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Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Difficult Post

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I cut-and-pasted and modified some beer descriptions in an unpublished story on 25 favorite beers.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, 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.


  1. Your description of the Oregonian is spot on. Even before they cut back on content and distribution the website was a nightmare, an ugly template used by all the publisher's online "newspapers." I had been a subscriber for decades until I realized I could read the entire paper in 30 minutes and that most of the news was right off a wire service with no local or regional context--because they had no journalists left.

    I open my M-F copy of the Daily Astorian with delight. It's not a big paper but the content focuses on the details of life on the North Coast, written by people who live here and have a thorough background to provide context. And they have an easily read e-paper.

    John Foyston was just another throw-away writer the paper had no investment in. Maybe if he'd written more nasty commentary like Joe Rose creating click-bait he'd still be employed by them.

  2. The O is a disgrace. End of story.

  3. Jeff, thank you for these words. It means everything to me to have the your support, and that of my many friends and readers -- I even got emails from Kurt and Rob Widmer yesterday, bless 'em. It does feel as if I was singled out, despite knowing full well the enormity of the crime. I'll continue to write about Oregon beer in different venues, and will continue to firmly believe that you and Beervana are the best writer and blog out there. And I'll react to that poisonous, vengeful editor's note in the way my colleagues and I used to joke about when we were arts reporters back when the O had such people. After a particularly damning review, so the legend goes, the playwright wrote to the reviewer, "I'm sitting in the smallest room in the house with your recent review before me. Soon it will be behind me..."

  4. I'm sure you're hearing from a lot of people, John. We've been reading you for 20 years, and we are quite able to render our own verdict of your career. In a way, the silver lining here may be putting the Oregonian in the rear-view mirror. I really do hope you find/create another venue to keep doing what you've been doing.

  5. Thanks for the reporting and analysis Jeff.

  6. John Foyston is the only reason over the last few years that I've ever visited the O's online site. Looking forward to continue reading his articles elsewhere.

  7. Always the go to writer for what's going on in Beervana. Mr. Foyston's column was the only reason I followed the Oregonian on line. Something that I will no longer need to do. I will be looking forward to reading your next article in whatever format it may appear. Thank you for the years of excellent beer coverage.

  8. Always the go to writer for what's going on in Beervana. Mr. Foyston's column was the only reason I followed the Oregonian on line. Something that I will no longer need to do. I will be looking forward to reading your next article in whatever format it may appear. Thank you for the years of excellent beer coverage.

  9. I've lived here 16 years and have never had a O subscription. Having said that, my in-laws down the street do, and most Fridays I'd find myself there at some point discussing with my father-in-law our beer-drinking weekend plans based on The Beer Here in A&E. A 28 year career is no mean feat and John has been endeared to the community for so long. The couple of times in my live I've unexpectedly found myself without employment, the next thing to come along was always better.

  10. I don't know John, and I don't read the Oregonian because it's worthless as a news source, but blaming the Oregonian for John's misdeeds smacks of something out of Excuse Making 101. "Oh, we all know how horrible The Oregonian is, that's what this happened!" is blame-shifting. Is shifting the deadline a horrible thing to do? Of course it is, but it doesn't warrant plagiarism.

  11. Wow. When I was back in Portland for the first time in a decade in June, I was stunned to see what had become of the Oregonian. As I'd only gotten it at breakfast at the Crystal Hotel, I wondered at first if it wasn't some special free edition for hotels or something.

    I brought a copy back home here for Mrs to read, and then I gave it to a mate at the countryside Biergarten who's quite keen on reading things in English. I explained that it was the daily paper for a city larger than nearby Nuremberg. And how it's shrunk and turned Scheisse.

  12. John - I've enjoyed your writing as well for 20 years ...whenever I came down for OBF, I'd seek out your stories & then get really excited in anticipation of the fest. Thanks so much for your outstanding writing, for exposing us to so much fantastic stuff about the Oregon beer scene. I too hope you land at another spot soon. btw we met at the Lucky Lab hop harvest a few years ago...that was a high point of my trip! Cheers & all the best! -Phil Brandt

  13. Well done, Jeff. The context of this sad tale is an ocean of original writing, both on beer and on musical events, being ignored for a minor offense from a harried and horribly underpaid writer by a soulless withering entity divesting itself of competent original content. This is the same publication that denied a voice to its longtime beer evangelist Fred Eckhardt, considered by many to be the Dean of American Beer Writers. What a legacy for the fading Oregonian...

  14. Thanks for story! This corporate behavior tends to create an ugly cycle of "feed me", and sad to see the effects on committed people. I wish the best to John, and thank him for his contributions to the craft industry. I hope that this experience opens new opportunities for him. I am certain it will. Great balanced read. Thanks