What happens, evidently, when your company gets acquired by another company with deeper pockets — you get sued. At least that's what it looks like regarding a $105 million lawsuit against The Huffington Post brought by labor advocate Jonathan Tasini on behalf of more than 9,000 writers.
Clearly, it is no coincidence that the lawsuit has come soon after the February acquisition of Arianna Huffington's website by AOL for more than $300 million.
Huffington not only sold her eponymous "Internet newspaper," she also became head of newly christened The Huffington Post Media Group, which consolidates content across AOL's online properties — a streamlining, synergistic move that froze out legions of HuffPo's unpaid bloggers, not to mention the newly laid off AOL staffers.
The deal raised many eyebrows in the media world, which continues to churn because of the impact of the Internet. It was left-leaning The Huffington Post, after all, that became the online news brand posing a serious threat to liberal newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post. And its success may well have had something to do with the downfall and eventual fire sale of the iconic Newsweek to Tina Brown's IAC-backed Daily Beast.
Why the lawsuit? The Huffington Post, suggests the lawsuit, was built on the backs of bloggers — more than 9,000 of them — who, over the years, contributed columns and commentary to The Huffington Post without remuneration.
Tasini, who successfully fought for the rights of freelance contributors against newspaper and magazine publishers ten years ago, said "The Huffington bloggers have essentially been turned into modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington's plantation. ... It's very important to understand the hypocrisy here. We are going to make Arianna Huffington a pariah in the progressive community."
Huffington herself was having none of it. In an article appearing in the site's media channel, she wrote that the lawsuit is "utterly without merit" and said it was "being ridiculed as the 'dumbest lawsuit ever.'" Huffington went on to say:
"Our group blog is part of our DNA. We are proud of the impact it has had as a platform that amplifies the voices of those who contribute to it, and enables a wide variety of people to reach larger audiences with their ideas, opinions, passions, books, movies, causes and candidacies. ... our bloggers can post as frequently or infrequently as they like -- and write about whatever they like, whenever they like, or not at all. On top of that, they can crosspost their work on their own sites or elsewhere -- they own the rights to their work and can repurpose it in any way they choose.
"People blog on HuffPost for free for the same reason they go on cable TV shows every night for free: either because they are passionate about their ideas or because they have something to promote and want exposure to large and multiple audiences."
Take that, Mr. Tasini. But hold on — it turns out that Tasini has himself blogged for The Huffington Post. Apparently, he and some other bloggers are miffed at the fact that Huffington and her entourage have reaped considerable financial benefits from the AOL sale.
Is this the case of a fledgling online publication relying on bloggers and then growing up to see a big payoff without paying off the writers who contributed to its success? Or did that publication offer the writers a powerful public forum for their views that they wouldn't have otherwise had — and this was payment enough?
We know what Huffington and Tasini have to say — but what matters is what the United States District Court in New York has to say about it.