Editorial: Linking, Weblogs and The Health of the Newspaper Industry

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‘Film! – Canon A-1 – Headlines – 11-5-08′
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Yesterday, the Washington Post published an editorial by Ian Shapira concerning some touchy subjects for those of us who operate blogs. Mr. Shapira penned a piece for the Post last week about a Generation Y consultant, which was then the subject of a Gawker.com story by Hamilton Nolan that made frequent use of the blockquote tag. If you’d like to take a second to read the articles linked herein, that would be fine, but allow me to sum this up in just a few sentences.

Act I: An article was written by Mr. Shapira, under the employ of the Washington Post. Ian adheres to the Washington Post’s guidelines for story-sourcing, that means he spends a lot of time doing research, which results in the final 1,500 word story that ran.

Act II: That article was picked up by Gawker.com, a weblog, who made fun of it, but linked back to the article at the bottom of the piece, with the Post’s name. They didn’t bother to clearly identify the author, or the Post, in the body of the article.

Act III: The original author, Mr. Shapira, believes this to be part of the death of journalism, and opines at length concerning what it means to link, to not link, to make money or not in the web publishing arena.

Let’s start, before anything else, with Gawker and its empire of sites, headed by Nick Denton. Their general policy is to add a single link to the original story at the foot of the article, before the comments. Generally, I think this is unfortunate. I tried, on Sunday, to come up with what a good policy is for using hyperlinks in a blog post. I can’t think of a hard and fast rule, but it tends to come back to a single basic principle that you probably all learned early in life: Don’t Be A Douchebag. We try very hard to live by that rule here at WeLoveDC, and I’d say with regard to linking-without-excessive-copy&paste we do very well indeed.

In this particular case, Ian thinks that Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan is being a douchebag for not either mentioning his source’s proper title, or for mentioning the article’s author. Generally, I tend to agree. The article is an egregious example of Gawker’s otherwise somewhat frustrating, yet legal and quasi-legitimate, style guide. However, Ian goes one step further and suggests that Gawker’s story represents nothing but an act of violence against the Journalist’s Profession, and something that we should all decry as theft and the death of a noble pursuit.

Specifically, Shapira says: “More readers are better than fewer, of course. But those referring links — while essential to our current business model — aren’t doing much, ultimately, to stop our potential slide into layoffs and further contraction.

I must ask: aren’t more readers, either online or in print, what will keep newspapers relevant and profitable? Surely most of the ads that run on WashingtonPost.com are cost-per-thousand-viewers ads, which means as traffic rises, so also rises the revenues of the site. National advertisers, the likes of AMD microprocessors and K Hovnanian Homes appear on the online pages of the split-for-maximum-ad-revenue editorial penned by Shapira. In addition, they’re supplanted by pop-under ads (which are pretty skeevy) and Google Ad-Words ads (which are not), not to mention related-articles links at the bottom, and partner links, both of which are designed to capture the reader with maximum “stickyness” and increase search engine relevance, which in turn derive more and more traffic, earned The Washington Post Company (TWPC) more and more money. So, it’s not that TWPC isn’t doing some of the right things, but that merely they haven’t been able to account for on the web what they’re losing from circulation.

I was deeply pleased to see, amongst the frequent hand-wringing from Mr. Shapira, that the Post’s General Counsel drawing a distinction between quoting and linking, which are long-observed traditions in blogging, and whole-sale reproduction and theft, which are not done by reputable and legitimate bloggers. The full quote is: “In general, we believe that there is a very important line between appropriate quoting and linking, which contributes to free expression, and inappropriate free-riding, which diminishes free expression.” The General Counsel did not suggest that the Gawker piece was on the far side of the line, but a wink and a nod was firmly implied.

An honest division between the two realms is appropriate and good, as bloggers and blogs, like this one, frequently receive solicitations and exhortations to feature content from TWPC on their own sites and in their own writings. We tend to receive approximately 5-10 per week from our contacts at TWPC, and have a generally good relationship with our folks there. When the pieces are timely, interesting and relevant, we link them from our blog, usually with a pull-quote from the piece featured, or an interpreted summary. I found it to be somewhat frustrating that TWPC is soliciting our help in promoting their written material, while also decrying that blogs are featuring pull-quotes from their stories. It seems to be praise in private, while bashing in public.

It strikes me that the Post, and other traditional news-gathering organizations struggle with understanding how epiphyte organizations like Gawker, DCist and We Love DC operate. While we are all content creators, we are also content aggregators, something that many online entities don’t understand. We’re not here to replace traditional organizations, we’re here to help provide voice to their creations. We’re here to draw attention to cases, like that of the Metro here in DC, where the Post is doing excellent investigative reporting that we neither have access for, nor resources to front. But, in focusing on this particular situation of linking and quoting, it’s pretending that the new media revolution never happened, and th

TWPC Blogger Rob Pegoraro penned a blog entry about a Twitter-Driven Lawsuit which Mr. Shapira would do well to read, especially the last ‘graf which suggests:

Let me spell that lesson out as bluntly as possible to anybody tempted to pull Horizon’s kind of stunt: If you’re too dumb to understand that sites like Twitter merely make public the things customers already say to each other in private — and that the only sane response is, at the very least, to act like you’re listening to their concerns — then you’re too dumb to be on the Internet in the first place. Go back to watching TV.

People are going to be talking about what you write in public on the street corner, in private over dinner, and everywhere in-between. You’re either there to listen to them, and to respond and engage, or you’re not listening. If you’re not listening, it would at least be wise, then, not to fire warning shots across their bow. Mr. Shapira’s response to Gawker in the paper was not quite as blatantly ignorant as Horizon’s lawsuit, but came perilously close.

Sites like Gawker are much the same as the wise-cracking regulars at your neighborhood bar with a copy of the Post and a beer. The radio’s down low and you can just see him there, an open copy of the Style section spread on the corner of the bar, “Can you believe this, guys? There’s a gal in here who gets paid hundreds of dollars an hour just to explain that kids today like to go to yoga in the middle of the day, but will work all night if you let them! Ain’t that just crazy?” The one can’t exist without the other, and they don’t compete. It’s just that now the guy at the corner has figured out how to take down $4k a month providing commentary on the legitimate business of journalism.

To end, I just want to establish a few beliefs of this blogger, and some encouragement for other bloggers out there: Quoting isn’t theft. Summary isn’t theft. Especially when there are hyperlinks back to the original. Websites live and die with their audience having relevant content, and this site is no exception. We regularly write fifteen to twenty original, 500 to 1,500-word pieces per week, in addition to our Daily Feed items. We understand what a voracious content monster our Information Age digital culture has become, and we respect that. But it does not make sense to tear down your potential partners with public denigration like this. Ask for good citations, and we will oblige. As for part of our revenues? No, I don’t think so.

I certainly understand that Mr. Shapira’s primary issue is that the links weren’t prominent enough (and in all fairness, Gawker needs help here) but they were present, and by Mr. Shapira’s own admission, they were good for 10,000 Pageviews, which to a blog like this or DCist, that’s worth about an additional $80-100 for the organization that published them. While Gawker may have benefitted more from the piece that Mr. Shapira wrote than TWPC did, that may be the case even if it’s hard to break out why that may be true, that speaks more to the problems that traditional news organizations are having adapting their business and staffing models to the Information Age than to some shoddy and not-secret conspiracy to make additional money off their content streams.

Tom Bridge is Editor in Chief of WeLoveDC.com.

I live and work in the District of Columbia. I write at We Love DC, a blog I helped start, I work at Technolutionary, a company I helped start, and I’m happy doing both. I enjoy watching baseball, cooking, and gardening. I grow a mean pepper, keep a clean scorebook, and wash the dishes when I’m done. Read Why I Love DC.

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15 thoughts on “Editorial: Linking, Weblogs and The Health of the Newspaper Industry

  1. So how do you feel about wholesale scraping of your feed? They take your entire post and link back to you. Many scrapers claim they did their part with the link back, but the attribution is weak or patently false.

  2. I heart bloggers, and they deserve to exist and have a good bit to contribute to our society.
    But more than the location or prominence of the links, I think Mr. Shapira’s main issue is that he deserves to own his content, and when the majority of his story gets reproduced elsewhere, that’s getting close to plagiarism.
    If a blogger comments on or creates public debate about a previously existing story, good for them.
    But journalism is hours of work and research. And the journalist deserves the readers, because that’s all the payback the writer gets. If Shapira’s isn’t a clear enough example for you, look elsewhere, there are plenty.
    COMPARE these two presentations of Gates’ writing:

  3. Scraping is frustrating. We provide full-text RSS Feeds so that you don’t have to scrape the site for the content. If we find people scraping our feed, we ask them to stop, and if they refuse, we ask their ISP to make them stop. We haven’t had that problem here yet, but that’s our path.

    But scraping isn’t what happened here. What happened here was that someone summarized a 1500 word story and turned it into a farce. Their attribution was sloppy, even for Gawker, which lead to much gnashing of teeth at the Post about a “stolen” story.

  4. @DC Grrl

    I disagree that what Gawker did was “getting close to plagiarism,” as summary is a time-honored tradition, and with lengthy and frequent quotes, it’s clear the original belongs to someone else, even if it’s not entirely clear where it’s from, it’s blatantly obvious what’s going on there.

    As for Mr. Shapira believing he gets to own his content, that is demonstrably not the case. As an employee of the Post, what he’s doing is work-for-hire, which means the Post owns his stuff. As for it being (mis)appropriated in this case, it’s interpretation, not theft. The two pieces that you link to, one from the Root, the original, and the entirety pasted into Politico without further comment…that’s lame as can be.

    No one’s questioning that journalism is hard and takes effort, we’re just suggesting that being overly protective discourages interaction, and thus traffic, and thus money produced by a story.

  5. As any college professor will tell you (and as mine frequently did when I had to rely heavily on research I didn’t have the resources to conduct myself), “It’s not plagiarism if you cite your sources meticulously.” That doesn’t mean that the Gawker post wasn’t douchey, or lazy (it was, on both counts), but can we stop throwing the P-word around? It’s incorrect and needlessly inflammatory.

  6. Well said, Tom.

    What I want to know: is Mr. Shapria a journalist or a Newspaper Ad salesman? He doesn’t get paid more based on the ads that run against his content. And I’d love to see that e-mail chain with his editor, because it wasn’t until his editor pointed out the similarities that he started crowing. He was bragging about the hit in Gawker until that happened.

    Oh, and to respond to Shapira’s comment, “…and if bloggers want to excerpt at length, a fee would be the nice, ethical gesture,” I say, “I can go back to photocopying stories and mailing them to friends, if you’d like.” I mean, I guess the library is making money for the 10 cents I pay with each copy. So, maybe the library should pay the journalist, too.

  7. So sorry for bringing up the P word. I don’t believe that was in the original Post story at all.

    As I said, I dig blogging and I think there is some fine writing, journalistic writing even, going on in the blogosphere. But just because attribution happens doesn’t make it ethical. And that’s where that example of The Root/Politico provides a perfect example, even though this is opinion writing.

  8. You know, I’m not entirely sure that I agree with you on the Gates/Root/Politico thing.

    Dr. Gates is a figure in the news, releasing a statement (just as Officer Crowley and Lucia Whalen, the 911 caller, did) about an event being covered by major news outlets. The difference is that because he’s the Editor of The Root, he got to post it there instead of sending out a press release and reading a statement in front of cameras. It wasn’t like he wrote an op-ed that Politico ripped off wholesale- I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that it’s essentially the same thing as a press release, just delivered differently. I personally wouldn’t have done it that way, but I can see the argument.

    If The Root (owned by Washington Post/Newsweek Interactive, mind you) feels differently, no doubt one of their lawyers will write a takedown notice, or perhaps one of their columnists will just whine about it in public instead.

  9. Jim Brady, formerly of the WaPo, has had some comments about this on twitter. One was long enough to have to span three postings; I have consolidated it below:

    “Bill Grueskin on the Gawker/WaPo issue @ianshapira raised: http://bit.ly/WA8CD. Uses my tweet from Sunday. Agree that Gawker&HuffPo push the limits on appropriation at times. But, to me, spending significant time fighting pitched battles over pretty small amounts of traffic keeps mainstream orgs from adapting in more important ways. To too many, it’s still about control. We’re not in control anymore. Sorry.”

    A great point, though I would say (and did respond to him on twitter) that content creators never had actual CONTROL. They did, for a time, have an advantage in distribution that the average citizen didn’t have. That was such a significant advantage that it may have approached control but it’s not really the same thing.

  10. I think Shapira has a good point, though it’s a shame such a silly fluff piece was the one made an example of. Gawker’s piece should not have excerpted so much of the original article that it became unnecessary to read it in order to understand Gawker’s piece. Quote enough to make people understand why they should want to click the link, but don’t just give them the Cliff Notes version with a little attribution at the end. They’re ripping off someone else’s effort. JMHO

  11. Great work, Tom.

    It seems to me that the newspapers have real revenue problems. They aren’t making the money they used to make, and that means cutting back.

    My personal concern, which Tom touches on here, is that no one else is stepping up to the plate to pay reporters to provide that content. Blogging sites do provide some reference revenue – by encouraging readers to click over to WaPo and others – which makes up some of the revenue by providing ad views. But it is obvious this isn’t covering the bills.

    What happens when those reporters go away? This may not be obvious at the federal level, but what about the state or local levels? How about investigative reporting? That kind of work requires time and money. The former is something the blog sites, for the most part, don’ have. Nor would we expect them too.

    I keep wondering what the blogs can do to help keep the news reporters employed (note the difference – not newspaper, but news). Is there a way to do this, perhaps in a new business model? And what responsibilities do the blogs have to take on that load, now that the newspapers are cutting back?

  12. Great article on the whole controversy. You’ve provided a lot of common sense and real-world blogging experience in contrast to the overheated rhetoric over the death of journalism.

    Gawker may be snarky but what they did is legal, ethical and accepted practice on the web. They provide a summary and link back to the Post, driving traffic there and generating money for the web site. If, as Shapira suggests, the web is not a viable business, then why is the Post operating a web site? Maybe they should just concentrate on print. Or perhaps come up with some new business model instead of the century-old one that they’re wedded to.

    But to publish a story online and then complain when other sites link to you… that seems really silly, arrogant and elitist, which is one reason that so many people dislike mainstream media.

    BTW, I do love the Sunday paper (and buy it) despite the occasionally clueless article.

  13. Here’s how I see it.

    When it comes down to it, journalists (of which I am one) are angry that blogs and other entities are reusing the information that it took them hours or days to gather. But one of the most important aspects of copyright law is that facts and information cannot be protected by copyright. Copyright is about art, not facts. So people can reuse your facts to their hearts’ content.

    Which sort of sucks for journalism, because journalism is all about facts.