Exclusive: AOL Fires Moviefone Editor Who Offered Fired Freelancers the Chance to Work for, Um, Free
Yesterday, AOL’s Huffington Post Media Group got into hot water after the top editor at its Moviefone unit sent a memo to freelancers it was in the midst of firing, offering them an opportunity to “contribute as part of our non-paid blogger system.”
Today, that exec–Moviefone Editor-in-Chief Patricia Chui–was fired by the company, which is in the midst of drastically rejiggering its stable of writers.
Many of those were freelance bloggers under contract to AOL, who are now getting the boot in favor of reallocating staff back to largely paid journalists.
Thus came the controversial email from Chui, which read, in part:
“We will, indeed, be moving away from a freelancer model and toward one relying on full-time staffers. Sometime soon-–this week, I believe–-many of you will be receiving an email informing you that your services as a freelancer will no longer be required. You will be invited to contribute as part of our non-paid blogger system; and though I know that for many of you this will not be an option financially, I strongly encourage you to consider it if you/d like to keep writing for us, because we value all of your voices and input.”
Oh dear. Really, oh dear, especially since the Huffington Post has had its own share of controversies over not paying some bloggers (although it never quite ever offered up a doozie that this letter was).
Sources said Chui was terminated by John Montorio, the HuffPo Media Group’s culture, entertainment and lifestyle editor. Arianna Huffiington is head of all content at AOL, which recently paid $315 million to buy the Huffington Post.
Since she took over, Huffington has tried to stress a return to journalism over more algorithmic content creation. The unloading of its freelance writers was part of that effort.
Thus, Chui’s missteps did not help matters.
But it was not the first time recently that she had made an ill-advised editorial judgment.
Sources said the firing is also due to an incident several weeks ago, in which Chui appeared to defend a marketing employee who sent an email to TechCrunch writer Alexia Tsotsis, asking her to soften a review of “Source Code” due to studio relationship considerations.
AOL bought TechCrunch, a well-known tech news site, last fall. At the time, its CEO Tim Armstrong promised editorial independence and no meddling over advertising concerns.
Instead of taking this minion to task, on Moviefone’s own blog Chui said, in part:
“The reality of our situation is that, as a movies site, we work with movie studios every day, and it is in our best interests to stay on good terms with them. Staying on good terms with studios means that we will relay information if asked. It does not mean that we would ever force a writer or an editor to edit their work for the sake of a studio–or anyone else.”
Even with the last line, it is not exactly a profile in courage, because it was clear violation of the traditional separation of church and state in force at most media organizations.
Typically, editors are supposed to come down on any such communication. That has certainly been my experience in journalism over the years at the Washington Post and Dow Jones–including during its News Corp. ownership. In fact, I have often been shielded from such requests to pass such complaints onto me and only found out much later of advertiser discomfort about my reporting.
At the time, TechCrunch quite clearly called for Chui’s firing and that happened today.
Here is Chui’s full memo to freelancers, as well as the one about TechCrunch, neither of which were apparently cleared with higher-ups:
From: Chui, Patricia
Sent: Tuesday, April 05, 2011 11:26 AM
Subject: Moviefone/Cinematical–Status of Writers
Dear Moviefone/Cinematical Writers,
I know there’s been a lot of uncertainty regarding the future of freelancers and your status as a writer for the site. I personally apologize for the lack of communication, but I’ll tell you what I can.
We will, indeed, be moving away from a freelancer model and toward one relying on full-time staffers. Sometime soon–this week, I believe–many of you will be receiving an email informing you that your services as a freelancer will no longer be required. You will be invited to contribute as part of our non-paid blogger system; and though I know that for many of you this will not be an option financially, I strongly encourage you to consider it if you’d like to keep writing for us, because we value all of your voices and input.
Some of you have indicated interest in applying for full-time writer and editor positions, and the status of those positions are also part of discussions that are ongoing right now. I cannot at this point, however, tell you how many positions there are, or what the exact nature of those positions will be.
Despite the move toward a full-time staff vs. freelancer model, I’m told that there will be room for “exceptions”–for example, in the cases of writers who specialize in certain subjects. Again, what these exceptions are for Moviefone, and what the budget for them would be, is still being discussed.
As for Cinematical, the resignation of Erik Davis is certainly a loss. But I am continuing to have conversations with the editorial leadership here, and I am hopeful that we will still be able to maintain the Cinematical brand and voice going forward. Again, I will share with you any pertinent information as I have it.
In the meantime, those of you who already have assignments, please do continue to work on them unless you hear otherwise. If you’re uncertain of the status of your assignment, check with me. It may take me a while to get back to you, so please be patient–but I will respond.
I am sorry that I don’t have more specific details to give you, but I promise that I’ll keep you as well-informed as I possibly can. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or concerns.
By now you may have read the recent post in TechCrunch regarding that site’s SXSW coverage of the film “Source Code.” A representative from Moviefone, who set up the interview with Summit Entertainment, received some feedback from the studio and passed it along to TechCrunch (our sister site here at AOL). That email has now caused something of a Internet kerfuffle.
Here is the email–reprinted in the post–that was sent to the TechCrunch writer.
Hope you’re having a good time at SxSW and that it’s not been too crazy busy for you!
First wanted to thank you for covering Source Code/attending the party, etc. But also wanted to raise a concern that Summit had about the piece that ran. They felt it was a little snarky and wondered if any of the snark can be toned down? I wasn’t able to view the video interviews but I think their issue is just with some of the text. Let me know if you’re able to take another look at it and make any edits. I know of course that TechCrunch has its own voice and editorial standards, so if you have good reasons not to change anything that’s fine, I just need to get back to Summit with some sort of information. Let me know.
TechCrunch’s issue with Moviefone is that by sending this email, we, in their words, “asked us to change our post. It’s not just sad, it’s wrong.”
I wanted to take this opportunity to clarify a few things.
1) The person who wrote that email was not acting in an editorial capacity. That person’s job is to act as an intermediary between the studios and editorial–not to dictate content, nor to weigh in on the content of Moviefone or any other AOL site. In fact, the presence of a person with that role is just one means we have of ensuring editorial integrity on Moviefone.
2) This is important: We never told TechCrunch to change the post in any way. A publicist at Summit reached out asking if we could convey the studio’s feedback to TechCrunch. We did so. If the editors had responded that they declined to edit the post–which, naturally, is entirely their call–we simply would have conveyed that information back to Summit.
The reality of our situation is that, as a movies site, we work with movie studios every day, and it is in our best interests to stay on good terms with them. Staying on good terms with studios means that we will relay information if asked. It does not mean that we would ever force a writer or an editor to edit their work for the sake of a studio–or anyone else.
We take editorial integrity seriously at Moviefone, and it’s painful to be depicted as a pawn of the studios when that is emphatically not the case. You may think it unseemly for a studio to request changes in an article; that’s certainly your right. But the accusation of pandering on our part or crossing an editorial line is, to my mind, completely unfair, and I would hope that a reasonable reader would be able to recognize the situation for what it is–overblown and unwarranted.