HuffPo controversy highlights cavalier online editorial culture

What began presumably as an innocent post by a cub reporter has ballooned into one of this week's bigger media controversies.

Here's the basic time line of events: A young and green Huffington Post journalist named Amy Lee borrowed quite liberally from the content of a piece that ran in Ad Age. However, Lee only offered an attribution and link-out to the original story at the very bottom of her item. The practical impact of this approach to online sourcing was to lift AdAge's content while depriving it of the vast traffic HuffPo supposedly drives over to the outside sites it elects to aggregate content from.

The author of said AdAge article, veteran media scribe Simon Dumenco, called HuffPo out on this. And HuffPo's business editor, Peter S. Goodman, one of several high-profile bylines that the online news and commentary titan has poached from legacy outlets like the New York Times over the past year, came down on Dumenco's side. He sent out an email Monday that "We have zero tolerance for this sort of conduct," and that Lee had been suspended indefinitely as a result.

The move didn't sit well with various other journalists (myself included), who questioned why Lee had been "thrown under the bus" given that HuffPo allegedly instructs reporters in this very brand of maximum-rewrite, minimum-attribution blogging.

"In Amy's case we are concerned that a strong message needs to be conveyed, that we need to distinguish ourselves with original reporting," Goodman explained in an interview with Adweek. "But in terms of the overall message here, the message is that something improper happened here, and that goes up the chain—to the editing."

This raises the issue of what exactly the editing process at HuffPo entails. One hears varying accounts of editing procedures from within the giant operation--that it differs desk by desk, reporter by reporter; that staffers file their raw copy into a central database from which line-editors retrieve, revise and then publish; that some writers push aggregated posts live to the site without any editing to speak of.

And since editorial standards can seem like something of a moving target at the aggregation-heavy Huffpo shop, the notion of a "zero tolerance" policy for liberal appropriation of content published elsewhere strains credulity. After all, the specific post that got Lee into trouble seems very much a part of the site's well-established format. If "zero tolerance" is truly the watchword here, how have items like these appeared on the site with such regularity? Did an editor vet Lee's post in the first place? And to what extent is the vast range of HuffPo-branded staff content--which includes five-paragraph celebrity-gossip items and link-outs, slideshows, and in-depth features and investigations--edited?

These are important questions--not only because someone's job is at stake, and not only because the Huffington Post has, since its high-profile merger with AOL, been keen to elevate its profile as an outlet for serious journalism, as opposed to traffic-driven titillation and polemics. At the risk of sounding like an old-school curmudgeon, the core issue here is how an ethos of best journalist practices are being installed in the new generation of web contributors. Plenty of reporters just like Lee are breaking into journalism at websites that don't have editors closely supervising the flow of content to ensure that it has adequate sourcing, balanced accounts of significant controversies, and that it doesn't stray into the minefields of slander and/or libel. (For the record, 99-percent of the posts that appear on The Cutline and its sister blogs pass before an editor's eyes before being published--which is not, of course, to say we don't ever make mistakes.)

The instinctive treatment of editing as a luxury that few nimble web operations can really afford has only grown more entrenched alongside the accelerated 24/7 digital news cycle. And it has translated into an overall sloppier standard for much of web-based journalism. More fundamentally, though, it's a disservice to all the eager 22-year-old web journalists out there whose first jobs now come with a salary, but not a mentor.

A recent report in the New York Observer suggests that this trend is all but endemic at HuffPo, which has established a fellowship program to hire journalists straight out of college:

As the organization's editorial mission shifts from aggregation to journalism, some new hires on the desk's half-dozen reporters appear to be struggling. Instead of simply filing "rewrites," in company parlance, Huffington Post reporters now select their own story ideas and report them out, generally filing them directly to the copy department.

"The lack of management—and the lack of true editors—is stunning," a person familiar with the situation told Off the Record. "The younger writers are getting little or no attention from experienced editors, and you can see the results in the copy. The reporters are absolutely set up to fail."

Goodman took issue with that characterization, telling the Observer it was "patently unfair and a real disservice to our hardworking reporters, who are producing high-quality work."

As for whether some HuffPo content escapes editing altogether, a spokesman, Mario Ruiz, insisted that "all our staff written pieces are edited." He added of Lee's indiscretion: "As we've said, this was a collective breakdown in the process, with the error shared by editors. This should have been caught." (Goodman was cc-ed on our initial inquiry and follow-ups, but did not weigh in.)

Ruiz also provided a statement on HuffPo's aggregation standards: "Our editorial approach is that when excerpting a story, we should only offer enough of it to give readers a sense of the story and the ability to comment on it, without removing the incentive to go to the original source to read more. We value the linked economy, and a critical part of that is sending traffic to other sites, which only proper linking can accomplish."

For now, we'll have to take their word for it. But it's safe to say that staff-generated HuffPo content will start to come under increased scrutiny in light of this incident. Lee, for her part, remains suspended, Ruiz confirmed. Contrary to some initial reports, she has not been fired.

[DISCLOSURE: To state the obvious, Yahoo! competes directly with HuffPo's parent company, AOL.]