Tim Rutten, the L.A. Times media critic/columnist, has reacted to the AOL/Huffington Post merger with the kind of race-to-the-journalistic-bottom wail that only an overpaid newspaper lifer can really air out. In the process he gets some key things wrong in a way that I think has broader interest. Sample:

[I]t's already clear that the merger will push more journalists more deeply into the tragically expanding low-wage sector of our increasingly brutal economy.

That's a development that will hurt not only the people who gather and edit the news but also readers and viewers. [...]

Consider first AOL's pre-merger efforts, which centered on a handful of commentators and a national network of intensely local news sites called Patch. The quality of those efforts varies widely, but the best ones are edited by journalists who lost their jobs in the layoffs and buyouts that have beset traditional news organizations over the last decade. These editor-reporters are given reasonable benefits and salaries that are about what beginning reporters at major newspapers were paid three decades ago. Their contributors, by contrast, are paid a maximum of $50 an article, often less.

The results pretty much conform to the old maxim that you get what you pay for; the best Patch journalism almost invariably is being done by experienced journalists who do the work out of idealism or desperation. What happens when that pool of exploitable surplus labor dries up — as it will with time — is anybody's guess, but the smart money would bet on something that isn't pretty. [...]

The Huffington Post is a brilliantly packaged product with a particular flair for addressing the cultural and entertainment tastes of its overwhelmingly liberal audience. To grasp its business model, though, you need to picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates. [...]

The fact is that AOL and the Huffington Post simply recapitulate in the new media many of the worst abuses of the old economy's industrial capitalism — the sweatshop, the speedup and piecework; huge profits for the owners; desperation, drudgery and exploitation for the workers. No child labor, yet, but if there were more page views in it....

Some thoughts:

1) There is a key difference between "slavery" and "choosing voluntarily to write for free for one of the country's most popular political websites." For example, in slavery, it was not uncommon to be deprived of your freedom, separated from your family, whipped by an overseer, and raped by your boss.

2) Before the merger, AOL, a company that didn't exist during Tim Rutten's first of many decades in professional journalism, already employed 900 journalists, or more than the L.A. Times does now. Gawker Media, to cite one of many thousands of online-only journalism companies that didn't exist until this century (and which got its start by identifying high-quality talent that major newspapers had spent fat decades ignoring), reportedly employs 130 people. SB Nation, a sports blog network co-founded by the braintrust behind The Daily Kos, has a reported 410 paid writers. Does all this recent creativity and job-creation amount to "push[ing] more journalists more deeply into the tragically expanding low-wage sector of our increasingly brutal economy"? I dunno, ask Rob Neyer. I am willing to give Tim Rutten or anyone else $1,000 in Ron Paul-backed currency if they can prove to me there are fewer total journalism jobs (or total journalist-compensation) in 2011 than there were 2006, or 2001, or 1996.

3) At the same time, the "pool of exploitable labor," particularly when it comes to Rutten's professional niche–reporting-free bloviation–will never be less than overflowing. Opinions, as the Prophet teaches, are like assholes–everyone's got one. Which is precisely why billion-dollar newspapers like the New York Times and the one lining Rutten's pockets will pay freelance op-ed columnists as low as $250 per 750-word piece. There are more willing (and able) writers than there are slots on the op-ed page, and freelancers understand much more than tenured MSMistas that much of the compensation comes in the non-monetary categories of large readerships and editorial prestige.

That doesn't mean quality opinion journalism doesn't continue to pay. I am quite confident that George Will, Michael Kinsley, Malcolm Gladwell, Matt Labash, Christopher Hitchens, and scores of other good writers (regardless of what you think of their politics) do not go to bed hungry, and probably have not been taking haircuts over the past decade. What it does mean, though, is that the field is exponentially more decentralized, diffuse, and ultimately (the further you get away from legacy newsrooms) meritocratic than it was as recently as the 1990s. Today's digital "slave" is tomorrow's dead-tree editor in chief. One suspects that Rutten's real lament, whether conscious or not, is that the same gale forces that are unearthing new talent from long-ignored corners are simultaneously exposing the bloat in once-rich newsrooms.