Profiting from Freely Provided Content

Interesting development: Huffington Post is being sold to AOL for almost a third of a billion dollars when it built a chunk of its reputation and content from unpaid contributors (Harold Pollack and Mark Kleiman among them, I believe).

I wonder so will ask publicly: Mark, Harold, do you believe any of this loot should be shared among prior authors?

p.s. It’s at times like these that I am glad I negotiated with Mark that I get 10% of anything over the first $50 million when RBC is sold to some multi-media conglomerate (I have to cough up 15% of that to my agent, but still…).

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

11 thoughts on “Profiting from Freely Provided Content”

  1. I wonder so will ask publicly: Mark, Harold, do you believe any of this loot should be shared among prior authors?

    Sunday “cat’s paw” blogging….

  2. I find it odd that so many people seem to feel there is some sort of sweat equity that should go to people who submit content for free to various sites.

    Why, exactly, do people feel this? Is it a precedence thing?

    Not all payment is in money. People who contributed to the HuffPo (or here) presumably thought it paid in something- publicity, getting a message out, prestige, entertainment of interacting with others, etc.

    I think it is important to keep one’s fairness alarm well-tuned. The instinctual alarms that fire are tuned to intertribal survival imperatives. Which is important. But that sort of tuning doesn’t provide a lot of guidance in navigating personal celebrity capital or M&A transactions.

  3. Wanting to disseminate your ideas, and wanting to charge money for them, seem like conflicting desires.

    Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, Isaac Newton, Galileo Galileii — these were all authors of important ideas.
    I could be wrong, but I suspect they would all have been willing to blog for free 🙂

    –TP

  4. Sam Johnson comes to mind:

    No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money

    Johnson wasn’t right, of course, there are other reasons – emotional release, the pleasure of having even a minor audience, fame, etcetera. After all, Mark et al already write for free here – pay to write, maybe, given the hosting costs – and Huffpo offered he same with a different and larger audience. It can’t but grate to see someone profit from their ability to market material given away by its creators, and especially to profit so handsomely. Still, what’s the option? Working in Danton’s Gawker Media blog mines, a minimum number of posts per day and a minimum number of clicks per post or you don’t collect your meager pay? When Mark publishes a journal article, does he expect money from his journal, or “merely” the respect of his colleagues and more credibility when applying for research funding? In my own field, we actually have to pay “page charges” when we publish, even in the most prestigious of journals, in theory to defray the cost of re-composing and printing the figures, albeit the money comes from research funding and not from the authors’ own pockets. Is the Huffpo perhaps doing something similar to academic publishing, except that rather than paying in the currency of academic credibility or in the currency of, well, currency, it purports to pay in the currency of public awareness? If the Huffpo were really good at delivering such public awareness, might not Mark – or a wealthier, less principled, perhaps less talented version of Mark – pay the Huffpo to see their work published?

  5. Keith, I am currently in negotiations with Mark to purchase RBC for $49,999,999.99, plus some stock options. Just thought you should know.

  6. I think the unfairness is when someone online reprints articles that someone else paid a journalist to write, without paying a fee. I gather there are people out there trying to solve this problem?

  7. Keith, Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com had an excellent article about this right after the story broke: http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/12/the-economics-of-blogging-and-the-huffington-post/

    Short version: there’s excellent evidence that almost all the profits from the site come via paid articles. There are a great many bloggers but they’re not at all widely read. Comparing the traffic on samefacts.com to the circulation of The Nation or even The Washington Monthly would probably yield the same conclusion.

    And as someone who once tried to make a living as a free-lance journalist (failing pathetically), I guess I think that’s as it should be. In fact, my very first blog post on this site was on this theme: http://www.samefacts.com/2006/01/msm-mainstream-media/why-news-should-cost-a-lot/
    Thinking up, editing, reporting, writing, promoting, and selling ad space around an article that hundreds of thousands of people want to read is a difficult, high-skill enterprise. There’s a reason journalists, editors and publishers–print or cyber- –get paid to do it. Blogging lets us put our ideas out without having to go through the process of making them fit for mass communication. And we get paid accordingly.

    I’m sorry that so many people who have no other job *but* blogger are trying desperately to be paid decently and can’t manage it. Nate’s advice is probably good: very small fish in the Huffington Pond might not be the optimal strategy for someone trying to get noticed. But I’d also say that at some point, if one has blogged for a long time and can’t make a living, one may have to admit that that particular career is not going to happen, as I did, and try some other line of work.

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