Why news orgs should make it easier for readers to distinguish staffers from contributors

When Maury Brown read a story on Forbes this week with the declarative headline “2013 Houston Astros: Baseball’s Worst Team Is The Most Profitable In History,” he knew he had to write a reply.

Yesterday Brown, founder and president of the Business of Sports Network, did just that. His piece carried an equally strong headline, “Erroneous Story Claiming Houston Astros Most-Profitable Ever A Massive Strikeout.”

Brown’s story took the Forbes piece by Dan Alexander to task, and it was published on … Forbes.

“There are few times that an article refuting a Forbes colleague is in need of publishing, but this is one of those instances,” Brown wrote. He went on to list “reasons why the story is not only off-base, it has to be classified as grossly inaccurate.” Alexander and Brown are both Forbes contributors.

It’s by no means unprecedented for a media outlet to give a person the right to reply to something previously published. What is notable is how this incident compares to other recent examples of contributors publishing stories that raise eyebrows. It also renews attention to news organizations that mix the content of staffers with that of outside contributors who produce (often unedited) stories for their sites.

Brown told me via email that Forbes’ willingness to publish his rebuttal “speaks to the outlet’s healthy view of promoting divergent views.” That joins the obvious and significant benefit of dramatically increasing the amount of content on a site as one of the goals of the sites that open up their platform for others to use.

In this case, the two “contributors,” as they are labeled on the Forbes site, were in touch with each other and also with at least one editor at Forbes.

After Brown’s piece went up, Alexander published a follow-up post Thursday afternoon. Brown was by no means the only person to question the claims, and the Astros also issued a statement to say the piece was inaccurate. (The team did not respond to Alexander’s questions prior to the publication of his piece.)

As for the criticism that his first post elicited, Alexander writes that the discrepancy between his take and that of his critics “Depends on how you count.”

If that’s the case, then at the very least the original headline (“2013 Houston Astros: Baseball’s Worst Team Is The Most Profitable In History”) is a step too far.

I don’t claim any knowledge of MLB team finances or the accounting thereof. But I will say I found Brown’s rebuttal convincing.

Aside from the (important) issue of who’s right, there’s the aforementioned issue that more and more publishers/platforms are encountering: How do you properly label content and authors so that readers understand which content comes from staffers, or went through a more detailed vetting process, and which comes from unvetted contributors?

Contributor or staffer?

The Huffington Post is considered a pioneer in having the work of staffers mingle with that of unpaid bloggers.

Today there are more and more sites following a similar path: BuzzFeed allows anyone to publish to its Community section without vetting or payment, although as my colleague Andrew Beaujon recently reported, the “site devotes editorial help to the community section’s best users so their posts do better”; Medium requires people to be invited to contribute, but only edits and pays a subset of those published on the site; and Forbes mixes staffers and outside “contributors,” with the latter having the opportunity to earn revenue.

Forbes Media Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin has said there are “hundreds” of contributors writing for the site:

They are not employees, but many participate in our online community newsroom, exchanging ideas with staff editors and reporters. They are certainly more than freelancers, incentivized for individual performance (the formula: 1x for a one-time monthly user, 20x for a repeat user) rather than paid a flat fee or by the word.

Brown and Alexander are identified on their Forbes profiles as contributors. For example:

As opposed to a Forbes staffer:

Being clear about who is who is good for readers. Forbes also puts a disclaimer at the bottom of the author bio box to the right of all articles: “The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.” Both strike me as best practices for news sites that welcome outside contributors and give their work little or no vetting.

It’s not about flagging community content as being inferior; rather, the goal is to provide readers the information they need to consume the content with the appropriate context and information.

It’s basic transparency, and it adds value in the same way offering readers access to a bio and related author information is useful. (Certainly, there are also liability issues at play.) 

Simply put, on sites that mix staff and community contributor content, the reader should:

  1. Be able to clearly see whether the author is a staffer or an outside contributor.
  2. Receive a clear disclaimer if the content in question is not vetted the same way as staff content.
  3. Have a link to follow to learn more about the above two points.

Along those lines, BuzzFeed labels a “Community Contributor” in the byline and includes text at the bottom of their posts: “This post was written by a member of the BuzzFeed Community, where anyone can post awesome lists and creations, and share them.” (Community contributors can also earn “Cat Power” ratings for their posts; I wouldn’t necessarily call that a best practice.)

Medium, on the other hand, does not currently identify which of its content was commissioned and edited by its team, and which posts were submitted as is, for free, by those with accounts. (Disclosure: Months ago I demoed Spundge, the product made by the company where I work, for Medium senior editor Evan Hansen.)

As Hamish McKenzie wrote on PandoDaily, “the editor-free content on Medium looks just the same as the content that the company has commissioned, curated, and polished.” As of now, there are no distinctions.

McKenzie also pointed to a recent example from BuzzFeed whereby a factually questionable piece attacking Planned Parenthood was posted to the Community section, causing outcry and eventually leading BuzzFeed to add an additional “Community Note” to the top of the listicle:

Community Note
Community posts are made by members of the community, and are not vetted or endorsed by BuzzFeed.

A BuzzFeed spokesperson told McKenzie, “We’ve been adjusting the labelling, and were in the process of figuring out where and whether we should draw lines about what’s appropriate on what we conceived as an open platform, like Facebook and Twitter.”

As for the labelling issue, MacKenzie notes that “the Personhood USA post on BuzzFeed is barely discernible from its best political reporting, or the scintillating listicles that detail 27 signs you know you were raised by hamsters.”

Indeed, the typical BuzzFeed Community disclaimer at the bottom of a Community post reads more like a call to action to contribute, rather than a disclosure about the origin of the content and BuzzFeed’s responsibility for it (“… anyone can post awesome lists and creations, and share them”).

Forbes does well with its labelling of contributors and staffers in a bio box at the top of all articles. I’d prefer to see its disclaimer text also appear at the top of contributor content, but at least the text is relatively clear that a contributor is not a staffer.

Except, of course, when they might be.

Dueling bios

Unlike his bio on the Forbes site, Alexander’s Twitter bio identifies him as a Forbes intern. When I reached out to him for comment about his Astros post, I used his Forbes email address, which I saw he’d given out on Twitter. When Alexander replied, he said I would need to pass my question through a Forbes spokesperson.

Yet Brown, the other contributor, replied from his own company email address and spoke on his own. So not all Forbes contributors are created equal.

I asked Forbes for clarification on how I should identify Alexander in my post, and was told, “Dan Alexander, Forbes Contributor.” 

I asked for further clarification, citing his Forbes email address and Twitter bio, and didn’t receive a reply. 

Disclaimers and labels are necessary and useful, especially when so many sites are mixing different levels of contributors, and assuming different levels of responsibility for the content they publish. (A state of affairs McKenzie argues can’t/shouldn’t last.)

But to be really useful, labels and disclosures need to be complete and accurate.

As of now — after reading a bio on two sites (including Forbes’ own), and emailing him and a spokesperson — I don’t have a clear idea of the relationship Alexander has with Forbes.

Thanks to Forbes’ transparency in other areas, however, I do know Alexander’s first Astros post has over 160,000 views — more than six times the amount of Brown’s rebuttal.

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