If you missed the big news this past week: The Huffington Post (now officially known as HuffPost) ended its free-contributor channel, which had over 100,000 participating writers. Many writers online have bemoaned the death of free HuffPo posts, but I have a different reaction.
The end of unpaid HuffPo articles is part of a trend we’ll likely see more of this year — and I think it’s a good thing.
Yes, a tiny handful of writers seemed to get good clients through their unpaid HuffPo bylines, though the value of HuffPo exposure declined over time.
And quite a few writers were earning good money ghostwriting free HuffPo posts for thought leader/speaker/CEO types who didn’t have time to write their own authority-building pieces. So it wasn’t all bad.
But in the main, hordes of writers writing for free isn’t good.
Whether you’re happy or sad about the end of free HuffPo content, it’s important to understand what this change signifies in the marketplace. There are plenty of ways writers can benefit from these changing tides.
Here are seven key action items on how to become a freelance writer as the free HuffPo contributor channel fades away:
1. Stay diversified
Every time a popular platform changes the rules on us, it’s a good reminder of the importance of having a multi-pronged marketing plan. You don’t want to put too many eggs in one basket — especially a basket you don’t control.
Learn how to make money writing by doing your own, independent, proactive marketing. That remains the best way to make sure you find good clients.
Of course, that goes double for paying clients. You need many clients, not one. I know writers who were making good money ghosting for thought leaders on HuffPo. Hopefully, that wasn’t their only client. It’s possible those gigs can be transferred to ghosting for that thought leader on Forbes, Medium, LinkedIn Pulse or somewhere else. If not, those writers are scrambling for new gigs.
2. Post on paid sites instead
I never really understood the fascination with getting to be a free HuffPo contributor, because there’s a better way to get exposure for your writing online: Post on popular sites that pay instead. There are plenty of them.
For several years, a ways back, I was paid $1,200 a month to post three times weekly on Entrepreneur.com — and several good clients approached me from seeing my byline there. (Sadly, I think they have followed the now-dead HuffPo model and no longer pay, but there are plenty of paying sites out there.)
You can get good exposure while getting paid. I recently published a list of over 160 sites that pay writers. Make paid exposure your focus for 2018, and you’ll make sure your bills are paid while also raising your profile online.
Beats spending hours every month writing for free, and hoping to heck it gets you a gig.
3. Get paid at HuffPo
Along with its news of shutting down the free HuffPo contributors, the editor announced they will be looking to hire more reporters in cities outside their traditional New York/D.C. axis. HuffPo is also looking to have paid contributors in new Personal and Opinion channels, who’ll work with their editors.
That’s the big good news: HuffPo is killing the free content in favor of more paid content.
4. Understand the trend
When something like this happens, it’s easy to simply focus on why one company made one decision. But this development at HuffPo is much bigger than that. It’s likely the start of a trend away from mass platforms full of free-contributor content. And if you’re sad about that, blame Donald Trump.
The rise of fake news online — and the demonizing by the president of respected, traditional news outlets — combined to make it problematic to run a wide-open free contributor network that lacked a gatekeeper. That’s HuffPo’s stated reason for killing free content.
It had become an open secret that link-seeking companies paid many free HuffPo writers to post for them against the rules and without disclosure, and a lot of bogus content was gumming up the system.
Those who agreed and went for a quick buck or two may have helped kill the free-exposure goose. Readers quickly got hip to the low quality, and took their eyeballs elsewhere. HuffPo killed the free channel because nobody was reading it — it had shrunk to 10-15 percent of their total traffic, the New York Times reported.
It turns out most people like reading writers they can trust — the kind that have an editorial process that fact-checks what they publish. Yay!
What’s next? Other mass free-content platforms are probably looking at the exact same problem HuffPo did, and pondering their next move. Don’t be shocked if you see more big, unpaid-exposure platforms fade out this year.
Some observers were looking for Medium to fold even before the HuffPo news broke, as discussed in my recent 2018 freelance forecast. So if you’ve gone big on there, you might want to rethink.
And LinkedIn’s blog, Pulse? Most writers I know are re-posting content on there, not trusting LinkedIn with their original content. Who knows where they’re going with that experiment. All we do know is it’s a no-pay scene. So proceed with caution.
If you’re relying on any free-posting site as your main marketing tool, consider what else you might do to find clients. Don’t assume that opportunity will stick around.
5. Capture your clips
When a channel or site shuts down, writing samples can be lost. The HuffPo bombshell is a good reminder to all online writers to take screenshots of your best stuff when it comes out. Don’t assume it’ll always be there.
Try to keep a list of URLs for your content, in case it disappears. If you know the exact address, you can try using Wayback Machine to find an old copy of it in the glorious Internet archives.
One thing HuffPo hasn’t clarified is how quickly it might vanish away the existing motherlode of free content. But if you have anything valuable on there, I’d be taking screenshots immediately. No telling if you’ll be able to find it a month from now.
6. Be dialed in
When you’re not part of robust writer community, you’re often taken by surprise by changes in the marketplace. If you have a writer network, it’s more likely you’re going to see them coming.
I’ve been hearing from more and more writers in the Den who’re on the paid side of HuffPo, so this week’s news didn’t really shock me — I could already see HuffPo’s new direction taking shape.
It’s hard to know about every market out there, as one freelance writer working all alone. Without a writer network, you miss critical tips that could help you make better use of your marketing time.
7. Get mad — and get paid
Here’s the big thing that gets swept under the rug: Since the birth of the Internet, writers have slaved for peanuts or free ‘exposure’ on platforms whose owners became hugely wealthy, while they got stiffed. And discarded.
A big early profiteer was Demand Media, whose owners netted over $77 million when they took the company public in 2011. Writers got none of that. Meanwhile, most Demand Studios writers were still getting a big $20 a post…until even that sad gig dried up, and most Demand writers were out in the snow.
More recently, Medium’s founders have raked in $132 million in venture capital. And contributors get paid zero. Do you smell a rat?
You see it happening again with HuffPo. Arianna Huffington built her brand on free content, then sold HuffPo to AOL in 2011, in a deal that included $300 million in cash. Unpaid writers got zero on that deal (though some did protest). Free writers made HuffPo happen, built it into a hugely valuable enterprise, and now, 7 years later, they’re being shown the door.
Does that make you mad? It should.
A decade ago, when I founded this blog, I became a crusader to stop writer exploitation. Clearly, more work remains, because this just keeps happening.
Writers of the world, unite! And refuse to work for free or for pennies, especially for owners whose profits are big enough to buy a small country. While you’re writing your fingers to nubs and praying it pays off somewhere down the line in good inbound clients, your online overlords are jetting off to Tahiti, living large off your honest toil.
It only stops when we all refuse to play.
Free HuffPo: Good riddance
Change can be stressful. But remember that every free platform that shutters means that writers’ value is being increasingly recognized. It’s a good sign.
Rates for blogging have been rising for several years. As free content goes away, that positive trend should continue.