The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
MCN Blogs
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Huff Po Sale: Arianna $300 Million, Writers 0

David has his own detailed take on the HuffPo sale to AOL, and it’s a good write-up with some interesting comments which you should read if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

For me, here’s what the HuffPo sale really means:

Ariana Huffington managed to take a model of paying people little (in some cases) to nothing (in most cases) for the privilege of having work “published” on HuffPo. “Citizen journalists” my ass. Using a spin on the “unpaid intern” huckster sell, she convinced many, many smart people to give her their hard work for free, so that she could build up a site over a few years and then sell it for $300 million.

It’s the scam of the century, really. HuffPo fleeces writers at a time when people with journalism degrees are fighting over scraps, and she makes a $300 million sale off (as David pointed out) stealing chunks of some content and selling enough people the crazy Kool-Aid that writing for HuffPo for free was better than not writing at all. To me, HuffPo was always insanely stupid in its inception, and I’ve been amazed at times when people whose writing I otherwise respect turned up from time to time over there. But hey, $300 million. Holy crap. That’s a big chunk of AOL change.

To put the sale in a slightly different perspective: I was working for Cinematical back when it was still owned by Weblogs, Inc, which owned a buttload of quality blog properties including Engadget, TUAW, Blogging Baby and TV Squad — all, at that time, traffic leaders for their niches. AOL bought Weblogs, Inc in October 2005 for about $25 million, and there was much celebrating by the bloggers who worked their asses off for the various sites when we converged in November 2005 in New York City to meet our new AOL colleagues, get schooled in the AOL way of doing things (man, do they have a LOT of lawyers, and a LOT more rules for how you have to deal with linking to other peoples’ content, so good luck navigating that shit, HuffPo.)

But back to the writers: With our hard work, we’d helped build the Weblogs properties into something worth selling for $25 million! Wasn’t that awesome? We drank much sake and other beverages that weekend, congratulating ourselves on our general awesomeness.

Surely AOL would be promptly rewarding the people who did the daily grind for those blogs with full time jobs, or, at least, better pay than the “if we build it, they will buy eventually” $10/blog post, $50/feature rate we’d been getting. To be perfectly fair, I’m pretty sure the guys at Engadget, which at that time at least was a HUGE money property for Weblogs and carried a lot of the weight of the other 80-something blogs, got some payoff. And I’m pretty sure they made more than the standard going per-post rate to begin with.

Also to be fair, Weblogs, Inc boss-man Jason Calacanis figured out very early in the blog-for-profit game that you could pay bloggers per post and motivate them to be hungry and therefore write more frequently to hit the perceived “sweet spot” of X posts per day — that point at which number of posts and the highest increase in traffic, merged. I have no issue with Jason Calacanis at all — he’s a very smart guy, I learned a lot working for him, he paid people fairly for the market at the time, and he wasn’t — and isn’t — afraid to take chances. It takes balls to grow a business, and the ability to delegate to a team of smart people, and Jason knows how to do both.

He also, from my experience, believes passionately in whatever he’s doing at the moment, and I like to think that, if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t have sold to AOL. Because they took what Weblogs, Inc had built and spent the next few years gutting and gutting and gutting the properties they bought, including Cinematical — and bless the Cinematical team who have somehow managed to hold it together through AOL’s numerous attempts to dilute the brand and merge it completely under Moviefone. Cinematical has a dedicated editorial staff, and some good writers, and they have much more patience for dealing with AOL than I did.

So now, here we are six years later and the same company that bought Weblogs, Inc — which owned sites that actually did generate a great deal of original content for which writers were actually paid — for $25 million, is now buying HuffPo, which generates limited original content for which writers are actually paid, for more than 10 times what they paid for Weblogs. Yowza.

Clearly, my writer friends and I are all (still) working on the wrong side of this equation.

6 Responses to “Huff Po Sale: Arianna $300 Million, Writers 0”

  1. James Rocchi says:

    Having worked with Kim during this change and that era, I cannot endorse the spirit and sensibility of this piece enough.

  2. Kim Voynar says:

    I feel I need to emphasize here that I don’t take issue with what I was paid when I worked for Cinematical under Weblogs, Inc, which we knew at that time was a lean, mean, growing company. We all knew what we were getting into with that gig, it was the dawn of being paid to blog, being able to legitimately work from home, being paid to fucking write at ALL, which was so great for that period of my life. For all of us at that time.

    I completely owe the career that’s transitioned into film critic and managing editor (at Cinematical) and features editor and film critic here at MCN, to Karina Longworth, then EIC of Cinematical, for hiring me and pushing me to write my best and grow and learn, and especially to Jason Calacanis.

    He believed I could do this job in spite of having four young kids still at home, and brought me to my first Sundance and gave me a shot. It was really a world for 20–somethings with nothing to do but blog 24-7, and he took a chance on an older writer with other obligations and trusted me to be professional. Jason rocks.

    I am less enamored of AOL, who — and I feel I can say this now — didn’t raise anyone’s pay, as we expected they would, and set impossibly high traffic goal hoops for us to jump through always dangling an elusive carrot of bigger budget and more pay at the end of it. And James Rocchi, who was then EIC, would fight and fight for more budget to be able to meet the goals they wanted us to meet, and every time we’d meet a goal they’d say, hah hah just kidding, but if you reach THIS one maybe we’ll pay more. And by the bye, we want better content, better writers … but you have to offer them shit pay and convince them it’s gold.

    It was like being Charlie Brown with Lucy holding the football and jerking it out from under you all the time. And then the constant threat of being merged with Moviefone, or under Moviefone, or whatever the plan was on any given day. Jesus.

    I have nothing but respect for my colleagues who have stuck it out over there through the years, they are pros and they believe in what they’re doing and they support their writers passionately. But I could not beat my head bloody against that wall anymore. When Ted Leonsis, the last of the guys who actually really understood the heart and soul and value of the Weblogs properties, left AOL to go do new and exciting and, I think, better things over with SnagFilms, which bought indieWIRE, that was EOL for me.

    The AOL travel office rocks, though. I’ll say that for them.

  3. christian says:

    Well stated. Too bad nobody in the bought-and-sold-media will ever question Arianna to her face.

  4. Shay says:

    Still better than Demand Media, no?

  5. Senh says:

    You always think that when a bigger company buys a smaller one, they’ll invest some money to grow it, but instead they just want you to do more with less.

  6. Kim Voynar says:

    Preach it, Senh.

Leave a Reply

Quote Unquotesee all »

“Yes, good movies sprout up, inevitably, in the cracks and seams between the tectonic plates on which all of these franchises stay balanced, and we are reassured of their hardiness. But we don’t see what we don’t see; we don’t see the effort, or the cost of the effort, or the movies of which we’re deprived because of the cost of the effort. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice may have come from a studio, but it still required a substantial chunk of outside financing, and at $35 million, it’s not even that expensive. No studio could find the $8.5 million it cost Dan Gilroy to make Nightcrawler. Birdman cost a mere $18 million and still had to scrape that together at the last minute. Imagine American movie culture for the last few years without Her or Foxcatcher or American Hustle or The Master or Zero Dark Thirty and it suddenly looks markedly more frail—and those movies exist only because of the fairy godmothership of independent producer Megan Ellison. The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.”
~ Mark Harris On The State Of The Movies

How do you make a Top Ten list? For tax and organizational purposes, I keep a log of every movie I see (Title, year, director, exhibition format, and location the film was viewed in). Anything with an asterisk to the left of its title means it’s a 2014 release (or something I saw at a festival which is somehow in play for the year). If there’s a performance, or sequence, or line of dialogue, even, that strikes me in a certain way, I’ll make a note of it. So when year end consideration time (that is, the month and change out of the year where I feel valued) rolls around, it’s a little easier to go through and pull some contenders for categories. For 2014, I’m voting in three polls: Indiewire, SEFCA (my critics’ guild), and the Muriels. Since Indiewire was first, it required the most consternation. There were lots of films that I simply never had a chance to see, so I just went with my gut. SEFCA requires a lot of hemming and hawing and trying to be strategic, even though there’s none of the in-person skullduggery that I hear of from folk whose critics’ guild is all in the same city. The Muriels is the most fun to contribute to because it’s after the meat market phase of awards season. Also, because it’s at the beginning of next year, I’ll generally have been able to see everything I wanted to by then. I love making hierarchical lists, partially because they are so subjective and mercurial. Every critical proclamation is based on who you are at that moment and what experiences you’ve had up until that point. So they change, and that’s okay. It’s all a weird game of timing and emotional waveforms, and I’m sure a scientist could do an in-depth dissection of the process that leads to the discovery of shocking trends in collective evaluation. But I love the year end awards crush, because I feel somewhat respected and because I have a wild-and-wooly work schedule that has me bouncing around the city to screenings, or power viewing the screeners I get sent.
Jason Shawhan of Nashville Scene Answers CriticWire