Is the Huffington Post's ‘College’ Exploiting Students?

Newest vertical offers exposure, no pay

The Huffington Post launched its latest vertical on Monday – HuffPost College — with "Majoring in Debt," an ambitious feature that included nine students — owing their respective universities a combined $816,897 — contributing posts.

And just how much were those students paid for their contributions? Nothing.

HuffPo also announced on Monday that it is looking for 30 additional contributors for a “citizen journalism unit.”

“There will be weekly assignments, training events, crowdsourcing projects,” Adam Clark Estes, HuffPo’s editor of citizen journalism, wrote in a call for applicants, “and most importantly, daily access to HuffPost editors.”

All of this was not surprising. Arianna Huffington has largely built her business through scaling a mass of unpaid bloggers — celebrity and non-celebrity — who trade payment for exposure on a Web site that averages about 21.9 million unique visitors per month in the U.S., 28 million globally. And she’s been widely criticized for exploiting that model.

In her introductory post, Huffington said the new section will showcase content from 60-plus college newspaper partners, including the Yale Daily News, Harvard Crimson and Columbia Spectator.

Huffington, who was speaking at Yale Law School on Monday, referred my request for comment to Estes and Mario Ruiz, HuffPo's VP of public relations. Here was Ruiz's response:

The contributors weren't paid; they sent in their stories to be included in a distributed assignment looking at the impact of college debt on students and graduates. Similarly, the outreach made by Adam Clark Estes, who heads up our Eyes & Ears citizen journalism initiative, does not involve payment for pieces submitted as citizen journalists.

You could argue that what HuffPo is doing here is not terribly different from the common media industry practice of hiring unpaid interns, who submit to grueling hours and/or mundane tasks in exchange for the occasional byline, open bar at a co-hosted event or – oh yeah – invaluable "experience." (As the New York Observer noted, an essay running on HuffPost College on Monday — "Internships: The New Form of Slavery" — explored that very topic.)

But the no-pay policy comes into ironic, stark relief when the subject is students struggling with mounting loans.

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