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Huffington & us

by Larry Goldbetter, President NWU/UAW Local 1981

The main aspect of our campaign at this point is to engage thousands of journalists and to share their experiences and insights, to rely on them to map out the future of digital journalism. This visit this morning is very much in line with that.

Also, we believe this fight for the future of digital online journalism is very much an international fight and we welcome the opportunity to discuss and fight for the future with all of you.

With the Pay the Writer campaign, we are in the early stages of what will be an uphill long-term struggle. We have an organizing committee. We are phone banking our members. We are in the streets. We are meeting new interested writers. Our members just concluded a successful weekend at the Netroots Nation, an annual conference of about 2,000 social media online activists, many of them freelance writers. There was a lot of interest in our campaign, hundreds of conversations, dozens of contacts, and I think 15 new members.

The 7-month boycott of HuffPost that began in March 2011 after the sale of HP to AOL helped put the issue on the map. Along with The Newspaper Guild (TNG) we enjoyed the support of labor, some support among journalists and a lot of inertest and discussion. We jointly entered into this campaign with NWU supporting TNG trying to organize HP’s full-time staff, and TNG supporting NWU’s efforts to organize freelancers.

During the boycott, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) went on strike at Verizon. TNG is a part of CWA. Also, the United Auto Workers (UAW) negotiated a new round of auto contracts. NWU is affiliated with the UAW. HP tried to get stories on both major events from both unions, and could not because our national leaderships supported the boycott. With the end of the boycott came the birth of the PaytheWriter! campaign.

We are concentrating on journalists, those who report the news. We are making some slow headway and by concentrating on journalists, we will eventually make a breakthrough. But for the time being, it’s a quantitative process. How many people are we reaching, talking to, engaged with? How much time do we spend involved with other journalists?

At the same time, Huffington is a very big, international target. Obama mentioned her not paying writers at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Doonesbury ran a piece on her. The Huffington Post is a clear example of how journalists produce more than content, we produce wealth.

Our plan in a word is to organize. The only way journalists and freelance writers can have a say is by having a powerful international movement, much larger than the one we have today. And the only way we can develop a more detailed plan is to share the experiences, insights, and wisdom of thousands of writers, and then, thousands more.

Off the Bus (OTB)

OTB ‘08 really helped make HP what it is today. They had an array of professional journalists contributing their work to help establish a progressive blog. In the process, they broke major stories;

  • Obama being overheard at a San Francisco fund raiser saying that voters in rural Pennsylvania “cling to guns and religion” in hard economic times;
  • Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin writing answers to potential questions on her hand;
  • Republican Presidential candidate John McCain having had a secret meeting with Chilean butcher Pinochet, then attacking Obama for saying he would meet with anybody, including terrorists.

This last story was written by NWU founding member John Dinges, who is also a leader in the PTW campaign. His story picked up over 300,000 hits and was carried worldwide. The others were even bigger. These stories and the rest of the coverage drew millions of readers and millions in advertising to Huffington.

OTB 2012 is another story. Since the sale in March 2011, journalists are less inclined to give their work away to Huffington and the OTB writers appear to be largely students. They are getting assignments and working for an editor at their own expense. In fact, when you apply for OTB, the application states that you will be doing original reporting. They have been asked, for example to do a series on potential running mates for Mitt Romney.

What have we done?

Last October we held a live streamed panel on the future of online journalism, taking questions and comments both in person and online. One of the panelists later joined NWU and has involved us in another fight to collect about $150,000 owed to more than a dozen black women writers and editors for a national magazine. Since that panel we have gathered about 400 names of journalists who are interested in the campaign.

We have held rallies where Huffington is speaking, most recently at a fund raiser and where she was receiving an award for “Women in the Media,” both in New York City.

As I mentioned earlier, we just returned from NetrootsNation 2012 and we are attending other conferences and panels to spread the campaign. Next month I’ll be part of a panel on Journalists, Journalism, Labor and New Media in San Francisco, and the union will host a workshop at the LaborTech conference in November, also in San Francisco.

Our plan is to involve as many writers as possible in the process of developing the answers. We are discussing with some allies the possibility of a Writers Congress next Spring, and we certainly welcome and encourage the participation of all of our international colleagues. And we are looking to partner with those publications that do want a fair standard in the industry.

The truth is things will likely get worse before they get better. And there are severe limits to how well any individual freelancer will be able to do in this atmosphere. There are few, if any individual solutions. But as the union gets stronger, we will create a better climate.

We are concentrating on professional journalists and those who want to be. Digital journalism is the focus of our campaign. We can’t stop anyone from writing for free, nor should we. But we can set a standard for professional journalism, for those doing original reporting for for-profit online publications like the Huffington Post.

Our goal remains the organizing of hundreds of freelancers into the NWU and
establishing an industry standard of fair pay for quality journalism at online publications. If we represent few writers our chances are slim to none. If we represent many, we have a much better shot.

This is a complicated fight. The vast majority of HP bloggers are willing to write for free, but they bring little if any traffic to HP. Our challenge is to organize online freelance journalists and involve them in the process of thinking this through.

Larry Goldbetter, President
NWU/UAW Local 1981

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