The Huffington Post indefinitely suspended a young blogger today for rewriting too much of someone's news article. This is pretty ridiculous, given HuffPo's systematic, officially-sanctioned approach to rewriting too much of people's news articles. Just ask a HuffPo veteran.
"I am livid," a former HuffPo employee told us, referring to the news that the Huffington Post indefinitely suspended business writer Amy Lee for summarizing an AdAge column by mimicking its structure over six paragraphs. HuffPo business editor Peter Goodman wrote in response to the AdAge columnist's complaint that "we have zero tolerance for this sort of conduct... What occurred in this instance is entirely unacceptable and collides directly with the values that are at work in our newsroom."
That will come as news to anyone who has read the Huffington Post, and indeed to anyone who has worked there. We're told the publication's longstanding and well-known tendency to reproduce large parts of other people's articles—verbatim or as summary—is no accident. The ex HufPo employee:
That is what we were taught and told to do at HuffPost. Arianna and the higher ups made a decision to stop linking out directly as much and rewrite stories "the way the AP does." They even hired people specifically to rewrite other people's work. Whenever they get caught they just blame an underling. These poor kids right out of school who have no experience get told to do XY and Z and then get punished for doing it.
They have a "fair use" talk every couple of months but that only focuses on how much people can take directly from other sources, it never gets into the "don't just rewrite someone else's story" territory cause that's what HuffPost is built on.
Indeed, rewrites in the mold of Lee's AdAge post abound at HuffPo. This "summary" of Playboy's James Franco profile runs to 18 paragraphs. Here are nine paragraphs derived heavily from an ESPN article on LeBron James being mocked by a minor league baseball team, and eight more summarizing Latina's Jessica Alba interview. (That gets us through the past month.) HuffPo pulled no fewer than 14 choice "quotes" — some running to three paragraphs or beyond—for a slideshow summarizing Rolling Stone's devastating Stanley McChrystal article. This approach is common at HuffPo; a similar slideshow was assembled, for example, to reprint long portions of a GQ interview with John Edwards' mistress.
This also doesn't seem to be the first time HuffPo has reprimanded an employee for doing the sorts of things HuffPo commonly does. Last summer, John Mayer lashed out at the publication when it linked and briefly summarized a British tabloid report that the singer had gotten back together with Jennifer Aniston. The young editor who wrote the piece was nearly fired, we're told, and everyone else was warned that they too could be fired if they likewise linked to an unverified source. This created a bit of confusion among the staff, given that "that is all HuffPost does," in the words of someone there at the time. Then again, we've repeatedly been told over the years that Huffington has a tendency to react emotionally and with casual brutality toward her staff, so maybe this sort of arbitrary finger pointing should not be surprising.
Goodman, the editor who suspended Lee, is himself developing something of a reputation. Hired for a pretty penny from the New York Times last fall, he has since been profiled in the New York Observer as a "screamer" whose pressure cooker newsroom sent one writer into a public Twitter meltdown and then the hospital. We've heard similar scuttlebutt about Goodman, but also this: After the Observer story came out, Goodman reportedly contacted its writer Kat Stoeffel and told her she should stop writing such articles if she wanted to "last in this business for more than five minutes." (Stoeffel declined to comment. Goodman denied the comment but did not elaborate, nor did he respond to our questions about HuffPo's rewriting practices.)
The Lee incident certainly won't help matters. Complaints about what is being called "over aggregation" are not uncommon (don't we know it); the proper way to handle the matter is with a clear and consistent institutional policy on what is acceptable, strong self-policing to avoid public controversies, and some tolerance for writers who exceed the policy marginally rather than flagrantly. No such practices appear to be at work here. It looks more like HuffPo is throwing someone under a bus.
(Updates: Ad Age's Simon Dumenco wrote in to say that the grievance against HuffPo "wasn't Ad Age's complaint. It was *my* complaint. I'm a columnist for Ad Age, but I don't speak *for* Ad Age." Also, our post had the writer "indefinitely suspended" but the headline said "fired." We've updated our wording accordingly.)
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