In a testament to the cachet of a BuzzFeed byline, DCist Editor-in-Chief Ben Freed has been dismissed from his position after he placed a freelance piece with the popular news site. Speaking about the matter last night, Freed sounded a bit dazed by the ouster: “I did not think that writing something for BuzzFeed could get me fired,” he said.
Following the news that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would be purchasing The Post for $250 million, BuzzFeed asked Freed if he’d do a piece assessing the impact of the deal on local D.C. news — long a forte of The Post and the sole mission of DCist, a news-and-culture site among the family of “ist” properties owned by Gothamist LLC. “As somebody who ran a local news Web site, I thought I had a pretty good angle on that,” says Freed.
So he got to work. Although his supervisor suggested that the piece sounded like something that would fit nicely at DCist, Freed thought it would have more of a “personal” feel than most posts on the site. Plus, he figured that the exposure on a high-traffic site like BuzzFeed would bring needed publicity to DCist. Whatever the case, Freed didn’t interpret management’s push back as a “firm no.”
After Freed filed his copy, however, he learned what it meant. Yesterday morning, before the story was posted, Freed received an e-mail from Jake Dobkin, publisher and co-founder of Gothamist, instructing him to have BuzzFeed kill the story. BuzzFeed, though willing to spike it, argued that the story provided an interesting angle and that it’d shower attention on DCist, according to Freed.
It ran. Titled “What The Washington Post’s Sale Means For D.C. Journalism,” Freed’s essay lamented that key outlets covering the District and surrounding areas answered to ownership groups spread across the country:
I’m also a transplant to D.C. But it didn’t take long after moving here to realize that in this city that seeks to define itself apart from the grand marble temples it hosts, we care a great deal about who provides our local news. We need our reporters to be invested in our lively streets, evolving neighborhoods, and ridiculous local politics. Everybody wants to hang out at the newest restaurants on 14th Street NW, but it’s a small group that wants to sift through the development contracts, zoning variances, and voluntary agreements that made that $12 cocktail possible. When the Post’s sale to Bezos goes through, very few of those people will be employed by local entities.
The story was published around noon yesterday; by the end of the day, Freed had been fired. “The piece was well received, it wasn’t fabricated, it wasn’t plagiarized,” he says. “It sucks that it ended this way and if it played out again, I’m sure I could have approached the subject differently, or delicately.”
Though many of the folks who supply content to DCist aren’t full-time employees, Freed, as editor-in-chief, is. He earns — actually, earned — a salary in the $40,000 range plus health benefits, vacation and sick leave. (He started as associate editor for DCist in late 2011, moving to the top job in spring 2013). For such commitments, employers in the media world generally expect first option on their reporters’ work. When the Erik Wemple Blog served as editor of the Washington City Paper and now-defunct TBD.com, freelance work received liberal approval, provided that the story in question fulfilled one of two conditions: 1) That it was a terrible idea certain to embarrass whatever paper had commissioned it; 2) That it was on a topic foreign to our editorial mission.
Freed’s piece fails both tests. Any local news operation — including DCist — would have benefited from publishing it.
Freed, 29, says he has a work contract but that as far as he can recall, it makes no mention of freelance rules. Not that it was much of an issue in any case. Though he’d done some freelance work, Freed says that editing DCist “is a full-time job that requires 60 to 70 hours per week on it.”
Though he’d had “disagreements” of one sort or another with management in the past — “maybe needling me over traffic or whatever,” he said — Freed says it was “nothing like this.” One DCist contributor, who declined to put his name to his comments, says that Freed had a knack for rankling the site’s corps of contributors. To which complaint Freed responds: “Yes, I occasionally butted heads with contributors. To the best of my recollection, most of those arguments tended to be related to my editing style, which I’ll admit can probably be a little aggressive at times, and perhaps not what some of DCist’s contributors were used to. It was never personal for me. I was just trying to make the site as good as possible.”
When asked about the developments, Dobkin writes via e-mail, “We thank Ben for his service to DCist over the years. We wish him well!”
Freed: “I loved this job.”