Does Turnover Signal Tumult at The Huffington Post Business Desk? [Update]

Since merging with AOL, the Huffington Post has been on an ostentatious hiring spree, luring editors away from The New York Times with big paychecks and grabbing young reporters while the ink on their diplomas is still wet. With each hiring memo, HuffPo touts the company’s newfound commitment to original reporting, as if to erase its reputation as a content-scraping mega-aggregator.

But at the HuffPo’s business desk, the transition has been rocky. A month ago, business editor Ryan McCarthy, who for two years helped develop the HuffPo’s fledging business desk, left for Reuters. The complexity of national financial reporting and the pressure of daily deadlines proved too challenging for some of the site’s young hires, two of whom were fired after less than three months on the job.

They had been hired under business editor Peter Goodman–himself a recent acquisition, from The New York Times. Mr. Goodman declined to comment on personnel matters, but told Off the Record he was confident about the team he’d assembled.

“What they all have in common is they’re relentlessly curious,” Mr. Goodman said. “They are wonderfully, inspiringly devoted to the old-fashioned parts of journalism, like using people’s stories to represent larger issues.”

Sources within the Huffington Post blamed the churn on the business desk on a less-than-rigorous hiring process, which they said consisted of recommendations from Ivy League professors followed by brief interviews. Others were skeptical of the Huffington Post’s Jefferson Young Journalist Program, which taps young reporters before they’ve graduated from college to “nurture new journalistic talent by pairing them with seasoned editors,” according to an AOL press release.

As the organization’s editorial mission shifts from aggregation to journalism, some new hires on the desk’s half-dozen reporters appear to be struggling. Instead of simply filing “rewrites,” in company parlance, Huffington Post reporters now select their own story ideas and report them out, generally filing them directly to the copy department.

“The lack of management–and the lack of true editors–is stunning,” a person familiar with the situation told Off the Record. “The younger writers are getting little or no attention from experienced editors, and you can see the results in the copy. The reporters are absolutely set up to fail.”

Several of the Huffington Post’s high-profile poaches, Mr. Goodman included, are seasoned writers who are not necessarily experienced managers. Since the merger Mr. Goodman, formerly a national business correspondent, has taken on broader responsibilities, including shaping the AOL blogs like Daily Finance, Wallet Pop, AOL Autos, Real Estate and Jobs, at a reported salary of $300,000.

“There is a certain amount of teaching in my job,” Mr. Goodman said. “With people who are eager to learn, we’ve been able to take their eagerness and turn it into craft.” To do so he edits long-form stories and series, like the municipal debt series by William Alden, also a young hire, and looks at smaller daily stories as needed.

One former HuffPo employee described Mr. Goodman as a “screamer.” Another said he was merely “strong headed”–a virtue for a business reporter, but potentially an impediment to successfully editing and managing a young and inexperienced news staff.

“In terms of the depth of our reporting and amount of news we’re breaking, I want us to keep aiming higher and expanding our sites,” Mr. Goodman said. One newsroom source said the Huffington Post is gunning for a Pulitzer next year.

The pressures of the job appear to have erupted publicly for one young business reporter. At 2:30 last Monday morning, she posted a rambling 2,500-word essay in a series of Twitter blasts. (Like most reporters, she appears to use her account professionally and personally.) It read, in part: “The NYT and Huffington Post serve God, or the truth as they can best find it through other people…. God is listening to and loving others. The devil is the profit motive unbridled…. That’s why Adolph Ochs prayed, tried his best to be honest to others at all times, to earn trust…. No one can be God. Not journalists, publishers, CEOs, or politicians. But we can try to be like Jesus and sacrifice ourselves for others.”

“Have you been hacked?” a HuffPo political correspondent asked her on Twitter.

When the reporter skipped work for the next two days without explanation, some staffers grew concerned. According to two people, she was admitted to a hospital on Wednesday. She did not return Off the Record’s email, and her byline has not appeared on the site in over a week.

“We are certainly hopeful that she will quickly recover and return to the newsroom,” Mr. Goodman said.

Update: Mr. Goodman reached out to dispute several of the above assertions. 

Our source’s claim that “the writers are getting little or no attention from experienced editors” is, he said, “patently unfair and a real disservice to our hardworking reporters, who are producing high-quality work. He added, “I’m not surprised that you couldn’t find someone willing to attach their name to that statement. There was a period right after the merger when my attention was certainly taken up with the administrative tasks of integrating many new sites. However, we have added a dedicated team of news editors and an associate business editor to compliment the business editor.”

In response to the allegation that he’s “a screamer,” Mr. Goodman told us, “I take this job very seriously, and I make no bones about the fact that I am demanding and also enormously grateful for the contributions from our growing staff. I also take a lot of pride in having what I think are excellent relationships with all the people on my team.”

As to the hiring process, Mr. Goodman said, “Everyone sitting at my desk on HuffPo Business is someone I looked at very carefully. I’ve gotten exactly zero recommendations from Ivy League professors.”

He also pointed out that the site we referred to as AOL Auto is in fact called AOL Autos. The text has been changed to reflect that distinction.

 

kstoeffel@observer.com

Does Turnover Signal Tumult at The Huffington Post Business Desk? [Update]