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Ian Shapira -- How Gawker Ripped Off My Newspaper Story

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I called up Hamilton Nolan, the Gawker writer to whom I had been so grateful. "Probably took me," he said, "you know . . . a half-hour to an hour."

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After I first saw Nolan's post, I shifted into modern self-promotional reporter mode, trying my best to keep spreading the story into the digital ether. I posted the story on my Facebook page and tweeted it on Twitter with all the appropriate symbols: "Gawker has a great posting on my #WashPost story on the #millennial guru." I hadn't had my outrage stoked by my editor yet and was still happy for the attention.

Gawker was the second-biggest referrer of visitors to my story online. (No. 1 was the "Today's Papers" feature on Slate, which is owned by The Post.) Though some readers got their fill of Loehr and never clicked the link to my story, others found their way to my piece only by way of Gawker.

Even if I owe Nolan for a significant uptick in traffic, are those extra eyeballs helping The Post's bottom line?

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. Worse, some media experts believe that Gawker and its ilk, with their relatively low overhead, might be depressing online ad revenue across the board. That makes it harder for news-gathering operations to recoup their expenses.

The Post just completed its fourth round of buyouts since 2003; and although the company reported on Friday that it had returned to profitability in the second quarter, the newspaper division, which is pretty much us, continues losing money. Standard & Poor's expects that the company's gross earnings will drop by 30 percent this year. Gawker Media, on the other hand, reported last week that its revenues in the first two quarters of 2009 were up 45 percent from the first two quarters of last year.

David Marburger is a First Amendment lawyer who, along with his economist brother Daniel, is stirring a minor controversy in the blogosphere with a proposal that might empower newspapers, or any news organization that spends the bulk of its budget on original reporting. They want to amend the copyright law so that it restores "unfair competition rights" -- which once gave us the power to sue rivals if our stories were being pirated. That change would give news organizations rights that they could enforce in court if "parasitic" free-rider Web sites (the heavy excerpters) refused to bargain with them for a fee or a contract. Marburger said media outlets could seek an order requiring the free-rider to postpone its commercial use or even hand over some advertising revenue linked to the free-riding.

News organizations once had such protections against the replication and resale of their work because of a wire service showdown in the early 20th century. In 1918, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Associated Press in a complaint against a rival wire service that had been ripping off its stories, Marburger said.

When Congress was revising copyright laws in 1976, it decided to abolish all other laws that functioned like copyright, while maintaining an exception for that Supreme Court ruling. The Justice Department objected to keeping the ruling alive, arguing that it gave media organizations a "boundless monopoly" over the news of the day. Congress then dropped the exception.

Current law basically allows the Gawkers of the world to appropriate others' work, repurpose it and sell ads against it with no payment to or legal recourse for the company that paid me while I sat through two hours of a generational seminar.

Marburger compared my article and the Gawker posting and concluded: "This is what in our opinion is a huge contributor to the demise of those who are originating news reports. If you don't change the law to stop this, originators of news reports cannot survive."


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