Your criticism, by implication, discounts any and all notions of citizen journalism. If a precondition for being published is that you must be paid, and therefore meet a whole series of professional standards, then you close the door on all of the democratic opportunities offered by the Web.
He also says that contributors to OffTheBus are a varied bunch:
The overwhelming majority of our contributors were previously unpublished and untested. Most of them are NOT correspondents or reporters but, instead, have decided to invest an hour or two a week in our distributive research projects i.e. attending an event and filling out a data form and adding some personal observations. These contributors perform their work enthusiastically and have expressed a great satisfaction in being able to participate in such a collective effort.
Some of our individual reporters are, in fact, well-paid journalists who have ASKED us for the chance to publish work their employers are no interested in. Other correspondents of ours are fully employed otherwise and are, in fact, delighted to be able to moonlight as citizen reporters and see their work read by thousands of Huffington Post readers.
Other contributors are previously existing citizen blogger-journalists working for free for themselves -- exactly-- as you do and we have merely reached agreements with them to re-purpose their material and help build traffic for their own sites.
Yet others among our contributors are newbies and are quite happy to exchange their work for the professional assistance and support offered by our quite modestly paid staff. The pieces we publish are often edited, reworked and improved by our professional staff.
I emailed Cooper with some questions after reading this, and he answered them directly, with the proviso that I not quote him directly, nor characterize him as a spokesman for the Huffington Post. Fair enough.
Cooper says that OffTheBus is a "non-profit" -- a detail not mentioned in The New York Times story that got my attention in the first place. (Indeed, OffTheBus -- while published on The Huffington Post website -- does not carry banner ads or other advertising, as does the Post itself. Otherwise, it looks just like any other sub-page of the HuffPost. That, I think, is a problem.)
But Cooper, in his email, says that not only will the site not accept ads: in fact, doing so would violate both its spirit and the law. OffTheBus has been funded by private donations, and will have no ad sales staff (though it does have one ad that's somehow built into the framework of the entire HuffPost site and can't be removed--see how this gets sticky?).
The Huffington Post, of course, is an online political magazine, and a spectacularly influential one. It has a paid reporting and editing staff, along with unpaid opinion contributors (many of whom are celebrities), and the site does sell ads. OffTheBus, Cooper stresses, is a much more shoestring and diffuse operation, with a variety of unpaid contributors with a variety of levels of experience, being edited by a much smaller staff.
With OffTheBus, Cooper draws the analogy of community theater: talented amateurs, "performing" for no money, in exchange for exposure, training, and the chance to get actual remunerative work.
I see it, and I don't see it; journalism in the Internet age is morphing so fast that it's hard to keep up with its ever-changing ethics. And if unpaid freelancers are being supervised by anyone, I'm glad it's by a journalist like Marc Cooper, whose work and bona fides are unassailable; I'd be happy to be edited by him. (Or by his "professional staff.") And I'm reassured that Cooper has thought these things out, that he understands the pitfalls involved and is sensitive to them. In the hands of a less scrupulous editor or company, this model could be sheer exploitation, depending on a constant supply of fresh young talent as the veterans get discouraged and give up.
But still...the "Work For Free!" journalism paradigm doesn't sit well with me. There's an unpriceable thrill for a young writer when that person realizes that the words he or she sweated over has some monetary value, that writing is a talent and a craft, a commodity as valuable as any other job.
Is that romantic? Probably. But I think Cooper agrees, at least in part. As he said in the comments to my original post:
I don't know about you, but in my case (back around 1970) I was paid $20 and sometimes less for the first pieces I published. I remember the first time I got paid $100 and thought I was going to pass out from excitement. And this was for for-profit outlets (OffTheBus.net is a NON-PROFIT). My writing wasn't worth much more at the time, but certainly had a value greater than twenty bucks. As my writing and confidence improved, I was able to raise my rates and move up the market ladder.
I know the feeling. But I just want to make sure that the "citizen journalist" movement is helping new writers move up the ladder...not yanking it out from under them.