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Why I Left The Huffington Post
Yesterday The Huffington Post “posted” the last piece I will write for them, probably, barring the serendipity of life. Below is my email exchange with Roy Sekoff, the founding editor, on the subject. Arianna Huffington, for her part, is surprisingly accessible via email; however, she never delivers bad news personally, it seems, but always leaves that task to Roy. At least, so I deduce from the fact that so it has gone three times over the past year (last winter and then now) in email exchanges with Arianna and Roy about paying me for work. And at the end of the day, that is the crux: I want to be paid for my time and effort—or at a minimum, to get a little remuneration in return for the money I spend myself in order to do original reportage. I would not expect to be paid for punditry. The Huffington Post business model is to provide a platform for 6,000 opinionators to hold forth. Point of view is cheap. I would never expect to be paid there when the other 5,999 are not. However, the journalism pieces I have done in the past year seem to me as good as anything HuffPost’s paid reporters Sam Stein and Ryan Grim produce. Why do they get money, and I do not? I don’t recall either of them writing the story about Barack Obama waxing large on “clinging to guns and religion,” which seems more and more as time goes by to be the one big story out of the last presidential election to live on. Or at least it is the one that journalists and pundits are quoting regularly now.
So anyway here is my email exchange with Roy. He has always seemed to be a good man, and he is nice in his emails, so I do not think he will mind, even though I am going to use them to make a few points about what Arianna & Co. do not seem to understand, although, of course maybe they just don’t think I’m a good enough reporter to be worthy of paying.
On Thu, Sep 23, 2010 at 3:37 PM, Mayhill Fowler <email@example.com> wrote:
Dear Arianna and Roy,
Just to give you a heads up that I think today was my last post for you. Without pay and some editorial support and a reportorial community for belonging, I find it increasingly hard to find anything worthwhile to say.
Sorry that I never got a chance to meet you, Roy. My best to you, Arianna.
Sent from my iPad
From: Roy Sekoff
To: Mayhill Fowler
Cc: Arianna Huffington
Date: Fri, Sep 24, 2010 5:11 am
Mayhill — I’m sorry to hear that you don’t feel like continuing to be part of the HuffPost mix. We’ve always appreciated your contributions to the group blog.
As we have transitioned from OffTheBus to our current Eyes and Ears initiative, we have indeed tried to build a community around citizen journalism — both between our editors and the citizen journalists, and among the journalists themselves. Our Eyes and Ears editors hold daily conference calls with small groups of citizen reporters who are helping cover specific races in the 2010 election. During these calls, the journalists run their pitches by our E&E editors, get feedback and pointers, and are also able to discuss problems, questions, comments, etc with the other journalists on the call.
In the days since OffTheBus, you obviously have transitioned into one of our top line bloggers. With over 6,000 bloggers and 300 blog posts published a day, we tend to have less editorial back and forth with our group bloggers (although I know we always try to be responsive and I have personally maintained relationships with many who have been with us since “the old days”!).
I’m not sure where your interests are these days. It has seemed more “big picture” than in-the-trenches coverage of specific races (the focus of our Eyes&Ears 2010 initiative), but if you would like to do some 2010 coverage or be part of the Eyes and Ears 2010 team, I’d love to put you in touch with the team of editors who are spearheading that effort.
In any case, the door is always open. We enjoy having you on HuffPost.
All the best,
On Fri, Sep 24, 2010 at 9:50 AM, Mayhill Fowler <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Thank you for the reply. I appreciate your taking the time. I realize that the Huffington Post does not pay bloggers, but I have reached a point where I need more for my work. I’m not only an opinionator; I have this last year gone out and done actual reportage. I’m no longer going to do that for free. I’ve paid my dues in the citizen journalism department; I’m a journalist now.
So if you can’t find a place for me doing some kind of paid reporting, it’s goodbye. In the end, you know, it’s not so much about the money itself as the dignity it confers.
Sent from my iPhone
From: Roy Sekoff
To: Mayhill Fowler email@example.com
Cc: Arianna Huffington
Date: Fri, Sep 24, 2010 10:13 am
We completely understand and wish you all the best. Roy
The dignity pay confers upon work. I think this about sums it up. So let this be a warning to you, citizen journalism enthusiasts. In the end, what you are doing really is enhancing somebody else’s bottom line. And think for a minute what it means when you throw yourself into working for a place, as I did, without first walking into the company’s human resources office to sign some paperwork that legally binds you and your employee to a relationship. In my book Notes from a Clueless Journalist, which not too many have read (I may have been a bit ahead of the curve on publishing only for Kindle and cell phone), I go into the consequences here in a much darker way. I’m not going to repeat any of that now, because in some sense what happened to me post-Bittergate and the way in which The Huffington Post did not have my back was a unique situation. Although, now that I think about it, the scenario would make a movie: citizen journalist gets a great story, but the poohbahs for whom she is writing don’t know her from Eve and can’t decide, first, whether to believe her or not, and then, second, as things get complicated whether, because of conflicting loyalties, to support her. It is very much a story about class and hierarchy and relationship, about bias and trust and instinct—and maybe only a Tom Wolfe could write it.
Anyway, before I get sidetracked on Bittergate, let me move on to what I meant by support and community in my email to Arianna and Roy. On a practical level, these are equally important, but I don’t think Roy understood me. Maybe I should have tried to explain more, although it does seem to me that resignation emails should be pithy. Here is the thing. It is very hard to go out and do original reporting without some kind of backup, without knowing where you fit into the news site’s overall strategy for covering a specific topic, say the upcoming November elections. I have always felt I was flying blind by not knowing what the paid reporters at HuffPost were investigating at the moment, because a reporter doesn’t want to duplicate a colleague’s work but contribute a different piece to the overall picture the news site is trying to construct. Without some structure, chaos reigns. In Clueless Journalist, I give some instances I experienced.
As for community, I have found that it is just too lonely to be out there on one’s own, without the interaction (even if it is of the prickly variety) and camaraderie that a workplace provides. In my book, I call it “the terrifying loneliness of the road.” And this comment comes from a woman who has always regarded herself as a loner, by the way. Therefore, I don’t know what Roy means in his email by “the group blog.” It’s as if he were referring to a book club or a loose affiliation of weekend bicyclists. But I don’t know 99.9% of the other Huffington Post bloggers from Adam. I have nothing in common with Larry David or John Kerry. There is much more than six degrees of separation among us, and yet we all have posted at HuffPost. I cannot think of any way in which the other bloggers and I make up “community,” with all that entails: interaction, support, acquaintanceship in some fashion (even if only online). As for Arianna herself, she is frequently in the Bay Area (as she will be this weekend for a book party), but she never invites me to any of her events—and I would bet that she does not others in the so-called “group” either.
Don’t get me wrong. Arianna has many wonderful qualities. I especially admire her wit and her continual reinvention of herself, in that classic American (especially immigrant American) way. But she is also the quintessential opportunist. And I cannot help but feel that, at the end of the day, as I thought I was proving myself to her to be worthy of journalism, she on her part was milking me for everything she could get before letting me go. I’m surprised to find I have so few hard feelings. Maybe it’s because media is a dog eat dog world. I was taken aback in 2008 to discover the extent to which this is true. But I also discovered, rather late in life, I admit, that journalism is the work I love. Indeed I was born to do it. (A story for another day. Perhaps.)
Readers, here is something for you to ponder. The Huffington Post just took on Howard Fineman, a fine political pundit and maybe one of the last to leave the sinking ship Newsweek. I predict he will stay about a year. Maybe two. He doesn’t want Newsweek to be the last thing on his resume. He needs some “street cred” in new media. Then he will go on to a university lectureship (Princeton, perhaps) or a think tank or a foundation in order to round out a prestigious career. Likely both Fineman and Huffington are under no illusions about the hire. But here’s the thing from my point of view. So Fineman is getting a six-figure salary. Deserved. But why is there not a quarter of that for me? Below are the pitches I made to Arianna this past year, which she said she did not have the money to fund. Below that are links to the original reportage, at my own expense, I did for HuffPost this year. Read. Then let me know—no holds barred—if you think I have proved myself worthy of remuneration.
1. I pitched Arianna and Roy on covering what was happening in Afghanistan from a civilian perspective. I had heard some intriguing things from the coterie of military bloggers I know now—observations that they toss off as asides, because, drawn to the romance of conflict, they have not found them worthy of reportage. I thought what was going on in Kabul and in the Clinton/Obama “civilian corps” would interest readers. I wanted to cover the increased media outreach effort (often paying local outlets) from the State Department to citizens of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I wanted to cover the new civilian corps, composed mostly of my generation, the first in the Peace Corps, who are now willing to give their lives (as indeed they have) to build better infrastructure for people they don’t know half way across the world.
2. I pitched Arianna and Roy on covering the Tea Party Convention in Nashville. When they turned me down, I ended up posting on my own blog here. Since so few people read it, I determined to make a bigger effort to stay with HuffPost. I thought that I could make the “numbers of eyeballs” at HuffPost enough reason to stay. At least, I can say I gave it a try. An ironic twist to the Nashville experience, was that at Saturday midnight the manager and the security head for the Gaylord Opryland Hotel came to me to complain that two young people (“on drugs”—well, who knows?) claiming to be from The Huffington Post had tried to get into the Sarah Palin dinner speech event before running away from the guards. I had known that the way Eyes & Ears (the new HuffPost citizen journalism effort) had encouraged people via Twitter to cover the event (which anybody could have known would have very tight security) was a really bad idea. But now I had to deal with the consequences? If I needed any reminder, here was yet another how attached my name was to The Huffington Post.
3. I pitched Arianna on covering whatever it is that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is up to. Partly because of media budget cutbacks, but also because the reporters assigned to the State Department are a less-than-entrepreneurial lot, this story is not being told. I offered to split the costs. I was willing to move to Washington, D.C. to get this story and commute home one weekend a month, because I thought the story was and is important. Because travel on trips abroad is expensive, I told Arianna and she and I together would determine what few trips I would make. I wanted $2500 a month, with the understanding that after six months we would review whether or not we would go forward, and with the commitment on my part to train a younger person to take my place down the road. (I said this because I am sure that Obama will have second term.)
Now check out a link or two to some of my original reporting for The Huffington Post in 2010. I’m not even including the opinion pieces, even though I am one of only a handful of national pundits who totally get Barack Obama. Then let me know if sending me off with “their best” was such a wise move for HuffPost.
Okay, so like all writers, looking over these pieces, I am not satisfied with my work. But maybe I’m worth a tenth of Howard Fineman?
Update: A note about Zennie Abraham. I’m not sure who he is, but he is trying to capitalize on “Why I Left” with a number of untruths. We have never met. We spoke on the phone for 30 seconds in September 2007 when Amanda Michel, OfftheBus editor, thought we might link up at an Obama rally. It never happened. Abraham and I never spoke once about either Obama or politics in general. Post-Bittergate, he wrote otherwise. To say that I am “an enemy of the Obama Campaign” is a hoot. Then and now, we have always had a good relationship.