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Ian Shapira -- How Gawker Ripped Off My Newspaper Story

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By Ian Shapira
Sunday, August 2, 2009

A few weeks ago, I scored what passes these days for one of journalism's biggest coups, satisfying a holy writ for newspaper impact in the Internet age. Gawker, the snarky New York culture and media Web site, had just blogged about my story in that day's Washington Post.

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I confess to feeling a bit triumphant. My article was ripe fodder for the blogosphere's thrash-and-bash attitude: a profile of a Washington-based "business coach," Anne Loehr, who charges her early-Gen-X/Boomer clients anywhere from $500 to $2,500 to explain how the millennial generation (mostly people in their 20s and late teens) behaves in the workplace. Gawker's story featured several quotations from the coach and a client, and neatly distilled Loehr's biography -- information entirely plucked from my piece. I was flattered.

But when I told my editor, he wrote back: They stole your story. Where's your outrage, man?

* * *

The more I toggled between my editor's e-mail and the eight-paragraph Gawker item, the angrier I got, and the more disenchanted I became with the journalism business. I enjoy reading Gawker and the growing number of news sites like it -- the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast and others -- but lately they're making me even more nervous about my precarious career as a newspaper reporter who enjoys, at least for the time being, a salary, a 401(k) and health insurance.

I started thinking about all the labor that went into producing my 1,500-word article. The story wasn't Pulitzer material; it was just a reported look at one person capitalizing on angst in the workplace. With all the pontificating about the future of newspapers both in the media and in Capitol Hill hearings, I began wondering if most readers know exactly what is required to assemble a feature story for a publication such as The Post. Journalism at a major newspaper is different from what's usually required in the wild and riffy world of the Internet. And that wild world is killing real reporting -- the kind of work practiced not just by newspapers but by nonprofits, some blogs and other news outlets.

Gawker's version of my story, headlined " 'Generational Consultant' Holds America's Fakest Job," begins by telling its readers to "Meet Anne Loehr" -- with a link to my story but no direct mention of The Post. It then condenses her biography: "Loehr is 44. She spent the entire decade of the 90s running hotel and safari operations in Kenya." That's information I got after an hour-plus phone call with Loehr and typing out 3,000 words of notes.

The bulk of the posting consists of Loehr's own words, her thoughts on this generation's affinity for reality television and its supposed aversion to Nike products. (Still no mention of The Post.) For those little nuggets, I drove a half-hour to Fairfax County's Tower Club, and attended her two-hour "Get Wise with Gen Ys" session and recorded it.

Then the work got painstaking: It took about four hours to transcribe the session. (Are you playing mournful melodies on your violin yet?)

After the quotations from Loehr, the Gawker posting is a cut-and-paste of my own stuff, a description of why a financial adviser attended (so she can work better with clients who are "trust fund babies," she said). Still no attribution to The Post.

The eighth and last paragraph discusses and links to Loehr's "generational cheat sheet" on our Web site. Finally, beneath the last paragraph, the hyperlinked words "Washington Post" appear in red. Would the average visitor have clicked on the link to read the whole story? I probably wouldn't have.

After all the reporting, it took me about a day to write the 1,500-word piece. How long did it take Gawker to rewrite and republish it, cherry-pick the funniest quotes, sell ads against it and ultimately reap 9,500 (and counting) page views?


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