Gawker, the WaPo and the death of journalism

by Mathew on August 2, 2009 · 76 comments

In yet another exhibit in the ongoing debate about what constitutes fair use online, Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira writes about how Gawker Media “ripped off” a recent story he wrote. In addition to this pejorative (and arguably also inaccurate) description, Shapira also uses a considerable helping of hyperbole in referring to his tale as “The Death of Journalism, Gawker Edition.” He describes at some length how Gawker lifted a liberal number of quotes and other information from his story, which he says he spent hours acquiring through in-person interviews and so on.

So if the Gawker item is a “rip-off,” which most people would take to mean a wholesale plagiarisation of the original, then there must be no reference to the Post story as the source, and no links either, right? Wrong. Shapira notes that Gawker links to his story high up in its piece, but says that there is “no direct mention of the Post.” In other words, linking is somehow not good enough any more. So there’s no reference to the Post at all then? Er, not exactly. There is a link and reference at the bottom of the piece, in the same way that many blog posts use the “via” link. That doesn’t seem to be enough for Mr. Shapira, however.

If you want to look at the facts of this case in more detail, Zachary Seward at the Nieman Journalism Lab has done an excellent job of parsing the specifics, including the number of words in each piece, the number of “original” words, the estimated time it would take to produce each one, and — most importantly — the number of links and traffic to each, and how high each piece ranks in a Google search for the topic (key ingredients in what Jeff Jarvis and others call the “link economy,” a term that some argue is inaccurate, including Tim O’Brien of the NYT).

I think a couple of elements in this case are particularly interesting: One is that Shapira says at the beginning of his piece that when he first came across the Gawker post, he was happy — and even flattered — that the site had referred to his story and linked to it. He only got mad when his editor told him that he should be, saying the website “stole” his story and asking him why he wasn’t outraged. The more he thought about it, the madder he got. Why? Because he did all the work, he says, but apparently didn’t get enough credit (he should try working for a wire service, where that kind of thing is considered routine).

The other thing that’s interesting is that the Gawker item had not one but three links to the Post, and an explicit mention of the source. Shapira admits that these links drove traffic, but seems to be arguing that they just weren’t prominent enough, or not obvious enough, or something along those lines (some, including Alan Murray of the WSJ, argue this is Google’s fault). William Mougayar responded to me on Twitter that the credit given to the Post was “like a footnote” — and that got me thinking. We’re perfectly comfortable with long excerpts from other people’s work in other places when they are given just a footnote. Why is this case so different? It even includes traffic, which scholarly footnoting rarely does.

I’d be willing to agree that Gawker could have — and maybe even should have, in an ethical sense — mentioned Shapira and his story specifically. But there is no way in heck that a post with three links and an explicit reference to the source constitutes anything approaching a “rip-off” or the “death of journalism.” How about the death of hyperbole, and the rebirth of rational debate about the value of linking and traffic, and/or the ethics of sourcing online? That would be nice.

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi/statuses/3103788782 mathewi (Mathew Ingram)

    Twitter Comment


    @drbrake: I’m guessing, but I’ll bet most of the people who thought that would never have seen the WaPo story in the first place

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/mathewi/statuses/3103788782 mathewi (Mathew Ingram)

    Twitter Comment






    @drbrake: I'm guessing, but I'll bet most of the people who thought that would never have seen the WaPo story in the first place

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://www.eqentia.com William Mougayar

    The key thing that Gawker provided him is access to an online audience that wouldn't have read the story on WaPo. On the strength of that segment, it boosted the whole story's readership.
    If this was an AP originating story, Gawker would have had to pay AP to re-publish it (even in abreviated form)- hence that's why the editor is upset about this.
    A case could be made that Gawker should pay something to reprint a story that originated elsewhere. Links back are not a form of payback (although they could be monetized).
    On the other hand, how different is this from Gawker re-publishing a story from Techcrunch for e.g.?

  • Pingback: Gawker, el Washington Post y el fin del periodismo : Blogografia

  • Pingback: Steal This Professionally Reported Content - The Opinionator Blog - NYTimes.com

  • http://lizasabater.com liza

    may I point out it's summer, readership usually is down and henceforth “the death of journalism” articles have become the way for media companies concern trolls their way into linkbaiting if not linkwhoring their way out of low CPMs?

    want more proof? LIFE.com's kissing Digg's proverbial pingback
    http://twitter.com/LIFE/status/3107477824

    WTF?!?!

    so … yeah … nothing to see here. this has happened every single year since at least 2003 when i first heard of the “death of journalism” meme.

    expect it to happen again in February (when ad buys for the year will once again not happen like in the golden years) and next year's summer.

    meh.

  • http://twitter.com/blogdiva/statuses/3116938988 blogdiva (Liza Sabater)

    Twitter Comment


    RE: @mathewi may I point out it’s summer, readership usually is down and henceforth “the death of journalism” articles … [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/drlawmom/statuses/3117149272 drlawmom (Dr. Candi Wallace)

    Twitter Comment






    @blogcodea Missed you past few days. Working hard, mom duty or both? Congrats on kid's cast removal! Skin's all crusty tho' huh? Yuck.

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/TheJLV/statuses/3116955434 TheJLV (Jose)

    Twitter Comment






    @blogcodea did you see this? http://bit.ly/DzKUH<br />
    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/blogdiva/statuses/3117039903 blogdiva (Liza Sabater)

    Twitter Comment






    @TheJLV tl;dr :D is it an actual video series?

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/blogdiva/statuses/3116971935 blogdiva (Liza Sabater)

    Twitter Comment






    @TheJLV no! who's site is it?

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/blogdiva/statuses/3117216728 blogdiva (Liza Sabater)

    Twitter Comment






    @drlawmom thanks bb. been working mighty hard indeed. son's arm is more scaly than crusty. looks gross :P thanks for asking.

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/TheJLV/statuses/3116979713 TheJLV (Jose)

    Twitter Comment






    @blogcodea it's ours :-)

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/TheJLV/statuses/3117058370 TheJLV (Jose)

    Twitter Comment






    @blogcodea oh yes!

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/blogdiva/statuses/3117090544 blogdiva (Liza Sabater)

    Twitter Comment






    @TheJLV for PR they mention Schomburg but not Sylvia del Villar?!?!? oh snap. let me get my blade :D it's a HUGE project. good 1st effort ;)

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/TheJLV/statuses/3117118312 TheJLV (Jose)

    Twitter Comment






    @blogcodea you can always add your voice, miss. not that you weren't. just haven't seen many others do it besides u and I.

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/blogdiva/statuses/3117138689 blogdiva (Liza Sabater)

    Twitter Comment






    @TheJLV do you know them? they need a wiki, like, yesterday. this kind of project needs it.

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/TheJLV/statuses/3117152941 TheJLV (Jose)

    Twitter Comment






    @blogcodea I don't. Found it from one of my friends on facebook. Use their contact page. Make it happen.

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • http://twitter.com/cophotog/statuses/3140855826 cophotog (Chip Oglesby)

    Twitter Comment


    [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Pingback: Journalism and the Arrogance of Power « Bottom-up

  • Pingback: Should news site charge for ad-free experience | Save the Media

  • MaryAlan

    This is a really interesting debate. I've gone through and read the original Post article, and I read The Gawker blog post in question. In my opinion, The Gawker did nothing wrong by quoting the Post article extensively. The most obvious point which proves The Gawker article was not plagiarised — The author used large quotation marks to distinguish unoriginal content from original content!

  • Absolutereturn

    Hello,

    Nice post I Like your site very well and continue to do so.

  • guodan
  • guodan
  • Pingback: Gawker, el Washington Post y el fin del periodismo

Older post:

Newer post: