Is Still a Mess

The dust has barely settled on the Sichuan Garden fiasco as the site finds itself apologizing to the Speaker of the House.

Once again, has suffered a nationally embarrassing self-inflicted wound. And again, the blame is being thrust upon one person while management insists nothing is fundamentally wrong.

A month ago, it was deputy editor Hilary Sargent, suspended and demoted for her actions relating to the overzealous pursuit of Chinese food complainant Ben Edelman. This time, it’s associate editor Victor Paul Alvarez, fired Thursday morning for posting an inappropriate story about an assassination threat against US House Speaker John Boehner.

That story, posted Tuesday evening, became a national piñata by Wednesday morning. Thursday’s Boston Herald ran a gleeful cover package of three pieces on the episode, and its potential damage to’s sister company under the Boston Globe Media Partners umbrella, the Boston Globe.

In a phone interview Wednesday evening, general manager Corey Gottlieb emphasized that the proper editorial processes are in place; Alvarez simply failed to follow them. Alvarez wrote the piece and posted it, without showing it to any other editor. “So there weren’t multiple eyes on it,” Gottlieb says. “One of our associate editors made a mistake.”

Gottlieb would not discuss disciplinary measures, citing corporate personnel policy. But Alvarez confirmed for me that he was fired Thursday morning. “I made a terrible mistake,” Alvarez wrote to me. “A clear error in judgment. I apologized to my superiors. They decided my actions were inexcusable.”

Nevertheless, the problem clearly does not end with Alvarez, any more than it ended with Sargent. And the process clearly isn’t fine.

Whether or not any editors saw the story before it was posted, it remained on the site for more than 12 hours, splashed under “Top News” with the headline “Would Anyone Have Noticed If Bartender Succeeded In Poisoning John Boehner?” Either no editors or managers looked at the site that whole time, or those who did saw nothing wrong. Either way, that’s what a far from successful process looks like.

Even more telling was the initial action, which came a little before 10 o’clock Wednesday morning after a few hours of online pummeling. The headline was changed and a reference to Boehner’s “pickled liver” removed; an Editor’s note was added, noting without apology that “A previous version of this article made an unsubstantiated reference to the health of Speaker Boehner.”

The rest of the piece remained in place, including the “Would anyone have noticed?” line, prominently leading the second paragraph. In other words, once the top people did know about it, they still didn’t deal with it properly. At all.

Only later, a little before 1 p.m., did the site–without further explanation–remove that line and much of the rest of the copy. That was after the Herald, Politico, and others posted about it.

Gottlieb denies that this two-phased fix took place. “The only thing that was incremental was the addition of my note,” he says, referring to an apology he placed atop the story at around 3:00. “I got in at around 8:30 or 9:00, and the story was brought to my attention, and we immediately started taking steps to address it.”

The truth is, as it was a month ago, the editorial operation is a high-wire disaster waiting to happen until they hire a real editor.

The current editorial structure is far too slim and inexperienced for anyone inside or outside the organization to believe otherwise. As Gottlieb finally confirmed Wednesday night, Eleanor Cleverly is interim deputy editor, with four associate editors under her–three handling everything aside from sports, which operates somewhat independently under Gary Dzen.

Cleverly has been temporarily pressed into service as editor from her usual job as director of content for the digital marketplace group, which is, essentially, a new-world classifieds editor. “She doesn’t have a whole lot of traditional newsroom experience,” Gottlieb concedes.

In theory, Cleverly is the only “top editor” for the time being and should, under the process in place, review everything that gets posted. (Gottlieb, who also has little journalism experience, says that he does not see stories before they are posted.) Even if that were realistic, it’s a ridiculous burden to place on someone with so little editing experience. In practice, Gottlieb says, with 30 to 40 people cranking out copy all day long, associate editors sometimes serve as each other’s top editors.

One of those three associate editors was Alvarez, whose judgment now seems badly flawed in retrospect. The other two, Sara Morrison and Roberto Scalese, have some journalism experience; Scalese, however, co-bylined the item falsely accusing Edelman of sending racist emails.

“Am I concerned that there’s not a whole lot of experience in our newsroom? Yes,” Gottlieb says. “And that’s why we’re making hiring an editor in chief a priority.”

Of course, hiring an editor is no guarantee that the editor will stay. The last editor Gottlieb hired, Matt Gross, backed out in November after less than two months on the job. But making do with whoever’s in the building and running a hugely trafficked news site as if you’re Judy and Mickey putting on a show, is certainly not the only option. The site could have–and still can–temporarily bring on one or more experienced editors on a contract basis in the interim.

That would be short money to reduce the risk of brand damage from these kinds of screw-ups, or potentially much worse. And, although Gottlieb says that Globe editor Brian McGrory no longer has any responsibility over – either in practice or on the corporate organizational chart–the reputation of the mother paper is not immune.

The site could also be doing a lot more to clarify, both internally and externally, what kind of site it is supposed to be, and how readers are supposed to differentiate different types of articles. Gottlieb says that the consistency and vision will come with a new editor in chief, and seems optimistic that one will be hired in the near future.

And, in truth, the site still does some good work–including a nicely done little piece from Sargent this week, on an erotic novel based on characters in the Moakley Federal Courthouse.

But, as Gottlieb well knows, it takes an awful lot of good work to make up for even just one big failure. And, unless they do more than firing Alvarez, it’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of those.