HuffPost Halts Unpaid Contributors: Can Anyone Be a Credible Journalist These Days? Should They?

01.25.2018 | Beth Mayer

In an unexpected move for its readers and its more than 100,000 contributors, HuffPost announced recently it would be ending its popular unpaid contributor network.

According to The New York Times, “The decision was rooted as much in a move to declutter the site as in Ms. Polgreen’s (editor in chief Lydia Polgreen) desire to focus on quality reporting and minimize unvetted stories at a time when there is so much misinformation online.”

As Polgree herself put it in her Jan. 18 article: “Open platforms that once seemed radically democratizing now threaten, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy.”

In other words, this decision was based largely to halt the continued proliferation of fake news.

After all, if unpaid “citizen journalists” and bloggers can break stories, interview sources and report on current events just as “real” reporters do, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the two apart. The credibility and trustworthiness that used to accompany journalism (remember those days?) has become diluted to the point that it’s barely recognizable. Gaining clicks and views has become a higher priority than whether the author (and their content) is credible.

HuffPost’s unpaid contributor network in particular was not without its controversy. As Emily Price of Fortune writes, “It’s a model that has put the publication under fire from writers that feel they should be paid for the work, as well as the public when the often amateur contributors wrote news stories that were perhaps not as factually accurate as they might have been had they been written by a professional journalist.”

Professional journalists know not just how to tell a good, compelling story; they’re also trained in how to investigate and report on complex, multi-faceted issues accurately, fairly and without bias. As a journalism major myself, I can say that more than one professor offered this sage advice when it came to finding credible (and multiple!) sources for my stories: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Not every writer will do that due diligence (especially on their own mothers), and of course, not all unpaid contributors or bloggers are purposely trying to spread false information. Indeed, the vast majority of unpaid writers and contributors are simply trying their best to share the stories that interest them and offer perspective to their readers. The ability to self-publish content online quickly, easily and to millions of people is the very embodiment of our country’s First Amendment. It also comes with a risk.

As Polgreen stated, “When everyone has a megaphone, no one can be heard.” Without hundreds of thousands of voices out on the internet today, who can you trust? Who should you listen to? And what does this mean for public relations and content marketing professionals – whose livelihoods are built on providing our clients and companies with said megaphones?

One answer to consider is that we need to rethink both the megaphone and the messages that it is communicating. I don’t believe it’s a matter of simply eliminating unpaid contributors or blogging programs. Search Engine Journal offers some good suggestions for how to transform contributed content in light of the HuffPost changes.

  • Consider other mediums – Think beyond the written word. Don’t limit content to print and online publications, consider repurposing it as a podcast or video series.
  • Collaborate on content – Expand your own network of collaborators. Does your company have a list of partners, customers, industry influencers and other “friendlies” it can leverage? Consider a guest blog trade where your company provides a post for their blog in return for one on yours.

When counselling clients or colleagues about contributed content and bylines, bear in mind that the articles being submitted should uphold the same journalistic standards of the publication. Keep the content vendor neutral, back up your claims with reputable and recent sources/data, and offer a fair and accurate assessment of your topic.

Citizen journalism won’t end anytime soon – and it shouldn’t, not by a long shot. But as blogger platforms and guest content continues to evolve, it’s critical to hold those amateur writers to a higher standard when it comes to publishing their content, as HuffPost recently decided.


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Filed under: COMMUNIQUÉ PR, INDUSTRY, News, PR trends

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