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The Post fails a young blogger

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The Post just had a rough few days. It was shut out of the 2012 Pulitzer Prizes, which were announced Monday. On the same day, journalists here had to accept or reject The Post’s fifth buyout offer in nine years. The union representing newsroom workers says that at least 32 accepted, and probably more. And the prior Friday, a Post blogger, Elizabeth Flock, resigned.

I think that the most noteworthy event was the resignation of Flock, a woman in her mid-20s whose job was filling The Post’s breaking news blog, called blogPost. It was designed to be about the national and international stories popular from hour to hour — trending — on the Internet.

Flock’s job entailed some original reporting from Washington but a lot more of what we call “aggregation.” This is an imprecise term. At its best, aggregation can mean collecting stories on a topic from a variety of news outlets and directing readers toward them through Web links. At its worst, as Bill Keller, the former editor of the New York Times has written, it verges on theft.

In the middle, where most aggregation is, it is repackaging. A digital journalist reads a raft of stories on a given subject from different publications, summarizes and rewrites them in a bright way, provides links and, at The Post, adds a Washington angle. The goal is to surf the trend waves on the Internet, hoping to catch a few thousand page views as a story crests. It’s cashing in on the passing popularity of a story even if you don’t have a reporter covering it.

BlogPost was supposed to attain 1 million to 2 million Web hits a month, Flock said, a huge number. On many days Flock was the only reporter filing for blogPost. Last month, she averaged 5.9 blog posts per day. These are not 100-word briefs but often 500-word summaries of complicated news events that ranged from the killing of Trayvon Martin to the use of pink slime in ground beef to the impact of general strikes in Spain.

Flock made two mistakes in the past four months, which earned her two tough editor’s notes disavowing her actions.

She did a roundup on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney allegedly using an old Ku Klux Klan slogan in his stump speech — a story that went viral online yet was untrue — and she didn’t call the Romney campaign for comment, nor did any editor make sure she did. And on April 13, she aggregated a story trending online about life on Mars. Scientists reexamining data collected from the 1976 Viking lander on the red planet concluded that there might be bacterial life there.

Flock says that in haste she read about 10 stories about Mars life, including some of the research papers, and forgot to credit and link to the originator of the story, Discovery News. It appears that she copied, pasted and slightly rewrote two paragraphs from the Discovery story. Plagiarism perhaps, but also a perpetual danger in aggregated stories.

After Discovery News raised objections, Flock resigned voluntarily. She said that the mistakes were hers. She said it was only a matter of time before she made a third one; the pressures were just too great.

But The Post failed her as much as she failed The Post. I spoke with several young bloggers at The Post this week, and some who have left in recent months, and they had the same critique.

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. Will they one day graduate to a beat, covering a crime scene, a city council or a school board? They didn’t know. So some left; others are thinking of quitting.

Katharine Zaleski, executive director of digital news, said that bloggers are made aware of The Post’s high standards: “We’re deeply conscious of the imperatives our bloggers face and go to great lengths to ensure they have the editorial support they need. We tell bloggers that their first and central priority is accuracy, not speed, not buzziness. The Washington Post’s standards apply every bit as much to our digital work as they do to our print edition. And our bloggers honor that.”

The Post lets go nearly three dozen veterans in the newsroom to cut costs, and it falls short in cultivating its young and future talent. No, not a good few days.

Now The Post, also this week, announced a new program to cross-train journalists — digital journalists will learn the ways of street reporters, and reporters will learn the ways of digital and social media. This is an excellent, and overdue, idea.

But it comes too late for Elizabeth Flock and some of her young and promising colleagues.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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