Why not suspend them all?
That's the question raised by the Huffington Post's decision this week to "indefinitely suspend" a young writer, Amy Lee, for cribbing liberally from an AdAge column.
The move has sparked widespread criticism that founder Arianna Huffington is seeking a scapegoat for a controversial practice that her site has long condoned -- repackaging others' work as its own.
Critics contend that only outside pressure and bad publicity forced Huffington to react, and that there are few internal checks and balances to govern how and when to pick up others' material.
"I think [Lee] has been thrown under the bus," one ex-HuffPo employee told the New York Post's column Media Ink. "There were people who took much, but they never reacted -- unless someone from outside said something."
The blowup was triggered this week when HuffPo Business Editor Peter Goodman summarily suspended Lee after AdAge columnist Simon Dumenco complained that she buried the link to his original story that formed the basis for her post.
Dumenco titled his piece, "What It's Like to Get Used and Abused by The Huffington Post." While HuffPo said it encourages links, Dumenco found otherwise and branded its style of pickup as "unethical."
Dumenco singled out a recent AdAge.com post that was picked up by HuffPo and cited Google Analytics stats suggesting that HuffPo's practices actually discourage its readers from linking to original work.
Goodman quickly reacted by suspending Lee -- a move that Dumenco was not exactly thrilled to hear.
"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 aggregation long practiced, condoned and encouraged by Huffington Post editorial management," Dumenco wrote yesterday on AdAge.com.
Arianna Huffington -- who went from running a 50-person newsroom before AOL's $315 million acquisition of the site this year, to overseeing 1,500 as the president and editor-in-chief of all of AOL's media properties -- is said to be very sensitive to bad publicity.
"She would say at meetings that we have zero tolerance for mistakes, that our aim is perfection," said a former staffer, who pointed out the absurdity in trying accomplish that with a 40- or 50-person staff putting out hundreds of stories a day. "Inevitably, someone would misspell a name or run the wrong photo with a story."
Roughly every quarter, Roy Sekoff, HuffPo's founding editor, would lead a staff meeting on how to aggregate.
"We were never told not to do it," said the ex-staffer. "It was about how much we could take, find the nugget in a quote and blow that up into a story."
Now that Lee has been suspended for doing what seemed to be the norm, HuffPo's critics are questioning both the editor who dumped her, Goodman, and the site's standards in general.
The suspension is the first-full-blown controversy to erupt since the site was acquired by AOL in the spring. Indeed, AOL has been hiring reporters and editors, even as it jettisons some of the staffers at AOL, which it claimed duplicated coverage that HuffPo provided.
Gawker, another site that is famous for aggregating, which also has been pushed to do more original reporting, has found that the now infamous Lee post was not unusual in any way.
Gawker cited an 18-paragraph "summary" of a Playboy interview with actor James Franco and an ESPN article on LeBron James that resulted in a nine-paragraph pickup. Articles on John Edwards' mistress in GQ and Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone also had in lengthy pickups.
None of the writers who "aggregated" those posts has been suspended, while the Lee posting was based on "a collective breakdown in the process," according to a statement from HuffPo. There was also no word on when, or if, Lee would be returning. Efforts to reach her yesterday were unsuccessful.
"HuffPost is careful to adhere to copyright law and fair use guidelines," a spokesman said in a statement.
"Our editorial approach is that when excerpting a story, we should only offer enough of it to give readers a sense of the story and the ability to comment on it, without removing the incentive to go to the original source to read more.
"We value the linked economy, and a critical part of that is sending traffic to other sites, which only proper aggregation and linking can accomplish."