It launched this week amid what’s been called “controversy”. It’s funny how easy it is to create a controversy. Just get one person to write something on a blog or in a column, have a bunch of people post links to it on Twitter and Facebook, and then get journalists to ask them for their reaction. Voilà: a controversy.
In the case of the Huffington Post, it started with a blog post from Voir’s Simon Jodoin, accusing people of volunteering their services as writers for the sole profit of the giant AOL empire. (A feeling echoed by La Presse’s Nathalie Collard.) The fallout from that led to some people who had agreed to blog for free (notably Québec solidaire’s Amir Khadir) to change their minds. But not all.
The word “controversy” appears in many stories about HuffPost Québec. The Gazette, Les Affaires (and again), Radio-Canada (and its Triplex blog), CTV, Canadian Press, Branchez-Vous. Bad PR, for sure, but Arianna Huffington dealt with it well when she was surrounded by journalists jumping over each other to talk to her.
Huffington and HuffPost Québec staff used various comparisons to explain why this isn’t a big deal. People aren’t paid for letters to the editor. People aren’t paid to write on Facebook or Twitter, even though their actions benefit those companies (Facebook is worth an estimated $100 billion based mostly off the free contributions of its users). To them, it’s merely a platform people can use to express their views.
That view is consistent with what we know of the relationship between bloggers and Huffington Post. Bloggers aren’t assigned subjects or told what to write. There are no deadlines or minimum contribution requirements. Huffington Post doesn’t demand exclusivity on what is contributed. In short, nothing to suggest that there’s an employer-employee relationship here. Instead, what Huffington Post offers is exposure.
It’s important to note here that “exposure” applies mainly to the content, not to the writer. There are headshots (that are sometimes difficult to make out) and bylines (that can easily be lost in the noisy template) to go with blog posts. But for the most part, unless you’re a name that’s already famous, nobody is going to remember it after reading. And if something does get people talking, chances are the name they mention won’t be the author’s, but Huffington Post.
This means most of the people blogging for HuffPost are those who don’t care about money, but who want what they write to reach a large audience. There are politicians like Yves-François Blanchet and Maka Kotto. People who run interest groups like Karel Mayrand. Media personalities like Anne-Marie Withenshaw. PR types like Jean-François Bouchard, Mélanie Joly, Pierre Grince and Bruno Guglielminetti. Artists like Guillaume Beauregard.
And there are journalists, too, and others who make their living from what they write. Some use their blog posts as ways to promote their websites. Others, I don’t know why they’re contributing.
One reason, advanced by Withenshaw, for using the Huffington Post as a platform is that maintaining a personal blog or even a Tumblr account can be time-consuming. With HuffPost, you send them text, they edit it, post it and promote it for you.
Freelancers should not apply
I don’t know if there are any people who contribute to HuffPost Québec who are starving freelancers hoping that the exposure will lead to paying gigs as writers. If there are some considering trying this out, I would advise against it. Instead, I recommend struggling writers starting out to start their own blogs (it’s really not that difficult, they maintain editorial control, can sell their own ads and benefit from 100% of the credit) and write for themselves instead of AOL. If they write something particularly spectacular, it’ll probably get mentioned on HuffPost anyway.
If people want to ignore this advice and volunteer for a giant multinational company, that’s their choice.
HuffPost is hardly the first medium to accept free content. Newspapers large and small often have people who contribute for free, who make enough money in their real jobs that they really don’t care about a tiny freelance fee, or who see far more value in getting their names and faces published than they lose in the time it takes to write.
But HuffPost has streamlined this. Much like its aggregation machine that takes popular things on the Internet and builds pages about them to suck in Google hits, the blogging system allows opinions to be put online, packaged together and sold as a place where important people share ideas.
Part of the reason for HuffPost’s success is technological. Comment sections on major media websites are often poorly designed, either setting the bar too high for comments, resulting in very few, or setting the bar too low and being filled with trolls and spam. At HuffPost, commenters are rewarded for contributing positively to the conversation, and we’re already seeing plenty of commentary at HuffPost Québec.
HuffPost can do photo galleries, videos and all sorts of other stuff that makes telling stories a lot easier (like galleries of Twitter posts).
A real – but tiny – newsroom
Huffington Post Québec also has an actual news operation. Most of the hard news on its website is from wire services, mainly Presse Canadienne. Again, they’re hardly the first news operation to rely so heavily on wires. Metro did the same when it launched a decade ago.
Will HuffPost Québec become a force in Quebec journalism? Probably not. HuffPost’s actual reporting staff is small enough to fit in a van, so it’s hard to imagine they’d come up with the kind of exclusives we see on a regular basis out of Radio-Canada or La Presse, or even the occasional scoops we see in the Journal de Montréal, Le Devoir, The Gazette or CTV.
It’s been trying to come out with original reporting in its first week, but the two stories I might qualify as scoops – a story about the sale of Schwartz’s and another about an election being called in Quebec in March – have both been at least partly debunked. Not that they were false per se (a Schwartz’s sale is in the works under a cloud of non-disclosure agreements, and Jean Charest is being coy about a spring election in Quebec), but they need something rock-solid and unquestionable to be taken seriously.
The aggregation machine
The more interesting question is whether HuffPost Québec will recreate the magic that the U.S. version offers and attract enough Internet traffic to make money. (And if they do, will that traffic attraction come at the expense of traditional media or will it send traffic their way?)
Aside from getting people to write for free, HuffPost has been accused of abusing fair use, with long summaries of other journalists’ work that are stingy on credit. (An issue that’s even been parodied by The Onion.)
So far, I don’t see that problem on HuffPost Québec. The first piece I spotted that was sourced to another media outlet linked to their website directly. And while there’s also a page on HuffPost’s website for it (supposedly so people can leave comments), the description is very brief with more than appropriate sourcing and a clear link.
And, of course, traditional media have been ripping each other off for decades. They “match” stories, offering credit only when they can’t independently confirm the facts. They use vague terms like “according to media reports” and “reportedly”, often giving the illusion of multiple media sources just so they don’t have to cite a competitor by name. Compared to that, offering a link seems pretty generous.
The bottom line
I’ve never been a big Huffington Post reader. I’m not interested in reading what celebrities have to say about politics, and I can get stories from wire services at any website. So maybe I’m not the right person to ask about the Quebec version’s prospects.
But if you have to ask, I’d say they’ll probably be moderately successful. I don’t think there’s enough of a news operation (or enough celebrity bloggers) to give HuffPost Québec the kind of influence here that HuffPost has in the United States. But it’s large enough that, combined with generous use of wire services, a lack of fear about pointing to other news websites (something many traditional media online still haven’t gotten over), plenty of link-baiting non-stories and a complete lack of shame about creating something out of nothing (“viral video” stories, anyone?), it can probably amass enough eyeballs to keep itself afloat.
And as one journalist told me this week: Anything that brings more journalism jobs is a good thing for journalism.
For more analysis on Huffington Post Québec, you can read what everyone else has written about it. The best aggregation of HuffPost reaction is, naturally, at HuffPost Québec.
Jean-François Codère, who has some experience with online publications as one of the former brains behind Rue Frontenac, offers a good list of pros and cons.