Press Clips: The New York Observer's New Disclosure Problems

Only one item today: Why didn't the New York Observer's new media writer disclose any potential conflicts of interest with his first cover story for the paper, on Slate? Feels like he should've. Why? Press Clips, Day 19, Late Disclosure edition, right here. UPDATED.

Observer Slate'd For Disclosure That Never Arrived: Nick Summers, the Observer's new media writer, had his first big feature arrive this week. Everyone see it? Here: Jacob Weisberg Was a Web Pioneer. But He Doesn't Much Care for What Works on the Web Now. Can Slate Recover? It's a pretty bold thesis about how Slate -- an early web-only publication -- has lost its way at the hands of leader Jacob Weisberg. Summers cites traffic data and compares the lackluster success of Slate to both Gawker and the Huffington Post.

When it arrived, Weisberg fired back with a memo. He noted that he didn't know how Summers got their internal numbers, which is funny, because how can someone not know a leak when they see one? Regardless, Weisberg's asserted that the Observer's overall narrative is disingenuous. Summers, after annotating Weisberg's memo with his own reporter's notes, replied:

Mr. Weisberg views my thesis as "that Slate's doing badly and that the Internet is passing us by." I disagree somewhat. I wrote that Slate produces fantastic editorial content, and that there is concern among staffers, amply documented, that Slate is falling behind.

That post was entitled "Slate's Traffic Is Gangbusters, Except When It's Not."

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To be fair, Slate was really caught with their pants down with Weisburg saying Slate's having a great year and with Slate editor David Plotz saying that Slate isn't profitable. It's just bad press strategy. But one fact is subjective, the other objective, neither are proven to be directly correlated though. And that said, since when's the New York Observer a leading authority on what the profitablity of an enterprise does and does not mean? Even more, the financial conditions of two web giants (Gawker and Huffington Post, both of whom do high volumes of traffic-baiting celebrity news, one of which profits off of free writing) are used as a basis for comparison, yet Salon -- which is commonly confused with Slate, and even given a Coke/Pepsi comparison by Summers, and could be considered by anyone with a functioning brain their explicit competition -- isn't doing great financially. Even two other Observer writers said so.

Both of Summers' pieces on the matter are so unmoving in their narratives, it's almost as if he has a dog in the fight. To wit, it might have been worth it for Summers to make a few disclosures in the piece:

1. Nick Summers' last byline for Newsweek was less than a month ago. It was only in August that Newsweek was purchased from the Washington Post company, which also owns Slate. Summers had been writing for Newsweek since 2005. Which means Nick Summers worked for The Washington Post Company -- owners of Slate -- for five years previous to joining the Observer. That wasn't worth disclosing?

2. This goes without mentioning: Nick Summers founded a blog called IvyGate way back when with a guy named Chris Beam. Who, of course, is a politics writer for Slate. We're told by a source the two are still good friends, but at the very least, they were demonstrably cohorts, so much to the point that they were even profiled together for a Columbia Alumni magazine in 2008. Maybe it wasn't worth disclosing because if Weisberg wanted to start his investigation into who leaked internal numbers, he might start with Beam's email.

Many of the critiques are fair. No matter how good your writing is, there's still some untapped potential in how one capitalizes on it. Yet it's also a perpetually abused editorial cry: We're good, so why aren't people coming to us? Must be management's fault. Sometimes it's true. Sometimes it isn't. But who in their right mind would compare the traffic of Slate to the Huffington Post and Gawker even if they've been around for 15 years? Do Slate staffers want management to start soliciting the oversaturate effect of free, Google-hoggy mediocre writing a la Huffington Post and being given do-or-die traffic incentives to write about Lady Gaga's penis, like Gawker?

We wouldn't know. Because despite Summers' assertion that "that there is concern among staffers, amply documented, that Slate is falling behind," only two people who currently work for Slate were quoted (editors Weisberg and Plotz). There weren't even any sans-attribution quotes! Jesus! I mean, Summers also quoted James Ledbetter, who doesn't work for Slate after his blog The Big Money was shut down, along with big names like Andrew Sullivan, Michael Lewis, and Nick Denton (?!), none of whom are currently staffers at Slate, but don't let that get in the way of you believing his strongly held, out-of-right-field thesis either.

What we do know is this: Nick Summers' media reporting experience at the Observer is not going well so far, at least (given the initial brouhaha over the staffing of the newsroom seat, the missing disclosures, and the fact the he's already defended his reporting in an annotated blog post, eegh) from where we sit right now. And no, I'm not calling anyone for quote. Summers seems fine defending himself on the Observer's site, so if he or anyone at the Observer has the stock response for this at hand -- "we didn't think it was pertinent" -- they can spend their own time on it.

That said, it does make for decent web strategy.

[While we're on the matter, Full Disclosure: I interviewed for Mr. Summers' position at the New York Observer, but did not receive an offer for it. Other disclosures here.]

UPDATE, 7:33 PM: Summers emails in. "I won't say anything further about my sourcing, but...Chris Beam is one of my best friends. For that reason, I did not rely on him in any way whatsoever for this piece -- on the record, off the record, or any other basis."

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As always, thank you for your continued support of Press Clips! Sorry for the late edition, we'll see you all tomorrow.

[fkamer@villagevoice.com]


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