Editor's note: In this week's print edition of Advertising Age -- and here at AdAge.com Sunday evening -- we published a column by our "Media Guy" Simon Dumenco titled "What It's Like to Get Used and Abused by The Huffington Post," in which Simon complained about what he sees as HuffPo's often "unethical" aggregration practices. He singled out a recent AdAge.com post aggregated by HuffPo for which Google Analytics stats suggest that HuffPo's "thorough paraphrasing/rewriting" discouraged readers from clicking through to the original item. Yesterday, Huffington Post Executive Business Editor Peter S. Goodman apologized to Simon and announced that "the writer of the offending post has been suspended indefinitely." Simon's open letter to Goodman follows.
My sincere thanks to you for your gracious apology. Your incredibly swift response to my column was heartening.
I have to say, though, that I'm disheartened by your decision to indefinitely suspend the writer who "over-aggregated" (in the words of Steve Myers at the Poynter Institute's Romenesko blog) my post at AdAge.com. I'm certainly not alone in feeling this way. I imagine that , like me, you've been reading the reactions that have been rippling across the media blogosphere, and you're finding that there's general unanimity that HuffPo is singling out -- indeed, scapegoating -- a young writer for engaging in a style of aggregration long practiced, condoned and encouraged by Huffington Post editorial management. If you haven't already seen it, Ryan Tate's Gawker post titled "HuffPo Suspends Writer for Doing 'What We Were Taught and Told to Do'" is definitely worth reading, as is Choire Sicha's brief but delightfully over-the-top post at The Awl, in which he writes that HuffPo's suspension decision is "along the lines of arresting hookers instead of johns, or drug users instead of drug importers, or something" (not that Choire has firsthand experience with any of those things).
You've surely been noting a theme in the critiques of your decision: Tons of people in the media world have witnessed -- and have been victims of -- HuffPo's casual editorial muggings over the years. For instance, consider the first line of Kevin Roderick's post yesterday at LA Observed: "What the Huffington Post does with many stories it picks up from others (including LA Observed) is have a junior writer rewrite them without adding new facts or smart observation, then not hint until the end that the story actually came from somewhere else." Or Dennis Romero's post at LA Weekly, in which he blasts HuffPo's "hypocrisy," writing, "Seems to us that every other time we tune in to HuffPo we see such aggressive aggregation, e.g. other peoples' stories rewritten with substantially buried links toward the end."
In fact, yesterday, literally 10 minutes before spotting your apology (on Romenesko, since apparently you sent it to Jim Romenesko and his colleagues at the same time you emailed it to me), I happened to be reading a HuffPo post titled "James Franco Explains Oscars, Talks Gay Rapist Rumors, Slams Critics In 'Playboy.'" And I was thinking, Oh my God! This is a gazillion times worse than the aggregation of my Ad Age post! The HuffPo summary in this case runs more than 1,000 words and although it, yes, name-checks Playboy in the headline and links to Playboy's in-depth interview with Franco, it so exhaustively summarizes Stephen Rebello's Q&A and lifts so many verbatim quotes from it that it all but preempts the reader's desire to click through and visit the original source. The post is peppered (as per HuffPo's standard practice) with classy SEO-humping keyword phrases -- including "James Franco Porn" and "James Franco Gay" -- as well as 11 in-bound links to previous Huffington Post "coverage" of the actor. In fact, before Playboy.com gets its first link, HuffPo reiterates the context and set-up of the Playboy Q&A by linking to earlier HuffPo "reporting" on Franco's Oscar-hosting debacle. So the very first four links in HuffPo's exhaustive summary of an exhaustive Playboy Q&A are to:
- a HuffPo post titled "James Franco Skips Oscar Party, Leaves Los Angeles" -- that used Us Weekly reporting which was linked to but not explicitly credited;
- a HuffPo post titled "Bruce Vilanch Talks James Franco, Oscars" -- essentially a rewrite (complete with multiple lifted quotes) of an original interview with Vilanch conducted by Ross Kenneth Urken of New York magazine's Vulture blog;
- a HuffPo post titled "James Franco Tweets Bruce Vilanch Graffiti Photo In Response To Oscar Criticism (PHOTO)" -- that , again, lifted extensive quotes wholesale from Vulture and added a photo Franco tweeted;
- a HuffPo post titled "James Franco, Bruce Vilanch Oscar Fight Over; Pair Makes Nice" -- that once again lifted from Vulture (but this time failed to mention or link to Vulture) and added a different photo tweeted by Franco.
As I wrote of my own brush with The Huffington Post's over-aggregation, "HuffPo clearly wanted readers to stay on its site instead of clicking through" -- to, in this case, Playboy.com, nymag.com or any other site that did actual, honest-to-God reporting instead of rewriting and ritually pressing Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V.
Peter, if you're really interested in reforming what many regard as the unethical aggregation practices at HuffPo, the post stealing from Playboy needs to be pulled right now. And the editor or editors who green-lit your Franco "coverage" need to apologize to Playboy's Stephen Rebello, New York Magazine's Ross Kenneth Urken... and, well, countless others.
Because if you were to conduct a systematic review of posts on The Huffington Post, I guarantee that you would find hundreds -- if not thousands -- of posts from over the years that are way worse than the over-aggregation of my AdAge.com post. And that are (to use the language in your apology) "entirely unacceptable" because they use a style of aggregation that "collides directly with the values that are at work in our newsroom." (A good place to start: Ryan Tate's list in his Gawker post. He not only spotted the same Franco piece, but several other recent egregious examples.)
One last thing: A commenter at Poynter who clearly didn't read my column called me out for "complaining about a no-name blogger who doesn't know how to tastefully aggregate." Actually, "no-name" is sort of accurate because I made the specific choice to not name the writer who "over-aggregated" my column. I just didn't feel it was fair to single her out because, again, I think she was simply doing what's always been done at The Huffington Post. The fact that she's been made an example of by HuffPo is simply awful and patently unfair.
The one person at HuffPo I did mention is Arianna Huffington -- because I believe that the attitudes about aggregation at HuffPo started with her. And as co-founder and top editorial boss at HuffPo, the buck ultimately stops with her.
Peter, you've had a long and admirable career in journalism with especially distinguished stints at the Washington Post and The New York Times (where, since this is an open letter, I'll point out that you were a Gerald Loeb Award winner and a Pulitzer finalist). You're an old-school shoe-leather reporter who has traveled the world to report and illuminate, so I can understand your unequivocal statement of "zero tolerance" for over-aggregation that shamelessly lifts from the work of others and steals page views from original-source websites. I also understand that it must be something of a shock -- as you read more and more past and present HuffPo posts -- to realize that unethical aggregation is essentially embedded in the very DNA of The Huffington Post.
I greatly admire you and I appreciate your statement that my column "has prompted us to redouble our efforts to make sure our reporters and editors understand that this sort of thing is unambiguously unacceptable."
You've got your work cut out for you.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.