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Unsolicited advice to young writers: The internet remembers

It’s hard not to read a story about a young, aspiring journalist like Elizabeth Flock and not feel at least a little sorry for her. Flock, who resigned from the Washington Post last week after receiving two strong editor’s notes for first getting a story wrong and then reusing another publication’s writing without proper attribution, told its ombudsman Patrick Pexton that the pressures of the gig were too much for her.

She said that, as occasionally the only writer for the section of the website for which she worked, she was expected to deliver an average of 5-6 posts per day (not uncommon in the digital world) and 1-2 million page views a month (far less common for that output), and that the errors highlighted by the editor’s notes — including the one that Pexton called, “Plagiarism perhaps” — were likely to happen again, given her expected output. Other writers who left the position agreed that they were overworked, under-supervised, poorly edited and given no sense of the path ahead of them at the Post.

In the digital age, Flock’s mistakes (and resignation) are likely to follow her around for the rest of her career. In that, she’s not alone: there’s Amy Lee, fired from the Huffington Post for “over-aggregation”; former Wonkette scribe Jack Steuf, whose offensive ode to Trig Palin triggered a massive backlash that new owner Rebecca Schoenkopf admitted was problematic for the site; internet-scribe-turned-”Girls”-writer Lesley Arfin whose current and past flirtations with what Gawker’s Max Read termed “ironic racism” aren’t exactly creating a positive buzz for the HBO series; and new Village Voice blogger James King who responded to critiques of his own “ironic racism” from his paper’s sole African-American staff writer with a vitriolic post all-but accusing Thrasher of being a real racist. It’s enough to make an editor roll her eyes, mutter “Kids today,” and inundate her own staff with memos about appropriate attribution standards and house style for curse words in headlines.

The fact of the matter is that anything you post on the Internet is retrievable — just ask former Rep. Anthony Weiner, or new Romney spokesman Richard Grenell… or read the open letter that I penned to my alma mater’s then-president, John Silber, back in 2002 (fair warning: it’s pretty bad). The Internet is a fickle bitch, and you can spend weeks working on something that you think is totally important and interesting and an hour writing a funny listicle and way more people will read the latter than the former.

And it’s easy to chase the pageviews — hardly anyone becomes a writer not to be read — and it’s easy to acquiesce to the demands of an editor who has less-than-your-best interests at heart as a writer when looking at his or her stats or the deadline ahead. But at the end of the day, it’s your byline on a piece, it’s your career and it’s your future in this business at stake, and there’s no job anywhere, least of all in journalism, that’s a career-long meal ticket in 2012.

Ask yourself: Is that piece that you’re working on what you want people to know you for having written? Is it something that could reasonably cause you problems down the line given the type of career you want to have — and, if it is, is it something the rest of your portfolio can overcome? Or does it make you look like a racist, a jerk, an ignoramus, an over-aggregator, a plagiarist, or simply the kind of person an editor wouldn’t really want to deal with? And if the answer to any of those questions is yes, take a step back, and deep breath and remember that everyone blows a deadline or misses a goalpost at some point, and it’s not the end of the world.

(Or, you know, stop being a racist, an ignoramus and/or a jerk. That might help most of all.)

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UPDATE: The Post’s executive director of digital news, Katharine Zaleski, told Poynter’s Craig Silverman that Flock was 28 when the Post hired her two and a half years ago. Flock emailed Raw Story to say that she is, in fact, 26.

Written by | Megan Carpentier

Megan Carpentier is the executive editor of Raw Story. She previously served as an associate editor at Talking Points Memo; the editor of news and politics at Air America; an editor at Jezebel.com; and an associate editor at Wonkette. Her published works include pieces for the Washington Post, the Washington Independent, Ms Magazine, RH Reality Check, the Women's Media Center, On the Issues, the New York Press, Bitch and Women's eNews.

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