The Huffington Post is again getting attention over the treatment of its writers. After Ad Age's Simon Demunco wrote about how the Huffington Post had used Ad Age's content but failed to drive significant traffic to the site in exchange, Peter Goodman, the Huffington Post's executive business editor, responded by saying that the criticism was completely valid. He said that the writer of the offending post had been suspended indefinitely.
Demunco accused the Huffington Post of publishing a rewrite of his article. He argued was that although Arianne Huffington has defended aggregation by saying that it drives traffic to the original articles, the Huffington piece was designed to give enough information to keep the reader on the site. More importantly, statistics show that the story drove only 57 page views to the original item, which wouldn't be enough to justify content aggregation.
Goodman accepted the criticism, and as a consequence the writer of the Huffington Post piece was suspended, but this only increased the number of critical voices. It also brought to mind earlier controversies over how the Huffington Post treats its writers. The Awl said that the paraphrasing of Ad Age's article was not as much the case of a writer erring on the job as a case of the company having a questionable approach to content creation - and to the treatment of its employees.
Gawker quoted an ex-employee of the Huffington Post as saying that rephrasing other people's articles is what their writers are told to do: "Whenever they get caught they just blame an underling. These poor kids right out of school who have no experience get told to do XY and Z and then get punished for doing it." Many are now accusing the Huffington Post for having done exactly that, particularly in the light that the site abounds with other similar "rewritings", as Gawker noted.
Adweek interviewed Goodman, the editor who suspended the writer, who stated that the whole newsroom is taking responsibility in the matter. He wouldn't, however, elaborate on the internal discussions that preceded the writer's suspension. "This is certainly a problem of editing as well, and it points to a need for us to redouble our efforts to communicate to writers and editors throughout the newsroom what it is that we need to do here, and we're very serious about following through," he said. Yet the bottom line is that it was the writer who was suspended, as Adweek pointed out, after a relatively minor infringement of rules.
It should be noted that there are different kinds of sites that aggregate news content. Some present headlines and snippets of original articles - "the minimalist approach", as called by Dumenco, who mentioned Techmeme as an example. Also the influential Drudge Report fits this description. Such sites are usually left out of the discussion over aggregation issues as they drive traffic to other websites. In fact, a better word to describe what such sites do would be "curation", as they do not have the pretence of adding value to journalism produced by others.
Then there are sites that are based on aggregation or use it as part of their content, the Huffington Post falling in the latter category. Although such sites have drawn fire over their practices, some claim that when done correctly, aggregation can be an all-benefiting tool. According to PaidContent, there is an "art" of aggregation: "Done right, it's a valuable tool that helps readers and benefits the original source. Done wrong, it's at best, a mess and at worst, theft."
What the Huffington Post, and any news aggregation site, needs is clear guidelines that define the acceptable aggregation policy. Moreover, the editors need to pay attention to how the writers' follow those guidelines and correct them before the whole notion of suspensions becomes topical.