The Latest Sad Fate of an Aggregation Serf

What’s new, you might ask, in another tale of careless youth broken on the galley of journalism? Well, someone in power finally stood up—sort of—for the little guy.  In a column on the resignation of 20-something Elizabeth Flock after charges of “a significant ethical lapse” and “serious factual errors,” the Washington Post’s Ombudsman Patrick Pexton said, you know what? The newspaper was just as culpable as the reporter: “The Post” he wrote, “failed her as much as she failed The Post.”

As stirring as it is to find a hint of post-hoc compassion in a professional culture where any mistake appears increasingly to be fatal, the question is: did Elizabeth Flock really fail the Post as much as it failed her? Pexton is, I think, being too kind to his employers.

Consider the scene of Flock’s two discrete crimes against journalism, blogPOST, which, in the words of the paper, is devoted to “covering breaking news and conversation on the web.” (According to Pexton, it was previously self-described as “The Washington Post’s sounding board for news and conversation that’s reverberating online.”)

In other words, blogPOST reports on news that is already news somewhere else, but burnishes the product to make it look as if the Post isn’t simply ripping off someone else’s material for cheap pageviews, which, of course, is essentially what it is doing, to the traffic goal of one to two million views (what the Ombudsman quaintly calls “hits”) each month.

And this curating and remixing is all perfectly acceptable as long as you give proper credit to the original newsmaker—and don’t report on “breaking conversations” that are reverberating with nonsense and error. In the echo chamber of the Internet, the echo stops, in this self-aggrandizing feat of aggregation, with the mighty Washington Post.

The whole operation functions smoothly as long as the blogger-journalist doesn’t make a mistake, because a mistake draws attention to the inherent cheapness of the product and the ethical dubiety of the entire process. You see, the Post—or any legacy news organization turned aggregator—wants to have its cake and other people’s cake too, and to do so without damaging its brand as a purveyor of original cake.

You can see the problem: the more pageviews you seek, the more the work turns to drudgery; but the more it becomes drudgery, the more exacting it becomes to protect the integrity of the aggregation process, and, with it, the Post‘s brand.

According to Flock, the daily grind was hardly the stuff young journalists dream of. Take April 12, the day before it would all fall apart for her.

At 8.10 a.m., Flock delivered a morning roundup of news, citing other stories in The Washington Post, and two items from the LA Times (290 words).

At 8.46 a.m. good news! An Argentine baby has been found alive in a morgue, said Flock, reporting on reports from the Associated Press and CNN (290 words, and three bonus links to somewhat less heartwarming breaking news stories).

At 9.57 a.m. Flock reported on some real as opposed to virtual vibrations, asking whether the previous day’s tremble of earthquakes in Indonesia and Mexico was a harbinger of the apocalypse or just, you know, coincidence. Sources cited: Washington Post, Emergency Management.com, Washington Post, Washington Post, Washington Post, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Geological Survey and Fearofstuff.com (321 words, 3 comments).

At 11.50 a.m. Flock reported on the declining interest in the Kony 2012 phenomenon, which seems counter to the “finger-on-the-beating-heart-of-the-Internet” spirit of blogPOST. But—hold on—this was, ironically, an original piece based on an interview Flock did the previous day with Adam Finck, Director of Programs at Invisible Children (1,042 words, 1 photo gallery, 7 comments).

At 12.50 p.m., Flock was on top of the toy grenade that panicked the World Trade Center, citing NBC News, and then used the Post’s Storify account for live updates and pictures—14 tweets and pictures in all (123 words, 1 comment).

At 2.09 p.m., Flock reported on George Zimmerman’s first appearance in court, citing the Post twice, then NBC and MSNBC (192 words, 1 video, 54 comments).

At 6.43 p.m., Flock reported “The Internet is abuzz with Hillary Clinton this week,” citing the Tumblr “Texts from Hillary,” Geo TV, News One, Maureen Dowd (as quoted from the New York Times on MSNBC), Kelly Wallace of iVillage on MSNBC, Cafemom, IMDB, The Gallup Poll, the Washington Post blogs, CBS News, Maureen Dowd again, and finally Jezebel (469 words, 3 comments).

That’s a 2,700-word, seven-post day, and, apparently, not untypical of the job. Ben Goldacre, “Bad Science” doctor and Guardian columnist, described this on Twitter as “flipping news burgers,” and, while I get the put-down, it is a disservice to burger flippers. Nothing in a fast-food franchise is left to chance. This is how the product is unvarying and thus dependable, whether you’re in Alaska or the Florida Keys. These sorts of business models are marvels of operational precision, whether you enjoy the end product or not.

Aggregated news stories, on the other hand, may all sound similar and share the same formal qualities (lots of links!), but each is the product of a different set of ingredients. In McAggregate, you are never going to flip the exact same burger twice. This means the probability that you’re going to unknowingly report something false or miss a crucial ingredient is much, much higher than McDonald’s is likely to serve an undercooked burger. Even a 1 percent error rate is going to mean one in every hundred aggregated stories is going to have a mistake. If Flock were to post 25 blog items a week, well within her range, she would, likely, finish the year with 13 errors. This is a game in which the participants are going to fail, sooner or later.

In the event, she made just two mistakes in four months, which, given the range of probable error, is pretty good going. Unfortunately, the first involved a story about Mitt Romney and a campaign phrase that seemed to echo a Klu Klux Klan slogan. It was a collision of mistake, misinterpretation and misfortune—not least the failure of the editor of the section to flag a post tarnishing the reputation of a major public figure before it was published. But as the Post is not a full-blown, post-your-own blog, I’m not sure the galley slave is the greater of those at fault here.

The second is more telling—and seems to be what prompted her to go perhaps before she was pushed. On April 13, she forgot to include a link and give due credit to the Discovery Channel for two paragraphs on a story about life on Mars, which, to add insult to injury, were insufficiently rewritten to disguise the fact that she was reporting on someone else’s reporting. “This,” said the Post, “was a significant ethical lapse and not in keeping with our journalistic standards. We apologize to Discovery News.”

How can this be a “significant ethical lapse” when the whole point of blogPOST is to profit from other people’s work? Because she drew attention to the essence of what aggregation really is? The story ends with Discovery protesting at being obviously burgled rather than being burgled and left with a thank you note in the form of a small trickle of click-throughs. Ms. Flock immediately and voluntarily resigned, saying the mistakes were hers, that it would only be a matter of time, given the pressures of the job, before she made another mistake. The full extent of her journalism crime was the omission of a link.

I would challenge anyone to read Flock’s output on April 12th and conclude that she wasn’t anything but diligent in citation. Indeed, there’s almost too much sourcing, as if she can’t seem to make an interesting declarative statement or hypothesis without it having some higher form of authority.  So what happened the next day? She was tired, forgetful, something: and so didn’t engage fully in the pretense of originality? Sounds like it. Rap on knuckles yes; harakiri no.

Call me a sentimental old English major, but if you read through Ms. Flock’s work you can practically feel this young journalist’s desperation to write something—anything—that wasn’t first written, hours or minutes earlier, by someone else.

If you are going to engage in an ethically flexible form of “journalism” which involves reporting news from elsewhere, you need to build a franchise-like operation where, much like McDonald’s, there is no room for doing your own thing or forgetting what you’re supposed to do. That, or you lighten up on all the talk of ethical standards and give the kids a break while they serve your pageview mills.


Trevor Butterworth is a columnist for the Daily, and is a contributor to the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and other publications.