website but it is breaking news, polling information and exclusives which drive readership not opinion." These litigious bloggers might be over-estimating the power of their voice.

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