|Credit: Angelo De Ieso|
As many of you have seen, a few days ago the Oregonian severed its relationship with longtime beer writer John Foyston. There are two issues here, and I’d like to focus on the second, less-examined one. But first, the background. (Full disclosure: John started covering beer for the Oregonian a couple decades ago, just a bit before I started a column at Willamette Week. I’ve known him all that time and consider him a friend.) Here’s what the O wrote on Wednesday.
In several instances over the past month, Foyston lifted passages from press releases, industry Facebook pages or brewery websites and submitted them under his byline. We also found one example where he copied verbatim an old beer review posted by a contributor to a craft beer site.
I’ll let you click through for the full details. The real issue boils down to his decision to lift descriptions about beer from BeerAdvocate. That’s a very serious journalistic breach, and the Oregonian couldn’t overlook it. (Whether John deserved walking papers is another matter.) John posted on Facebook about the issue, taking full responsibility and offering apologies.
I cut-and-pasted and modified some beer descriptions in an unpublished story on 25 favorite beers. Fair enough, that’s a violation of journalistic ethics and I freely admit it…. No excuse. Guilty as charged. I shouldn’t have done it.
On the surface, this has the appearance of a cut-and-dried case of plagiarism, and we know the penalty for such crimes is a death sentence. So John got the ax. I’d like to leave his culpability aside, though, and discuss the Oregonian’s culpability in all this. John offered no defense for his actions, but he did offer an explanation (this is the part I ellipsed out of the above quote): “Perhaps the crime is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the deadline was moved up three weeks from the end of September to right before I was leaving on a 10-day motorbike trip after Labor Day, thus eliminating the chance to reacquaint myself with beers that I hadn’t had in the last year.”
No matter what you think of Foyston’s actions in this episode, it’s worth pointing out what has become of the Oregonian. Like so many dailies, it was owned by a media conglomerate (Newhouse) that had no idea how to handle the internet age. At first, the paper invested heavily in expensive stories that won awards (including Pulitzers), but not readers. As subscriptions, ad, and classified revenues declined, they decided to scrap in-depth stories and dump expensive senior reporters and editors. They eliminated beats that (presumably) weren’t driving ads or readership, and basically quit doing local public-policy reporting. If it’s happening in City Hall, for example, the O is mute about it.
In those regular purges, longtime salaried reporters were given a choice to continue along as freelancers, making a fraction of the money they made as staff reporters, or piss off completely. John decided to stay with the paper and continued covering beer. (Look under the byline; if it says “special to the Oregonian,” that means the writer is freelancing.) Then, a couple years ago, the O made changes that have turned a once-worthwhile news organ into a clickbaity mess.
Anderson told his staff The Oregonian would deliver papers to subscribers on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. On the remaining days, the paper would publish only a street edition, saving millions of dollars in printing costs. Anderson also announced layoffs; almost 100 of the paper’s 650 employees lost their jobs. The cuts fell disproportionately on the newsroom: As many as 49 reporters, editors, designers and photographers—nearly a quarter of the remaining news staff—will be gone by Sept. 27.
The paper adopted a new strategy based on all the worst trends of internet news.
But the kind of news Oregonians get will change. The Oregonian’s newsroom is already under enormous pressure to write stories that draw hits on the website—often at the expense of in-depth reporting that reveals what’s actually happening in the community…. Staffers say the newsroom has become obsessed with a program called Parse.ly, which measures real-time Web traffic, shows which stories are getting the most hits, and identifies where readers click after finishing those stories.
In short, in order to address its own gross mismanagement, the Oregonian adopted this strategy: 1) fire expensive, experienced reporters and hire inexperienced, cheap ones; 2) demand reporters post as much content as possible, including in-progress story fragments (something something “developing the narrative” something); 3) base job evaluation on web clicks and, most importantly, 4) abandon serious (read: slow and expensive) shoe-leather reporting. They also fired editors who had oversight of story direction and who edited finished pieces.
Reporters are 100% fungible and survive one week to the next based on how well their stories seem to be moving traffic. You can imagine what kind of product this approach produces. The current version of the Oregonian is a disgrace. The online edition is an unreadable hodgepodge of unedited story fragments and repostings of clickbait from other sites. Reporters “generate content” on random stuff that happens to be going on–or something they found online. There are a few reporters doing actual journalism, but it’s no surprise that when a big story breaks, it ain’t the O doin’ the breakin’.
This is a terrible way for John to end a much-lauded run as the central voice covering Oregon beer. He’s done great work, and I have complete confidence that this episode is the outlier–which makes it all so unusual and shocking. But the guilt-pointing finger shouldn’t stop at John’s face: the Oregonian bears a lot of responsibility in this for creating an environment that doesn’t value real news and demands writers publish early and often–no matter how crappy that “content” is. It’s easy enough to can John and move along, but something’s rotten at the heart of the Oregonian, and that’s not going away anytime soon.