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.

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