Post editors, critics weigh in on ombud column about Flock plagiarism

In a new column about the recent resignation of Washington Post blogger Elizabeth Flock, Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton offers the provocative assessment that, “The Post failed her as much as she failed The Post.”

In building his case for organizational failure, he cites conversations with the paper’s unnamed current and former “young bloggers” to paint a picture of an overworked group churning out posts with little oversight, guidance or possibility of promotion:

They said that they felt as if they were out there alone in digital land, under high pressure to get Web hits, with no training, little guidance or mentoring and sparse editing. Guidelines for aggregating stories are almost nonexistent, they said. And they believe that, even if they do a good job, there is no path forward.

He also made note of Flock’s average of 5.9 posts per day, while writing for BlogPost, a section of the Post’s website that publishes aggregated takes on trending news.

Pexton’s column elicited strong reaction, in part for what some, including Reuters media critic Jack Shafer, characterized as a sympathetic treatment of a plagiarist. Others took note of Pexton’s harsh criticism of how the Post allegedly handles some of its online talent. And some objected to characterizing this issue as generational or a print-digital divide within the newsroom.

Katharine Zaleski, the Post’s executive director of digital news, told me today that Pexton’s description of an online operation focused on churning out content is inaccurate.

“We have incredibly high standards to the point where this idea [of Pexton's] that we’re pumping things out is ridiculous when you compare us to some of the other news organizations that have people publish immediately [without editing],” she said, later noting that “certain trusted journalists are back-read,” meaning they can publish first and be edited later.

Zaleski said BlogPost has copy editors that read over posts prior to publication, and work with writers. (She would not speak about Flock, citing Post policy to not comment on personnel matters.)

I asked her about Pexton’s focus on how younger bloggers are allegedly treated worse than other staffers.

“We are very attentive to training and developing ‘young people’ at the Post,” she said, noting the sources in Pexton’s post were unidentified, and she was 28 when she started at the Post two and a half years ago.

Rather than being about age, Zaleski said, “it’s about being accurate and following our guidelines.”

She pointed to the paper’s Digital Publishing Guidelines, a publicly available document released in September 2011 that outlines what’s expected of Post bloggers and online writers and editors.

Pexton’s column links to those guidelines, but at the same time reports that the bloggers he interviewed complained that guidelines were nonexistent.

“The ombudsman said there weren’t guidelines,” she said. “We worked for months on guidelines. They have very clear sections on blogging, and it’s all about accuracy. There’s a lot of things here that have nothing to do with traffic goals.”

As we ended our phone conversation, Zaleski noted that she was about to leave for a previously-scheduled lunch with none other than Pexton.

Narisetti: ‘I would have fired [Flock] if she hadn’t resigned.’

In addition to Zaleski, I contacted a current Post blogger and a recently departed former Post newsroom leader to see where they fall in the debate about frequency, quality and whether the expectations on Flock were too high.

On that note, Flock herself also offered a comment to The Wrap about Pexton’s column.

“I thought the ombudsman’s piece was for the most part very fair,” Flock said on Sunday. “I am optimistic that the Post will better develop its digital journalists going forward. I think that producing less but better reported content is vital, and that it is the future.”

Until he left in February to join The Wall Street Journal, Raju Narisetti was the Post managing editor in charge of online. I contacted him for his perspective as a former top manager at the Post, and a senior online manager for large news websites.

In an email, he first expressed concern that Pexton’s column had the effect of “putting a halo around plagiarism and plagiarists.”

“Having left the Post in January, I am not privy to all the intimate details of this particular incident,” he said. “But from what I know of what happened and how it happened and if I were still managing the digital journalism of the Post, I would have fired [Flock] if she hadn’t resigned. And I am saying this as someone who was involved in hiring her at the Post and finding her to be an intelligent, smart, eager, talented and well-meaning journalist with what seemed like a good future in journalism.”

He continued:

But, those are the very reasons why everything that has been offered up in defense of a “young blogger,” about why the plagiarism actually happened, is just a red herring. I don’t think Liz is offering a defense but the explanations as to the why seem to have morphed into reasons why the outcome should have been different. I, for one, don’t buy that line of thinking.

Along with Narisetti, I contacted Erik Wemple, who writes a media blog for the Post’s website. He was previously the editor in chief of and before that of Washington City Paper.

“Regarding Elizabeth Flock’s output: I do regard the 5.9 daily average as impressive,” he said in an email. “As I’ve learned over the past 10 months or so, the work of a blogger looks a lot easier to someone who’s never done it than it is to execute. First you’ve got to find a topic that merits a post. For Flock, that meant something that was hot and in the news. At the same time, she and her supervisors likely had to figure out whether that topic was already being covered by someone else at the Post — and how that situation bore on whether or not she should post something.”

Then there’s the research and writing process, which Wemple noted is of course time-consuming.

“Consider, too, the unique tyranny of what Flock was doing,” he said. “In BlogPost, she had to hop from topic to topic on a moment’s notice. On March 23, for example, here’s the topical terrain that she traveled: The Toulouse shootings; Robert Bales; Jim Yong Kim; the Pope; and a news roundup.”

None of that, Wemple wrote, excuses errors or plagiarism.

Both he and Narisetti said people should be wary of buying into a narrative of generational divide or new-versus-old media values.

Wemple said “blog mistakes often prompt carping from the curmudgeon crowd that the standards are being lowered. But we should be careful about romanticizing the standards of yore, both with respect to the Post and other publications as well. Our memory of those lofty standards, after all, often inflates them in the rearview mirror.”

Narisetti expressed hope that the result of this incident would be “a constructive conversation around a better balancing of speed and accuracy, and addressing specific gaps within a specific newsroom …”

But he also expressed what the opposite could look like:

If this debate ends up being the same old cliches about how “old” media decision-makers did a grave injustice to “new” media forms and its practitioners, with the usual chorus of social-media critics beating up on news managers, who unlike these critics, have to actually live with their brand and personnel decisions, then [Flock] will mostly join a very long list of footnotes on the issue of plagiarism in US newsrooms, soon to be forgotten except in Google searches and the next roundup story on the next such transgression.

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  • Raju Narisetti

    Since when is “i don’t know it was illegal” a reason to let those who break the “law” get off? Totally spurious argument and the fact Patrick uses so many unnamed sources all the time-often for negative criticism–dramatically undermines a lot of what he legitimately has to offer by way of criticism.

  • Luke Rosiak

    Agree about the blind worship, but it’s important to note that these are not “choice gigs.” As Pexton notes, these are dead-end jobs — and as you note, their holders are oftentimes not really good at anything, since having a good grasp of TEH TUBES isn’t a technical skill but just a side effect of growing up in the modern era, and because they don’t have any real experience practicing journalism. This is mostly managers’ fault for thinking that hiring these young people for their mere youth to do, well, we don’t know, young internet-ish stuff? certainly not reporting — will make their papers profitable. 

    Because they’re not allowed to do reporting, they’re just formatting blog posts (or at best, aggregating), they’re not gaining experience or developing talent. That’s managers’ fault as well. The Post blogger in the story was 26, which is young but a far cry from just out of college, at 22. That would have been four years to develop into a seasoned reporter. The reason she hadn’t been honing those instincts for that long is because she was instructed to instead dick around with bold and a href tags at The Washington Post.

    It’s tremendously sad, really: Come in at a young age with no experience, and leave at an old age with no experience. That’s what these “online producer” types have to look forward to. For the ones doing aggregating and other trivial, fleeting blog posts, it’s gambling more in the style of Russian roulette than a Las Vegas slot machine: Best case, you make it through another day drearily churning out posts no one cares about, and worst case, you make some unintended mistake and the employer who never was going to afford you any opportunities if you did well, instead hangs you out to dry.

    Brian, before you envy these people and lament that they worked at a larger news org than you, remember that you’re doing real journalism — and I’ve seen your work — day in and day out. You’re living the dream because you get to do hard-hitting muckraking reporting! To have some mere concept of a place like The Post overshadow that is akin to blind worship in itself.

    That said, I do agree that every slot the Post dedicates to this kind of position is one they could be using making room for someone like you. They should not be doing aggregating, and “producing” should be rendered obsolete by better software, by not concocting ludicrous job categories and lending them credence because they have the word “digital” in them, and training reporters and assigning editors to click a few buttons themselves.

  • MT

    I’d love to know how long it’s been Shafer or Narisetti worked at a job that required they write six stories a day.

  • CraigSilverman

    A good question. I can tell you this: Pexton is familiar with the guidelines. He wrote about them in detail in September:

    My sense is in the column he was saying the “young bloggers” he spoke to said they were unaware of them.

  • Neuroskeptic

    “If this debate ends up being the same old cliches about how “old” media
    decision-makers did a grave injustice to “new” media forms and its
    practitioners, with the usual chorus of social-media critics beating up
    on news managers”

    Well to put it bluntly, old media thought it would be a good idea to hire a new media type to do new media badly. Both were in the wrong.

  • Neuroskeptic

    “If this debate ends up being the same old cliches about how “old” media
    decision-makers did a grave injustice to “new” media forms and its
    practitioners, with the usual chorus of social-media critics beating up
    on news managers”

    Well to put it bluntly, old media thought it would be a good idea to hire a new media type to do new media badly. Both were in the wrong.

  • Dan Kennedy

    Craig, what do you make of Pexton’s claiming that guidelines are virtually non-existent while at the same time linking to those guidelines? Seems very odd to me.

  • Don Whiteside™

    I almost fell over even before I made it through the first section; the irony of a Post staffer taking issues with their Ombudsman using “unnamed sources” is almost too much to take. I look forward to Paxton’s rejoinder of “I learned it from watching you!”

  • Brian Haas

    This is spot-on. Newspapers everywhere are ceding their digital real estate to people with little more than a good grasp of TEH INTERNET TUBES. Online producers rarely have any significant journalism experience.

    In an age where there is little to no movement from smaller papers to bigger papers, it’s pretty disheartening to see 20-somethings getting such choice gigs at major newspapers when those of us who have slogged along in our careers for a decade or more have no chance whatsoever of breaking in.

    This case is reminiscent of the ESPN case where the 20-something “online editor” didn’t know that “chink” was a slur for Chinese people.

    The more and more newspapers turn from fostering good journalism to blind worship of technology at all cost (and with no thought), the more this is going to happen.

  • Anonymous

    I was just struck by how little experience she had when she came to the Post.