The Huffington Post is no stranger to criticism about its aggregation practices. But when Advertising Age's Simon Dumenco called out the website over a story that borrowed heavily from a post he'd written, it reacted swiftly, and harshly, suspending Amy Lee, the writer of the story in question. That decision itself has prompted further criticism of HuffPo. The Awl's Choire Sicha, for example, wrote, "This is along the lines of arresting hookers instead of johns . . . Amy Lee was doing pretty much what she'd been trained to do, either overtly or covertly, and she took the fall for the HuffPo, which is so obviously baloney."
Adweek asked Lee’s editor, Huffington Post business editor Peter Goodman, to explain why Lee took the fall, what HuffPo's guidelines are for aggregating others' content, and why he wasn’t suspended as well.
Adweek: Why did Amy Lee take the fall for this?
Goodman: I don’t buy the premise of your question. The organization took the fall for this. We are very candidly—and without any pretty words about it—saying that we as an organization mishandled this. In terms of the particulars of Amy Lee’s situation, that’s a personal question that involves more than this incident.
You mean she’s been suspended for more than just this incident?
I’m saying that the question of whether to suspend someone and divvy up the consequences touches on issues that go beyond any one incident.
It sounds like what you’re saying is that there was more than just this incident that led to her being suspended.
I’m saying that in Amy’s case we are concerned that a strong message needs to be conveyed, that we need to distinguish ourselves with original reporting. 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.
What was the discussion like after this happened? Who did you talk to?
I don’t want to get into the particulars of internal deliberations, but I can say that we had a high-level conversation amongst the senior editors about what happened here. We all very quickly agreed that this shouldn’t have happened. There’s not very much more to say, besides, “We blew this one,” and this doesn’t comport with our standards, and we want to take some steps to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. That begins with disciplining the reporter who is directly involved, having a pretty intense discussion with the editors who were involved, and we’re about to have a newsroom wide meeting to talk about precisely what to do when we’re aggregating, and what not to do, and to remind everyone that we’re making a serious investment here in original reporting, and our aggregation has to be a form of original reporting.
Let’s talk about what we are doing. We are trying to both break news and deliver original analysis, and at the same time curate the Web. But that means adding value, adding our own insight to everything that we do. We failed to do that here.
What are the rules and guidelines for aggregation? Let’s say [Amy Lee’s] piece had been half as long as it was, would that be OK?
Well, had it been what we call a “link out,” there would’ve been no problem.
What is a “link out”?
A “link out” is a very quick introduction to a piece and then a link that takes the reader to the site on which that piece lives.
Whereas this piece was…?
This piece read like it was a fully developed piece. Look, I can’t lay out a hard and fast delineation, but I can tell you that we all know when we’ve added value, and that’s what we need to do. The simplest way to avoid being in this situation is to just use common sense, to make sure that we’re doing original work and publishing original stories that we can genuinely feel ownership of.
That sounds a little like the way people describe pornography—that you just know it when you see it.
Except I think that we do know it when we see it—in this case. I don’t know exactly what the DUI standard is, or how to assess how close to it I am, but I don’t need to, because I know what I need to do to avoid ever being in the situation where the distinction matters very much.
You mean you know it innately?
Yeah. I know that if our reporters focus on doing quality work and treating other journalists and their work with proper respect, we’re not going to have a problem.
What would you say to those who are criticizing [Huffington Post] for “throwing [Amy Lee] under the bus” or asking, “Why didn’t the editor take responsibility?”
I would say that the editor is taking responsibility. We are all sharing in responsibility. This is a fail on an important issue by our newsroom. We’re going to take the proper steps to make it better because this just simply doesn’t reflect the values that are guiding us.
You understand how there could be confusion because it was never stated by Huffington Post that there might have been past incidents [with Amy Lee].
I’m not saying that there were past incidents of this variety. I’m saying that you’re asking me about a personnel issue.
But everyone looking at this thinks she was suspended for this specific incident, and that had anyone else in the office had this issue, they too would’ve been suspended.
I really don’t want to air our internal deliberations on the precise calculation that led to a suspension. But I can certainly tell you that the writer is not being singled out. This is certainly a problem of editing as well, and it points to a need for us to redouble our efforts to communicate to writers and editors throughout the newsroom what it is that we need to do here, and we’re very serious about following through.
So why weren’t you suspended?
I’m not going to go further in terms of the deliberation.