Buzzfeed fired editor Benny Johnson on Friday after several instances of plagiarism had been exposed in his past work.
In an email circulated to staff late Friday, Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith explained the decision to cut ties with Johnson, the site’s viral politics editor whose plagiarism was first revealed this week by a pair of pseudonymous Twitter users.
Smith said in the email that he, along with Buzzfeed deputy editor-in-chief Shani Hilton and Buzzfeed political editor Katherine Miller, pored over “about 500 posts” of Johnson.
“In them, we found 40 instances of sentences or phrases copied, word for word, from other sites, many of them inappropriate sources in the first place,” Smith said in the email, which was provided to TPM by Buzzfeed spokesperson Ashley McCollum and has been posted below. “This pattern is not a minor slip. This is a breach of faith with our readers; a violation of a basic rule of writing; and the reflection of an unserious attitude to our work that is wildly out of line with both our standards and our ambition.”
Johnson’s plagiarism was highlighted by the Twitter users @blippoblappo and @crushingbort. In a blog post on Thursday, the pair noted three instances of Johnson lifting text from other sources without attribution.
Buzzfeed quickly altered the plagiarized language in those articles, and Smith initially appeared rather unfazed by the allegations.
While he thanked @blippoblappo and @crushingbort for “pointing out these serious failures to properly attribute two quotations and to credit a source in a third post,” Smith nevertheless called Johnson “one of the web’s deeply original writers.”
Smith responded with far more seriousness on Friday, when @blippoblappo and @crushingbort came back with another blog post detailing six more cases of apparent plagiarism in Johnson’s work.
“There are serious instances of plagiarism in this post,” Smith told TPM in an email on Friday. “We’re reviewing Benny’s work.”
After circulating the email to staff, Smith published a mea culpa to Buzzfeed readers on Friday night. In the post, Smith called Johnson “a friend, colleague and, at his best a creative force,” but said the organization was left with no choice.
Johnson lifted work from multiple sources, including Yahoo! Answers, Wikipedia and the New York Times. And with two damning exposés in as many days, there was a sense that the allegations would only continue to mount.
The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported Friday that Johnson appeared to copy a Wikipedia article earlier this year while on his much-hyped assignment at Fort Hood, the Texas military post that endured its second mass shooting in five years in April.
Smith’s email to Buzzfeed staff:
From: Ben Smith
Date: July 25, 2014 at 8:50:29 PM PDT
Subject: What we’re doing about plagiarism at BuzzFeed
After a review of all of his work at BuzzFeed, we’ve decided to let Benny Johnson go.
This isn’t a decision we took lightly. Shani, Katherine, and I spent today reviewing about 500 posts. In them, we found 40 instances of sentences or phrases copied, word for word, from other sites, many of them inappropriate sources in the first place. This pattern is not a minor slip. This is a breach of faith with our readers; a violation of a basic rule of writing; and the reflection of an unserious attitude to our work that is wildly out of line with both our standards and our ambition.
The most important of these principles is that we owe our readers absolute honesty. When you write, the implication is that the words are yours; if they aren’t, you’ve tricked the reader. We are in the process of correcting and noting the plagiarism.
Today’s review has also been a reminder of how much we’ve grown. BuzzFeed started seven years ago as a laboratory for content. Our writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism. But that started changing a long time ago.
Today, we are one of the largest news and entertainment sites on the web. On the journalistic side, we have scores of aggressive reporters around the United States and the world, holding the people we cover to high standards. We must — and we will — hold ourselves to the same high standards. BuzzTeam, too, has, over the last two years, raised its game dramatically, focusing on creative and ambitious work, and increasingly careful attribution.
We, Benny’s editors, also owe our writers more: We should have caught what are now obvious differences in tone and style, and caught this very early on. We will be more vigilant in the future. We will also change our onboarding procedures to make sure that the high standards of training that come with our fellowship program extend to everyone who arrives at BuzzFeed — and particularly to those without a background in traditional journalism.
Tonight’s decision is not a knee-jerk response to outside criticism, though we are genuinely grateful to the people who helped point out instances of plagiarism. Nor is it meant as a personal condemnation: Benny at his best is a creative force, and we wish him the best. Finally, it is not a warning that you’ll be fired for a small mistake or an isolated error. We will always have a more forgiving attitude toward bold failures, innocent errors, and misfired jokes than more skittish old media organizations.
We have more responsibility now than ever now to keep raising our standards and our ambitions, and to continue getting better.
Ben, Shani, Katherine, and John
Update: Johnson apologized Saturday on Twitter.
To the writers who were not properly attributed and anyone who ever read my byline, I am sincerely sorry. http://t.co/WpkZIi4g9k
— Benny (@bennyjohnson) July 26, 2014