Gawker, the WaPo and the death of journalism

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.

Was the NYT wrong to keep quiet? Yes

It’s been more than a week since New York Times reporter David Rohde escaped from his captors in Pakistan, so maybe now is a good time to try and look dispassionately at the massive coverup that prevented news of his kidnapping from being reported for more than six months — a coverup that included not just 40 or so mainstream media outlets but Wikipedia as well, with the personal help of founder Jimmy Wales. Raising such ethical issues seemed somewhat crass in the days following his miraculous escape (although that didn’t stop some observers, including Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, from being early critics of the coverup). But those issues deserve to be talked about in more detail.

For the record, I don’t know David Rohde. From all accounts, he is a wonderful friend and colleague, not to mention an excellent reporter who has a great deal of experience working in troubled areas. All of which is — I would argue — completely irrelevant to the issue at hand, namely whether the New York Times and its senior management were right to conceal evidence of his kidnapping, and whether the editors at dozens of other outlets were right to go along with this plan.

I would argue that they were not, and that if anything the coverup has made things harder not just for future kidnapping victims such as Rohde, but for newspapers and other mainstream media outlets as a whole.

(Please read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog)

Newspapers and rules about Twitter

This is an update to a recent post about the Wall Street Journal and its policies on Twitter use by its staff. In that post, I essentially agreed with a post by Jeff Jarvis in which he argued that the WSJ policy “missed the point” of social media in general by trying to lock down the behaviour of reporters too much — by restricting them from discussing their stories, being too personal, etc. Both Steve Buttry of Gazette Communications, in a post at his personal blog and Gina Chen at Save The Media agreed with Jarvis as well, saying the rules were too restrictive and that the newspaper was in danger of missing out on much of the value of social media. Similar thoughts were posted by Pat Thornton at BeatBlogging.org.

Pat, who also writes at Journalism Iconoclast, quotes a Twitter post from John Robinson (editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina) that also caught my eye, in which he said:

Twitter rules: I trust the staff to report the news. Shouldn’t I trust them enough to tweet? Is twitter that much harder than reporting?

Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times (who recently joined Twitter himself) put it very similarly in a quote he gave to Editor & Publisher magazine:

“I have asked people to use common sense and respect the workplace and assume whatever they tweet will be tied to the paper. Even when they are tweeting personal information to their followers, they are still representing the New York Times.”

As both the Editor & Publisher piece and this piece in the New York Observer make clear, there has been a bit of controversy within the NYT about tweets that staffers (including @jenny8lee and @michaelluo) were making during a strategy briefing at the paper. I wondered at the time whether what they were broadcasting was an internal meeting or not, but assumed it was not. As it turns out, some editors were of the opinion that posting such things to Twitter should always be out of the question, and that even posting positive things from the newsroom shouldn’t be done by Times reporters.

(please read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog)

Note: Fred Wilson has some worthwhile thoughts on this topic as well, although he isn’t a journalist. And be sure to check the comments, which feature a response from Peter Kafka of All Things Digital (which is owned by the Wall Street Journal) and — as usual — some excellent responses from Fred himself.

Steve Brill wants to charge for news… again

In the media industry, the name Steven Brill tends to bring back a lot of memories. The founder of CourtTV and Brill’s Content, he went on to create a new media entity called Inside, which was staffed with writers from Fortune and other leading publications. But the venture eventually folded. As more and more content moved online, Brill later tried to create a venture known as Contentville, which he envisioned as a sort of one-stop shop for content of all kinds — text, photos, video, audio — which publishers and distributors could offer through his online store.

Sound familiar? It should, because Brill is trying to revive the idea through a new project called Journalism Online, which he and his new partners announced this week. But the new venture has an unusual twist that Contentville — which eventually shut down due to a lack of revenue — did not.

Whatever you think of his idea, it’s clear that Brill still has some pretty high-powered contacts in media: one of his partners is Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and one of the guys who decided to charge money for the WSJ online, something virtually every other newspaper publisher dreams of doing someday. The third partner is Leo Hindery, a former telecom industry executive. Also on the board of advisors are former senior U.S. attorney David Boies and former Solicitor General Ted Olsen. The news release says that Journalism Online LLC will:

“…quickly facilitate the ability of newspaper, magazine and online publishers to realize revenue from the digital distribution of the original journalism they produce.”

How will it do this? Brill promises a four-point Marshall Plan for news, including a password-protected site where publishers can put their content and users can buy “annual or monthly subscriptions, day passes, and single articles from multiple publishers.” But it’s the third point in this plan that raises some interesting questions: the release says that the venture will “negotiate wholesale licensing and royalty fees with intermediaries such as search engines and other websites that currently base much of their business models on referrals of readers to the original content on newspaper, magazine and online news websites.”

(read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab)

Defending “rule-breaking” journalism

Gina M. Chen, a veteran journalist and editor who works at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y., writes an excellent blog called “Save The Media,” which is aimed at helping journalists get used to some of the new tools in social media. Chen’s recent post, titled “10 ‘Journalism Rules’ You Can Break on Your Blog,” caused a stir in my newsroom at The Globe and Mail. One of my colleagues, for example, suggested that the post was irresponsible and that such rule-breaking is one of the reasons there is a “credibility gap” between bloggers and mainstream journalists.

You can read Chen’s post for the full list, but among other things, she suggested that bloggers should:

  • Use partial or fake names because “there are times on a blog that what a person says as an indication of public sentiment is more important than who said it.”
  • Tell only part of the story because “the beauty of a blog is you can update immediately as more details become apparent or earlier reports are disputed.”
  • Insert an opinion because “I think readers appreciate knowing that journalists have feelings, opinions, lives that shape how they view the world.”
  • Link to the enemy because “with blogging, you can give your readers the best — even if it’s not from your staff.”
  • Get personal because “you’re creating a community; that community wants to know you’re a person, not a robot.”
  • Answer your critics because “blogging is a conversation with readers. If someone criticizes your post or raises an opposing point of view, you should respond.”
  • Fix your mistakes because “I still don’t want to make any mistakes, but if I do, I can fix it in real time, not just run a correction the next day that few may see.”

So is this list an invitation to be careless, cut corners and risk your credibility as a journalist, as my colleague suggested? Hardly. I would argue that nearly every suggestion on Chen’s list makes perfect sense. Breaking these so-called rules not only isn’t bad, it could improve the practice of online journalism.

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