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.