AOL-Huffington Post merger an echo of robber-baron economics?

It’s safe to say that LA Times’ columnist Tim Rutten is no fan of the AOL-Huffington Post merger.  In today’s column, Rutten warns that the economic model pushed by AOL and accelerated by Arianna Huffington’s plans will not only push traditional journalists from what few paying gigs they can find in New Media, but will usher in a robber-baron era in the industry, with unpaid writers acting as “galley slaves,” while the new AOL demands ramming speed to make up for their investment:

Consider first AOL’s pre-merger efforts, which centered on a handful of commentators and a national network of intensely local news sites called Patch. The quality of those efforts varies widely, but the best ones are edited by journalists who lost their jobs in the layoffs and buyouts that have beset traditional news organizations over the last decade. These editor-reporters are given reasonable benefits and salaries that are about what beginning reporters at major newspapers were paid three decades ago. Their contributors, by contrast, are paid a maximum of $50 an article, often less.

The results pretty much conform to the old maxim that you get what you pay for; the best Patch journalism almost invariably is being done by experienced journalists who do the work out of idealism or desperation. What happens when that pool of exploitable surplus labor dries up — as it will with time — is anybody’s guess, but the smart money would bet on something that isn’t pretty.

In this merger, though, that pool may not dry up as much as it will become superfluous.  As I noted yesterday, Huffington plans on enticing thousands of people to blog on campaign-related events in 2012, hoping to find an occasional golden needle in massive numbers of haystacks.  That is what happened when Mayhill Fowler reported Barack Obama’s “cling to guns or religion” remarks in San Francisco at a private fundraiser, complete with audio, as part of Huffington’s OffTheBus project.  Fowler wanted to get a salary from HuffPo, and quit when they refused.  The OffTheBus project, Huffington said earlier this week, will be her model for the expanded 2012 coverage through Patch, which is where journalists have at least made some money from local reporting until now, as Rutten notes.

That’s where Rutten charges AOL and Huffington Post of concocting galleys and sweatshops in an echo of the robber-baron era:

To grasp its business model, though, you need to picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates. Given the fact that its founder, Huffington, reportedly will walk away from this acquisition with a personal profit of as much as $100 million, it makes all the Post’s raging against Wall Street plutocrats, crony capitalism and the Bush and Obama administrations’ insensitivities to the middle class and the unemployed a bit much.

The fact is that AOL and the Huffington Post simply recapitulate in the new media many of the worst abuses of the old economy’s industrial capitalism — the sweatshop, the speedup and piecework; huge profits for the owners; desperation, drudgery and exploitation for the workers. No child labor, yet, but if there were more page views in it…

To some extent, this is unfair.  After all, no one will force these aspiring “galley slaves” into drudgery and exploitation.  Most of them, if not all, could easily self-publish on their own blogs — and it’s a fair guess that most of them will.  They will use their AOL-HuffPo exposure to direct some traffic back to their own blogs, hoping themselves to catch lightning in a bottle and make their mark.  It will be akin to buying a lottery ticket, but the odds are somewhat better, and the only cost these “galley slaves” will endure is lost time and perhaps opportunity costs.

However, Rutten is on more solid ground when he criticizes the economic model for its impact on journalism.  AOL has turned its back on the professional, balanced approach taken over the last two years (ironically, in a move away from blogging).  Flooding Patch and AOL with thousands of amateurs will undoubtedly dilute the reach, attention, and credibility of the professional writers and journalists that remain with the site.  The terms of the deal almost guarantees that AOL/HuffPo will have to cut its investment in paid writing as well.

As AOL moves towards a HuffPo diary environment, they’ll become less relevant and less attractive for those writers anyway.  They may excel at search-engine machinations to drive page views, but as activism replaces journalism, the site will attract mainly the same audience as Huffington Post gets now.  In the end, that may create better opportunities — elsewhere.