Huffington Post faces a blogger backlash to its contributor play

The Huffington Post is facing a blogger backlash since it changed its platform strategy to grow its network of unpaid contributors.

Since last year, the HuffPost has been talking about reaching 1 million contributors, from 100,000. To reach that lofty goal, the HuffPost introduced a new content management system, which it named Athena, that enables contributors to publish directly to the site and sidestep the previous screening process.

The problem many bloggers see is that to get exposure for their posts, they have to do the promotional work themselves.

“Ultimately, the new Huffington Post platform is making bloggers work harder – for free,” wrote Annie Singer, a blogger who also pitches herself as a growth marketer.

Another blogger, Michelle Zunter, who writes on relationships, women’s issues and other topics, said she used to be featured frequently on the HuffPost, and enjoyed the associated exposure and credibility. “Since Athena took effect, it’s definitely more difficult to get a post featured,” she said. Zunter said she remains a HuffPost contributor, but she’s shifted her reliance to sites like YourTango, Salon, and Stepparent Magazine.

The HuffPost helped establish the unpaid contributor model as a way to scale up fast in the digital age, and it helped build a massive audience. The contributor network reportedly provides some 15 percent of the HuffPost’s 75 million-plus monthly audience (U.S., comScore).

But pursuing a scale-based model means the job of growing traffic is never done, as other media companies from Forbes to Thought Catalog to Medium have been quick to copy the platform publishing model while other digital publishers have caught on to its traffic and social growth-hacking tricks.

Bryan Maygers, executive contributor editor for the HuffPost, said the updates to the contributor process were made to “streamline and modernize the experience” for contributors, open the platform to a bigger range of voices and account for the ongoing shift to social as the primary source of traffic to these pieces. Maygers said the HuffPost has added “tens of thousands of new contributors in the past year” and that the number of active contributors and total number of pieces it’s published has consistently grown month over month since the changes took effect. He didn’t give specifics, though.

But the rule changes aren’t sitting well with many bloggers, who weren’t entirely happy with being unpaid in the first place. Many perceive this to be a way for the publisher to shift some of the heavy lifting to them. Some have turned attention to other distribution outlets or stopped publishing there altogether.

“Blogger reaction has been mixed, but the overall feeling I’ve noticed has been anger,” said Candis Hidalgo, a mom blogger who wrote a post about the changes. “Even before this change, there were conflicting opinions in the blogging community about whether or not it was ‘worth it’ to write for Huffington Post since they don’t pay. So now that they’re more selective about which posts are featured, many bloggers have just turned their back on it completely.”

Another blogger, who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed frustration with the new system, fearing it brings an end to the days of exposure and traffic. Not only do contributors have to hustle to get featured, but this blogger’s posts didn’t appear in search until they are, which cuts off another valuable traffic source, the blogger complained.

“I was lucky that I was often a featured blogger, so it was great,” this person said, noting that contributors benefitted from how content is presented on the site, where readers can confuse unpaid contributors with paid staffers. “People don’t know who’s staff and who’s not, so there’s a cache to it.”

This blogger said that the only way for contributors to get exposure now is to promote their posts on their own social followings, but for contributors who care about getting traffic back to their sites, and many do, that means promoting the same content twice to their followings — once to their personal site and once to the HuffPost. “If only way it can be seen is through your own social, it’s incredibly limiting. For us little guys, it’s such a struggle.”

Hidalgo said bloggers shouldn’t give up too quickly, though. The HuffPost still has a lot of credibility with readers, so getting published there is still a badge of honor. The change should be good for bloggers who are marketing-savvy and is a way for them to sharpen their writing skills that they need anyway.

Singer said she hasn’t stopped publishing to the HuffPost, but is more strategic, using it to post her trendiest content and rewriting it for the platform. “It is no longer guaranteed that your content will reach new audiences or generate do-follow backlinks,” she said. “But it is still a strong non-commercial platform for niche content that is not directly branded.”

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