Journalists rally around intern who leveraged wildfire tragedy to drive subscriptions

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Journalists at one of the largest newspaper operations in California are coming to the defense of a summer intern who was criticized for leveraging an ongoing wildfire to push for subscription purchases.

Alison Berg, a journalism intern with the Bay Area News Group, used the #CarrFire hashtag Monday evening to promote subscriptions for the East Bay Times newspaper out of Oakland.

“Feeling overwhelmed in trying to keep up with the #CarrFire and other fire coverage? Look no further! Subscribe to the Bay Area News Group for just 12 cents a day for 12 months!” she tweeted.

Image: Screen capture via Twitter / The Desk

The tweet drew criticism from at least one resident in Redding, where the 100,000-acre Carr Fire has cost the lives of at least six people and destroyed more than 1,200 homes.

“Our local news outlets here in Redding are already doing an excellent job covering the #CarrFire,” a Twitter user who goes by the moniker Guy in a Costume wrote. “Using the Carr Fire hashtag in an advertisement for a subscription service is pretty messed up.”

Berg became agitated after this reporter also noted that the intern was leveraging the Carr Fire tragedy to push subscriptions to a newspaper based more than 250 miles away from the scene of the fires. She eventually deleted her tweet, but not before sending a barrage of complaints that she was being unfairly targeted for what she acknowledged was a lapse in judgment.

“Maybe I was in the wrong, yes, but did it warrant that response?” she wrote in a Twitter message. “Are we not supposed to support and help each other rather than tear each other down for likes and clicks and social media views?” She later wrote that she felt the criticism against her was a case of “bullying.”

Berg is far from the picture of a lowly, error-prone college intern that she attempts to paint for herself. As a student reporter for the Utah Statesman, she was nominated in 2017 for the prestigious Investigative Reporters & Editors award for a story on how school officials were misappropriating money obtained through tuition fees. Currently, she is part of a workshop at U.C. Berkeley that is exploring corruption claims made against local law enforcement agencies.

But her campaign as the slighted intern who was overly-criticized for leveraging a tragedy to promote a for-profit product has worked, with reporters and editors from throughout the Bay Area News Group coming to her defense on Twitter.

In an e-mail exchange with The Desk Tuesday morning, Bay Area News Group Executive Editor Neil Chase acknowledged that Berg was wrong to use the Carr Fire to push subscriptions, but argued the he felt criticism against her came from people who believed she didn’t handle the situation as well as they would have liked.

“We encourage staffers to promote subscriptions because we, and every other legacy newspaper company, will disappear if readers aren’t willing to pay for the journalism we publish online,” Chase wrote. “Of course that wasn’t the right time to do it. She knows that.”

It’s very likely she did know that — just three hours before publishing the controversial tweet, Berg wrote that she tries “to refrain from tweeting anything that could be deemed unprofessional.”

The Bay Area News Group may not consider her controversial tweet to be unprofessional behavior because editors and reporters within the company are encouraged to push social media viewers toward paid subscriptions, according to an employee who spoke with The Desk by e-mail.

“Editorial staff…have been asked to share on social media these subscription offers,” business reporter Ethan Baron wrote. “It’s desperation, of course, and an ugly look. And the intern was foolish enough to tie it to the Carr Fire, which as you point out is an especially ugly look.”

Baron wrote that Berg was merely “an intern trying to do what the company wants her to do.” (When The Desk asked Berg if she was directed to promote subscriptions on her social media account, Berg replied “no.”)

“I would suspect it didn’t even occur to her that she was sending a message of callous opportunism,” Baron wrote. “I’m all for accountability, but she’s not the person to be pointing fingers at in this situation.”

Based on the reaction of several company staffers, the appropriate person to point the finger at appears to be the critics who point out a lapse in judgement — not the person who commits the mistake. When things are going well, Berg wants you to think of her as a legitimate journalist; when she makes mistakes, she will get defensive and ask that you please remember she’s merely an intern with a lot of lessons to learn.

In this situation, the lesson learned here is that if an intern callously tries to leverage an unfolding tragedy for the gain of the company, the company will back her up. While that may fly at the Bay Area News Group, it won’t in other places.