One thing you may not know about me is that I am a writer. More specifically, I’m a freelance writer. This means I can have several clients at once, work from home in my underwear, and set my own hours. It is basically like being a prostitute, but with less stringent hygiene requirements.
Up until last week, one of the places I wrote for was Cinematical, a fine website devoted to news and commentary related to the film world. But now Cinematical has essentially been run into the ground by its corporate overlords. The writers were let go on Wednesday. The editors had already quit. What happened to this once-thriving movie blog? Gather ’round and pay heed and I will tell the tale!
Cinematical’s parent company, AOL, recently purchased the Huffington Post blog empire from its owner, suspicious foreign person Arianna Huffington. They paid $315 million, which AOL had lying around from all the old people who still pay for AOL dial-up access even though they have cable Internet. Thrilled by her windfall, Arianna Huffington immediately used the money to buy a closetful of pantsuits made from the skins of poor people.
At first glance, AOL buying HuffPo might look like a good thing. Huffington is well-known for not paying her writers, who contribute work for free because it gives them a platform from which to make their voices heard. Perhaps AOL, as the new owner, would make HuffPo start paying its writers. Say what you will about AOL, but when you perform work for them, they pay you. They’re old-fashioned like that.
But this is not what happened. As it turns out, not paying people is what had attracted AOL to Huffington in the first place. “Tell us more about this ‘not paying people’ system,” AOL said, intrigued. AOL liked the cut of Arianna Huffington’s jib, if you’ll pardon the unpleasant imagery. They put her in charge of all the properties AOL already had — Cinematical, Moviefone, Engadget, TechCrunch, PopEater, TV Squad, and a bunch of other blogs.
I did mention Moviefone in that list. This will be important later, so I’d better explain it. Moviefone is a site that is very popular for its ability to tell you what time a movie starts once you tell it your zip code. In fact, within the field of telling you what time a movie starts after it knows your zip code, Moviefone is virtually unrivaled. (Except for Fandango.) But you may not realize that Moviefone also produces content, in the form of celebrity profiles and movie previews and such — sort of a fluffier, glossier, shallower version of a news-and-reviews site like Cinematical. AOL has owned Moviefone since 1999, and Cinematical since 2005, but it wasn’t until 2010 that AOL slapped itself in the forehead and said, “Why the dickens do we own TWO movie websites?!” So they kind of — but not really — merged the two sites together, under Moviefone’s direction. Cinematical was still called Cinematical, but it was repositioned as Moviefone’s blog rather than its own site, and if you typed www.cinematical.com into your browser, it would take you to blog.moviefone.com. Cinematical continued to operate more or less as it had before, but now with an additional layer of bureaucracy and interference, and with readers being confused as to why we weren’t telling them what time the movies started.
I should stress that whatever problems we had, none of them were Moviefone’s fault. They were nice folks. They were tossed into an awkward situation just like we were. It was like Moviefone and Cinematical were stepsisters who’d been living in different wings of AOL’s house for years, until suddenly AOL made Cinematical move into Moviefone’s bedroom. And Moviefone, being older and more widely trafficked (I’ve lost the stepsisters analogy here), was put in charge. Where Cinematical used to be able to put up a poster on any wall it wanted to, now it had to check with Moviefone first, and Moviefone might say, “Well, I was gonna put something else there,” and there’d be some negotiating, and soon it got to where it was easier for Cinematical to just put up fewer posters.
So this is how things stood when, in early February, AOL bought Arianna Huffington. (Let’s make this easier and say they actually bought her.) Her blogs and AOL’s blogs were smushed together into a new thing called Huffington Post Media Group. The transition was going to be arduous and complicated. This was particularly true for the people who write AOL’s press releases, who had to work overtime issuing statements with business terms like “restructuring” (which means firing people), “streamlining” (which also means firing people), “re-branding” (which means making people forget all the negative associations they have with AOL and Arianna Huffington), and “synergy” (which doesn’t mean anything). In March, 200 of AOL’s full-time employees were laid off in the United States, plus another 400 in India. In other news, apparently AOL used to have 400 employees in India.
Next on the chopping block were all the freelance writers and editors who worked at the blogs — which was basically everyone. Huffington will no longer need these freelancers because she’s in the process of hiring full-time staffers to produce the content. Rather than pay independent contractors by the piece, it’s more cost-effective to have the work done in-house. That’s how newspapers operate, and goodness knows that industry is running smoothly.
What was to become of us freelancers? And when? For several weeks, AOL lived up to its reputation within the communications field by doing a terrific job of making it seem like they were communicating with us without actually conveying any information. Our only liaison with AOL was Moviefone’s editor-in-chief, and AOL wasn’t telling her much, either. We got occasional e-mails reassuring us that everything was going to be fine, that it was business as usual, that we should just keep on doin’ our thing. We were like stewardesses handing out peanuts on the Hindenburg.
Unhappy with the way things were heading, two of Cinematical’s editors, Scott Weinberg and Peter Hall, resigned. Then, on April 4, Erik Davis — the site’s top editor, the captain of the team — also quit. AOL had offered him a full-time position under the new structure, but he wouldn’t take it. He didn’t want to see all his writers get fired while he got a promotion. Plus, he’s a movie guy. He knows that when space aliens invade, and a weaselly human swears allegiance to them in exchange for not being killed, the weaselly human always winds up getting killed anyway. Erik Davis is no dummy.
The next day, we all got an e-mail from Moviefone’s editor-in-chief. It began:
Dear Moviefone/Cinematical Writers,
I know there’s been a lot of uncertainty regarding the future of freelancers and your status as a writer for the site. I personally apologize for the lack of communication, but I’ll tell you what I can.
We will, indeed, be moving away from a freelancer model and toward one relying on full-time staffers. Sometime soon — this week, I believe — many of you will be receiving an email informing you that your services as a freelancer will no longer be required. You will be invited to contribute as part of our non-paid blogger system; and though I know that for many of you this will not be an option financially, I strongly encourage you to consider it if you’d like to keep writing for us, because we value all of your voices and input.
The ways in which this is hilarious and outrageous need hardly be enumerated. Several of us tendered our resignations immediately, to spare them the trouble of firing us. Nobody was going to take them up on their offer to contribute to the “non-paid blogger system.” We were rather insulted, actually, at least to the extent that it is possible to insult someone whose job requires him to write about Shia LaBeouf. “Non-paid blogger system”? Please. We may be whores, but we are not sluts.
The substance of the e-mail was immediately all over Twitter, followed soon by the text of the e-mail itself. Within hours, several prominent websites had gleefully mocked AOL for its ham-fisted efforts. This was a story for the Digital Age: a story about the Internet, unfolding on the Internet, dealing with a company best known for being an outmoded provider of access to the Internet.
As far as I know, I was the first person to publicize the text of the e-mail. I posted a screenshot of it on Twitter, cropping out the name of the editor who’d written it because I didn’t want people unfamiliar with the organization to think she was the one to blame. She wasn’t, of course; none of these decisions had been hers to make. She was just passing along the information. In other words, she was just doing her job —
— a job which, 24 hours later, she no longer had, because AOL got embarrassed by the Internet backlash and fired her.
You’ve heard of “shooting the messenger”? AOL shot the messenger who delivered its own message. You’ve got fail.
Oh, but it wasn’t enough to fire her. AOL had to pull a “Mission: Impossible” and disavow all knowledge of what she’d said, and publicly shame her for saying it. My friend Kim Voynar has reliable sources who say that when this poor woman left the meeting in which her employment had been terminated, she saw her coworkers already reading about it on the Internet. AOL had leaked it to a writer for the Wall Street Journal, a publication that has never met a corporation whose B.S. it wouldn’t swallow, a publication that the very next day would run a fluffy piece about the awesome things Arianna Huffington was doing at AOL.
(Did you know that when she had her first meetings with the AOL staff, she brought them Greek cookies and regaled them with amusing personal anecdotes?? It’s true! Then she taught them traditional Greek folk songs! Then they all danced a tsamiko, drank ouzo, and ate gyros and baklava! Then Huffington emitted a bone-chilling shriek, unhinged her jaw, threw over the conference room table, and devoured everyone present.)
The AOL/Huffington people issued this statement:
The Huffington Post Media Group has provided freelancers with as much clarity as possible about our intention to build a great team of full-time editors, writers, and reporters, and we regret that [the] email misrepresents these efforts. In fact, we have been very forthcoming and transparent in our communication with freelancers through multiple calls and emails [note: that is not true] and have encouraged freelancers to apply for full-time positions. But we never asked freelancers to become unpaid bloggers — that is not how our group blog works. Our bloggers, many of whom are not professional writers, post on the HuffPost platform to expose their views to a wide audience, and to raise their profiles.
Now, that statement might be a little confusing. It might sound like they’re saying that the Huffington Post, which has built its brand by getting people to write for free, would never try to get people to write for free. But that’s not what the statement is saying. All those people who write for free at the Huffington Post? Those are not professional writers. Those are people who just want a platform for their voices. The Huffington Post Media Group would never try to get actual professional writers to write for free. Heaven forfend! Why, they wouldn’t be professional writers anymore then, would they? Not if they weren’t getting paid! They’d be … I don’t know … unpaid bloggers. And the Huffington Post Media Group does NOT want professional writers to become unpaid bloggers, no matter what that e-mail said. Well, I mean, unless they want to, of course. If they’re cool with not getting paid, hey, why not?
As I mentioned, the plan is to have the bulk of the Huffington Post Media Group’s content produced by a full-time staff of writers and editors. They’ll be working out of actual offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Dulles, Va. — again, like a newspaper, which is obviously a brilliant strategy that all businesses would do well to emulate. But those full-timers won’t be able to cover things like conventions, conferences, and film festivals in the extensive way that AOL’s blogs, including Cinematical, have done in the past. For on-the-ground coverage of those events, Huffington is going to need some freelancers. And when that time comes — well, AOL obviously didn’t buy Arianna Huffington so that she could NOT use her Greek cookies and black magic to amass an army of unpaid bloggers when the need arises.
A brief interlude
The publication of the e-mail led directly to that editor being fired. I was the one who first published the e-mail. Don’t think that has escaped my notice. If I’d thought that AOL would fire her for telling us what they had presumably told her to tell us, I wouldn’t have posted it, period. But there was no indication that this was secret stuff, nothing to suggest that the person who conveyed the message would get in trouble for conveying it. My intention was to expose what AOL and Huffington were doing — I had no idea they were capable of the kind of cowardice and sheer bastardry that would lead them to scapegoat a dedicated, honest employee who was just doing her job. I was heartbroken to know I’d unwittingly been party to it. I’ve defended her in other forums. So have many others. I’ve communicated with her privately to apologize for my role in it, but I wanted to go on the record here, too: I am sorry.
The dumb aftermath
That e-mail had gone out on April 5. The next morning, while plans were being laid to railroad the editor who sent it, most of AOL’s freelance writers got an e-mail officially terminating their contracts:
Thank you very much for your contributions to AOL. As we have discussed on calls and in emails, going forward our editorial direction is to build a great team of full-time editors, writers, and reporters. To that end, we are reducing the scope of AOL’s freelancer program.
Per the terms of your agreement with AOL, this note confirms the end of your engagement for content services effective Wednesday, April 6, 2011. Rest assured, you will be paid for your content and services through this date, disbursed to you per AOL’s regular payment schedule in late May.
We greatly appreciate your contributions [clearly!] and are available to answer any questions you may have. Please email email@example.com with any inquiries.
(You will note that, as with most professional communiques regarding the termination of a subcontractor’s services, this one begins with the traditional “Hi there.”)
This was Wednesday, April 6. It is marked as the date on which, for all intents and purposes, Cinematical died. Several writers had quit the day before, and now the rest of them were officially let go.
But wait! If AOL intends to keep Cinematical and all the other blogs operational, and if Arianna Huffington has not yet gathered her full-time staff into her gooey tentacles, how are they going to stay online until she does?
The answer to this question arrived on April 7, when several former Cinematical writers, myself included, received a very curious e-mail from another AOL employee. It was copied to about 25 people. The subject line was Moviefone “next steps”, and that was only the beginning of the specialized used of quotation marks:
Hi everyone. A few quick points —
1.) [Five names] and I will help guide Moviefone going forward. If you have questions, please feel free to ask us.
2.) If you have dedicated columns that you “own,” please continue to write them. If you usually “pitch” work to the eds, please continue to pitch those ideas to [five names], and me. In short: it’s “business as usual.”
3.) We are currently looking for the following stories to be written. If you’re interested, please let us know —
* “New ‘Arthur’ vs Old ‘Arthur'”
* “25th Anniversary of the Bad News Bears”
If you have questions, please let me know, and I will do my best to answer them. Thanks.
My “assumption” was that this had been sent from a parallel universe, one in which the entire writing staff had not been fired the day before. Yet this could not be so, for the e-mail seemed to acknowledge that there had been a disruption of some kind. Besides, it seemed unlikely that an e-mail message would reach me from a parallel universe, given that our universe and the parallel one would surely have different servers. So I replied:
I have to assume that the other Cinematical writers and I who got this e-mail were included by mistake, right? Yesterday we all got e-mails telling us our contracts were over, no more writing for AOL/Moviefone/Cinematical, etc. What’s going on?
There came this response:
Eric, you are not on my “remove” list. You are on my “keep” list. Did you get a termination notice for Moviefone this week?
Well, as a matter of fact, I hadn’t gotten the termination notice. I had assumed this was because I already resigned the day before, after that “we might ask you to write for free” e-mail. But it turns out the person who knew I had resigned, who knew that several others had resigned as well, was fired before she could pass that information up the pipeline.
So several of us had not been fired, and our resignations not recorded. For a company that wanted to get rid of everyone, AOL was making it difficult to leave. They wanted to keep us on as a skeleton crew, I guess, to keep Cinematical afloat until Huffington’s full-timers take over. It’s the old “I like you, I’ll kill you last” routine. I don’t know if we should be flattered that they still wanted us to work for them, or insulted that they thought we’d want to.
At any rate, while I was responding to the e-mail and tendering my resignation from AOL for the second time in 48 hours, something hilarious was going on. Several of the people who’d been copied on the e-mail were, in fact, still writing for Moviefone, and were continuing with “business as usual,” as instructed. And instead of replying to the person who’d sent the e-mail, they were doing “reply all.” Soon my fellow ex-Cinematical writers and I were caught up in this scintillating conversation:
Point of clarification: It’s the 35th anniversary of Bad News Bears. Also, I’ve written up a “Where Are They Now” as part of my “This Week in Movies” column going up later today. Someone should really investigate this proposed original-cast reunion movie, though. I have some links for whoever has time to do this.
Thanks for the clarification, [name]. Is anyone interested?
Hi [editor], I could do the Bad News Bears piece, unless you need it tomorrow.
And is [name of fired and publicly humiliated editor] still on board?
No, [she] is no longer with AOL.
I’m fairly certain that a substantial number of the people on this mailing list are no longer with AOL.
I can’t tell as all the mails to teamaol or corp.aol are bouncing back for me!
Is that happening to anyone else?
Yeah, I’m confused.
BY THE UNQUENCHABLE FIRES OF HADES, MAKE IT STOP! I wouldn’t have needed to be part of this discussion even if I still wrote for Cinematical. It was even less relevant to me now that I didn’t.
To my everlasting delight, one of my fellow ex-Cinematical writers then laid the smack down in this manner:
I’ve watched my fellow team members get unceremoniously dumped, a respected colleague and editor fired, and have no interest in watching AOL’s continued chaos and lazily scant information. I resigned two days ago, as did many people on this list.
Please stop replying to all.
I SAID GOOD DAY SIR!
Not that you were going to, but don’t worry about me. I have my eggs in a few other baskets, notably Film.com, whose basket is large and accommodating and not currently in danger of being restructured by Greek pirates. Financially speaking, the death of Cinematical won’t be a huge blow to me.
But it’s a big loss in other ways, for me and for the online film community. Cinematical was a quality site. They ran a wide variety of features covering every aspect of the movies, all produced by a couple dozen enthusiastic writers with distinct voices. Even if Huffington keeps it going with full-time staffers, it’s highly unlikely it’s going to have anything close to that level of passion and zeal. Part of what made the job rewarding is that it was more than just a job. It was something we genuinely enjoyed. We love writing about movies so much that if we didn’t have bills to pay, then yes: we’d do it for free.