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About.com Axes 8 of Its Best Friends

An open letter to Neil Vogel, CEO and Rob Parisi, General Manager of About.com’s Health and Parenting Channel

 

(All other readers: find the facts of this case here.)

July 2, 2014

Gentlemen,

You’ve just terminated 8 of your best friends.

When I first learned that you had terminated my contract, after almost seven years of producing excellent content that has helped many people, I was stunned (of course.) At first I thought it must have been a financial decision, as if somehow my site had not been producing enough revenue. However, with close to a half-million pageviews a month, and consistently ranking in the top 25% of pageview producing sites, that hardly seemed likely…

As the shock began to wear off, and after hearing from other experts including some who had been similarly discarded, I realized that NO – I wasn’t terminated because of a smart, financial, business decision. Not at all.

I was terminated because of a vendetta – because I spoke the truth you didn’t want to hear.

Your vendetta was against a handful of vocal experts like me who didn’t agree with some of your decisions.  Speaking for myself, after 914 pieces of my content were simply deleted, and as tempting as it was, I didn’t air any dirty laundry. No, I posted my criticism so it could be read – internally – by only my health channel colleagues.  My point was that prior to the past few months, we experts were valued as important, knowledgeable people, smart writers who gave About.com an edge. But now, not only has About.com ditched the concept of experts-as-smart-people, but decisions are being made that hobble writers at their knees (have you ever seen the Kathy Bates character in Misery?)

What you fail to realize is that it’s only your best friends, only the people who care the most, only the people who are so invested in mutual success, who speak up.

Healthy organizations, those with true leadership at the top, know how important it is to embrace their critics. Every one you hear from represents a hundred more who haven’t bothered or were afraid. Further, your critics are often the very people who have the most influence on their peers to create buy-in for difficult transitions, like the one About.com is undergoing now.

But clearly I overestimated you About.com “leaders.” Because instead, you summarily dismissed those who cared the most.

The sad irony, of course, is that I was among the loudest and most visible cheerleaders for many of the changes being made. I’m someone who often embraces change and who, when presented with challenges, works hard to understand them, then adjust. But when mistakes are made, and no one owns up, and it’s going to cost my readers grief, and me time and money – well – that’s just not something to stay silent about. So I didn’t. And you didn’t like it. And now your cheerleader is gone.

But let’s assume for a moment that you really don’t care whether your critics can be helpful. Let’s assume that your real goal has been realized: you successfully got rid of even more experts whose sites will make far more money for you if you don’t have to pay them (which we all know has been going on for months)….

The danger to you is that now you rule by fear, the fear instilled in your experts and staff who are afraid you will terminate them, too, if they speak up. There will never be another opportunity for you to hear the truth, and you can no longer trust that you are getting valuable, objective input because you’ll be surrounded by people who are afraid for their paychecks.

Don’t bother telling them not to be afraid! Your actions have already spoken far louder than your words. And don’t dismiss the idea that your experts aren’t fearful. My email says differently, and their perception is their reality.

What happens next?

I have a huge life outside of About.com and will continue writing and speaking for those who need my information and advice. What I’m sure you never knew is that the reason I could make such strides in patient empowerment is because I have lived it. Any girl who takes on the health care system, proves she doesn’t have cancer, then uses that experience to help others, can survive undeterred by your short-sighted decision-making.

Unfortunately for you, that same girl is also a believer in the “hell hath no fury” guide to life. It’s cathartic. Plus she is in the fortunate position where fear of retaliation doesn’t rule her life. She sticks up for herself and leads by example. This letter is one of her examples. (But then, if you had ever bothered looking at my work, you would know that.)

I see that you are already advertising for my replacement!  I do hope About.com’s advertisers realize that you already pushed the premier patient empowerment expert out the door. Anyone else will be second best, and I will be that person’s competitor.

I have sold my IAC stock because I consider it to be a poor investment when its management makes mincemeat of basic human resource concepts. (I wonder if Barry Diller will care?)

Yet, I truly do hope About.com succeeds. I have many friends who continue to write excellent material for About.com. They serve their readers well.  It’s just that now they do so under a veil of fear.

There will be some who say I have burned a bridge by writing to you. I am sure they are right. But I prefer to think that I’m helping to right the About.com ship, in hopes of promoting a healthier environment and management attitude. The best outcome would be that you see the error of your ways; that you begin to respect and listen to your experts, manage their expectations well, invest in their wisdom, and stop being afraid of truth-tellers.

I’m just sorry that if that happens, I, a former best friend and cheerleader, won’t be among them.

Trisha Torrey
Every Patient’s Advocate
Former Guide / Expert in Patient Empowerment at About.com

1 comment

    • Alissa Wolf on July 3, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Trisha, thanks so much for posting this. You are absolutely correct in that we all wanted the network to succeed, and had all invested a great deal time, effort and blood, sweat and tears into our sites. What’s interesting is that those who were let go were especially talented and had exceptionally high-quality sites that were in many cases very popular, which really makes you wonder.

    I have to say that I fully agree with your statement: “Let’s assume that your real goal has been realized: you successfully got rid of even more experts whose sites will make far more money for you if you don’t have to pay them (which we all know has been going on for months)…”

    You hit the nail squarely on the head. I honestly believe that the company is loathe to pay writers, and they think that initiating a bunch of superficial cosmetic changes along with gaming Google will be the answer to their prayers. If so, I wish them luck. They are going to need it.

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