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.
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?
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."
* * *
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."
That may be far-fetched. And after all, newspapers aren't entirely unwitting victims; they knew about the Internet very early, knew about the power of the Drudge Report in the 1990s and failed to innovate.
The Washington Post Web site has successfully sued several media companies, including Total News, Free Republic, GoSMS and Gator Corp., for exploiting Post content (and in several cases, selling ads against Post material). In a statement, Post general counsel Eric N. Lieberman said: "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."
Recently, the Associated Press announced that it will track illegitimate uses of its articles online; and a California startup, Attributor, has devised a new way for newspapers to share in the ad revenue from any site that copies their articles, although the idea needs cooperation from big ad networks to succeed.
Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker Media, which owns not only Gawker but sports and technology blogs such as Deadspin and Gizmodo, told me that he'd "love to shut down or charge" the Twitter aggregators and spam blogs that reprint his company's stories and headlines. But newspapers, he said, are not sin-free, either. "I'd like newspapers to pay us too, while we're at it," he told me over Gmail chat. "For instance, the New York Post lifted our Deadspin story on [ESPN reporter] Erin Andrews and splashed it on their front page. A brief credit -- but they didn't even link from the web version."
So Denton balks at the appropriation of his reporter's work about the illicit videotaping of a popular sports reporter. But what about Gawker's riff on my Post story?
"That was certainly more of an excerpt than we'd normally indulge in," he said.
* * *
The popular saying in the industry now is that it's important to "save journalism" -- not necessarily newspapers. I agree, but newspapers are still the most common organizations that pay a large staff of reporters, providing them with a living wage, health care and a retirement plan.
Nolan, 29, the Gawker writer, told me he feels he has hit a ceiling in the business. "It used to be that people would get a job at Gawker, do it for a year, then go off and get a great job at New York magazine," Nolan said. "Now those jobs are gone, and I feel like there is nowhere to aspire to. But I'm pretty happy."
Nolan, who is considered an independent contractor, gets paid $4,000 a month, and thanks to Denton's acknowledgement that people should have incentives to make an impact, he gets bonuses for exceeding his Web traffic expectations. Does he see the Catch-22 he's inflicting on himself -- and everyone else? "I don't generally feel bad about doing this. I am trying to put in a highlight reel of the stories. It's like doing movie previews," he said.
After talking with Denton, Nolan and others for this article, I still want a fluid blogosphere, but one where aggregators -- newspapers included -- are more transparent about whom they're heavily excerpting. They should mention the original source immediately. And if bloggers want to excerpt at length, a fee would be the nice, ethical gesture.
So, Gawker, do me a favor. At least blog this piece. I'll even write a headline for you (free of charge). How about: "Whiny WashPost Reporter Makes His Point: Respect the Genuine Article"? Oh -- one other thing. If you sell ads against your posting, can you cut The Post a check?
Ian Shapira is a local reporter for The Washington Post who writes about the millennial generation. He will be online to chat with readers at 11 a.m. Tuesday. Submit your questions before or during the discussion.