Media critic

So why wasn’t Sam Stein suspended?

One year ago, Stein, the hyperkinetic political correspondent for Huffington Post, filed a story about a story. It was classic aggregation:Stein was recapping a long piece from the New York Times Magazine about Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

It started out with three chunky paragraphs of introduction, highlighting the thrust of the magazine piece. Then come the block quotes, eight paragraphs of them, separated by thematic subheads such as “On the Tea Party’s Criticism of Graham” and “On Graham’s Relationship . . . with the White House.”

The takeaway: a post based on a single story and heavily excerpted.

If that sounds like a familiar formula, then you’ve been reading your Just yesterday, the Huffington Post suspended aggregator Amy Lee for misaggregating. Lee had written a post based on a single story, by Ad Age, and had excerpted heavily.

The kerfuffle comes right off the keyboard of Ad Age columnist Simon Dumenco, who wrote a column blasting Huffington Post for swallowing its story whole in the name of news aggregation. Only 57 page views, wrote Dumenco, came from Huffington Post. Peter Goodman, a Huffington Post editor, zipped off a note to Dumenco declaring his attack “completely valid” and making note of the suspension.

An employee suspension? At the free-love Huffington Post?

Rank-and-filers at one of the Web’s premier news properties are furious. Says an editorial staffer: “A lot of people are upset about what happened and think that [Lee] deserves an apology.” Huffington Post’s archive is agreeing with staff sentiment. As Gawker showed, there are plenty of stories on the site that bear the same aggregational cut-throatedness as the infamous Lee post.

“Yes, she aggregated more than she should have,” says the editorial staffer. “But you don’t publicly come down on someone like that.”

Did Lee violate some standard that she should have known about?

Eh, sort of. Interviews with current and former Huffington Post employees reveal an aspirational standard of sorts for aggregation. When summarizing a news story from another outlet, staffers are supposed to round out the presentation with contextual links to other content in the field — to videos, podcasts, maybe a pdf in a pinch. Linking to three outlets is the goal.

But here’s the thing about the Huffington Post: Whatever management directives or linking goals or managerial guidance there might be, the mishmash of good intentions gets plowed over by speed and volume, which are the property’s stock in trade. The site changes by the second; aggregators are responding to and posting hundreds — maybe thousands? — of news stories per day; staff bloggers are setting industry-wide productivity standards. Inside of a frenzy, guidance and standards lose traction.

Like many Huffington Post dramas sure to come, this one has the juicy grapefruit-and-milk taste of old media vs. new media. The guy at the center of it, Goodman, is a veteran of the Washington Post and the New York Times. His note to Dumenco reads as much like an elbow at his liberally aggregative colleagues as it does an expression of corporate contrition. One sentence therefrom: “We have zero tolerance for this sort of conduct.”

A suggested edit: “We now have zero tolerance for this sort of conduct.”

So did Goodman go all maverick here, firing off a memo and forcing the Huffington Post brass to embrace his hard line on linking? He hasn’t responded to an invitation to talk.

When I posed that question to Huffington Post spokesman Mario Ruiz, he cut me off before I could finish the word “process.” “I can’t go into the specifics,” said Ruiz.