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Outlook: How Gawker Ripped Off My Story and Why It's Destroying Journalism

Ian Shapira
Washington Post Blogger
Tuesday, August 4, 2009 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Ian Shapira was online Tuesday, Aug. 4, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "How Gawker Ripped Off My Story and Why It's Destroying Journalism."

Shapira is also a local reporter who writes about the millennial generation.

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Ian Shapira: Hi everyone, welcome to today's chat. But first before we begin, I want to briefly address an issue that has burbled up in this debate: what makes a story compelling and a journalist trustworthy. In his response to my Outlook essay, Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder wrote yesterday that the original story -- a profile of a local consultant who advises businesses on how to manage different generations -- was, basically, mere stenography; and that I took everything the consultant said -- her "pablum," Snyder called it -- at face value without injecting my own humorous opinions to guide the reader. In Snyder's view, Gawker made my story interesting, slapped on its snarky headline "'Generational Consultant Holds America's Fakest Job" and finally gave the story some salvation. "[W]hy wasn't there an ounce of humor in the profile?" Snyder asks. Instead of enjoying any legal copyright protections, "[a] less cumbersome way for newspapers to head off the threat of blogs would be to beat us to the punch line."

Not if we -- especially those of us reporters who cover non-famous people -- want to continue being trustworthy and gain access into people's lives. The story was meant to transport readers into her life, to provide a snapshot of how one woman is trying to make a living by teaching angst-ridden Boomers about this new emerging generation in the workplace. Her quotes to her clients in the session were revealing enough. I try not to hit readers over the head with my opinions because I trust them to read intelligently and make their own decisions. Many people read the story and wanted to get in touch with the consultant because they viewed her teachings as relevant to their own jobs and work cultures. Other people -- especially younger readers -- wrote me and said that she was making a living off of ridiculous stereotypes. As a newspaper reporter, I tried my best best to keep a balance in the story, even while incorporating critical comments of my own and one of her younger clients. There are many forms of good journalism or writing. One form can be the snarky posts of Gawker, which can be funny when they are about celebrities. Another form can be original reporting and storytelling -- the kind that doesn't jackhammer you with an opinion and instead immerses you somewhere. At The Post, I mainly cover ordinary people and they give me a lot of their time and access into their personal lives. Yes, those subjects can receive nice promotion from a Post story, but, at least in this case, readers got something anthropological and unfiltered in exchange: the honest and, to some, unsettling thoughts of Boomers on younger people. Perhaps I could have included more criticism from more people in my story. But if every subject were open to mean-spirited mockery, I doubt as many people would let me into their lives.

And that's why I became a reporter for The Post. Hamilton Nolan, the Gawker writer, told me that he wakes up every day, scans the home pages of all the major papers and finds nine to 12 postings a day. That's how he found my story actually, he said. And I'm glad he did.

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Seattle: Do you have control over karma?

Gawker was down for much of this afternoon (Monday p.m.).

Ian Shapira: Dear Seattle,

Nope. I had nothing to do with Gawker's servers going down. I just found it ironic.

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Alderpoint, Calif.: Gawker got 9,500 page views. How many pages in the Gawker version of your piece? How many page views on the Washington Post website? How many print copies went out? In other words, did Gawker get 50 percent of your 19,000 readers, or 1 percent of the 950,000 readers? The answer makes a big difference in how I consider the issue you bring up. Thanks.

Ian Shapira: Dear Alderpoint: I actually tried finding out how many page views the original story got, but the Post does not reveal that data publicly. And maybe I should have mentioned that in the piece. But ultimately the problem comes down to this: How many people read the Gawker posting and did not click through? That's where the trouble is.

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Herndon, Va.: Don't all newspapers rip each other off?

If the NY Times had a breaking investigative story about torture during the Bush administration, would the Post just ignore it or would the Post cover the story mostly from the Times's original coverage? Maybe call one or two additional sources to make it look good?

I remember when the Wall Street Journal broke a major story and the Post only identified another newspaper until around the fifth or sixth graph. So Gawker is in good company.

Ian Shapira: Dear Herndon,

Typically, when The Times beats us with a story or we beat them with a story, each publication tries to match right away by calling up their own sources to verify it. Even it means making calls at midnight to sources.

But you are right. I think that The Post and other publications need to identify the scooper right almost immediately. I know this is a source of pain for many college newspapers.

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Arlington, Va.: I really appreciated your article on how Gawker basically rips off your coverage. However, sites like Deadspin do serve a purpose. For example, ESPN tried to cover up the Ben Rothlesburger assault suit, and the website was a key player in helping expose Nike when they confiscated a syracuse.com writer's videotape of Lebron getting jumped on. Would you admit that sometimes these sites help expose stories that otherwise go unreported?

Ian Shapira: Dear Arlington:

I 100 percent agree with you. Gawker, Deadspin -- so many of these sites are very important. They break stories. Nick Denton, the founder of the Gawker empire, told me for the Outlook piece that the New York Post lifted one of his site's stories on the ESPN controversy involving the illicit videotaping of reporter Erin Andrews.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm a journalist as well, so I feel the pinch you write about. But from what I know of copyright law, there's one important aspect that I feel people miss when they write about how Gawker, Huffington Post and similar blogs and aggregators are putting papers out of business: you cannot claim copyright on facts. When it comes down to it, these sites are taking the facts from newspapers and republishing them. And they're free to do that; copyright is about artistic work, not facts. It's sad, too, because journalism is, at its core, all about facts. Furthermore, a vast part of the time a reporter spends working on a story is gathering and writing facts. Yes, the creative aspect of the writing is important. But its the facts that these people can, and do, "steal."

In addition, if you write a quote from somebody else, you don't own the copyright on that quote. It's not your work. It's the work of the person who spoke it. So, once again, you cannot claim copyright on that.

Do you think it would be useful to change the copyright law to make it possible to claim copyright on facts and/or quotes?

Ian Shapira: Dear Arlington: Always good to hear from a fellow journalists. I discuss the copyright issue in the Outlook piece and cite a very intelligent First Amendment attorney, David Marburger, from Cleveland. He believes that the press should have its "unfair competition rights" be restored, so news organizations -- Washington Post, Gawker, anyone who is providing original content of commercial value -- can compel web sites that heavily excerpt from them to enter into some sort of contract, pay a fee. Something like that.

Why is all this important? News organizations --the kind with printing presses, huge foreign bureaus, health care benefits, etc. -- have a lot of expenses to recoup, as opposed to many aggregators. So the aggregators can offer ads at much cheaper rates than we can. And when they are using our stories and selling their cheap ads against those stories, why would an advertiser advertise on our web site when a cheaper deal is on the aggregator's site and where the same content exists, too?

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Broadcasters Borrow from Newspapers: I'm a former public radio producer, and I can't tell you the number of times I took a highlighter to an article from the Post or Times and marked all the names of people quoted and then tracked them down and booked them on a panel. Do you see a difference between what Gawker, HuffPo, etc. do and what NPR, ABC, etc. do with stories that originate with newspaper reporters?

Ian Shapira: Dear Borrower:

Thanks for the honesty, at least. That's nothing of course. And you're right, it happens all the time. One colleague's story at The Post was recently replicated on a major network morning show, with, I believe, little to no credit at all. But to be fair: foreign journalists and national reporters often read the local papers to get ideas on what's going on. It's one thing, though, to get the idea. And it's another when you're tracking down the same ordinary people who had already been quoted. I recently did a story about young people trying to get a job with the Obama administration. A booker from one prominent cable news network called and said: Can we have the phone numbers of all the people you interviewed?

I was like, why can't you guys do the story on your own? It's bad enough that the idea gets stolen, but then you have to take the same characters?

But let me reiterate: newspapers are not sin-free, as I said in my story.

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Nashville, Tenn.: I don't think you can build legal barriers to protect your journalistic content. Serious journalists may become like fine artists or novelists, either seeking wealthy sponsors or selling their work to high bidders who would then be responsible for protecting it. What's the alternative?

Ian Shapira: Dear Nashville,

A popular model now being floated is the non-profit model. The theory goes that with the passing of a generation, there is so much wealth to be distributed via wills and courts. Or, why not get a prominent university to attach us to their (battered) endowments? One problem with the donor model is that you never know when the well will run dry, and there is the question of appearances of a conflict of interest.

It's my hope that one day The Post can charge for some, or all of its online content. I am not sure if that will work, and if we would lose so much traffic that our ad revenue would plummet. But the free model is not helping us, at least not yet.

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Chicago: Thanks for the great article. I think the Marburger proposal deserves serious consideration. In Chicago, the Tribune newspaper has suffered many setbacks and has been undergoing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. The scope of coverage and overall quality of the paper have suffered. Still, even in these difficult times, the paper has proven its worth time and time again, with investigative reporting and editorials on a range of important issues that would otherwise not be addressed. The Tribune's investigations of corruption, government waste and mismanagement and consumer-protection issues has been particularly noteworthy. Is it realistic to expect that news media (blogs, aggregators or other outlets) will provide some replacement of this function of newspapers, if newspapers are allowed to continue to wither away? No other individuals or institutions seem to have the resources or commitment to do the kind of in-depth reporting that newspapers bring to bear on so many issues that are vital to well-functioning democracy and civil society.

Ian Shapira: Dear Chicago,

Many non-profits are springing up across the country that are trying to specialize in this kind of accountability journalism. And with all the recent revelations about wrongdoing in Chicago, the Tribune has been firing on all cylinders and I imagine that they will be emboldened to continue their amazing work. But newspapers are not the only organizations that can do accountability journalism. Huffington Post is starting an investigative unit now, for instance. San Diego has a non-profit journalism start up. And there is Pro Publica, which already is doing incredible work that has landed on the front page of The Post.

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Washington, D.C.: And when Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media, stated his opposition to journalistic riffing, did he take sides with you? Or will there be any funds, from Gawker, directed to The Post due to Nolan's nearly plagiarized article, although current laws deem it okay?

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington,

Ha! No funds due to The Post anytime soon, and I don't expect any. Denton was more than charitable to me with his time and his candid thoughts on the business when I interviewed. He did say that Nolan went a bit too far, and that Gawker normally doesn't do that kind of heavy excerpting.

I haven't read enough Gawker postings carefully enough to make sweeping judgments. Like I said, I think Gawker is a terrific site, I just think that the system needs to change, so that everyone -- including Gawker! -- can make more money when other outlets heavily borrow their material.

The Columbia Journalism Review did an interesting piece this week (no, not that one in which I am psychoanalyzed with apparent split-personality disorder) on Gawker's posting on a St. Pete Times investigation. Here's the link.

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New York: Hi Ian,

Is Gawker's posting of your article a win-win for you, first of all because more people read your article than would have otherwise, second of all because imitation's flattering?

Ian Shapira: Dear New York:

I can't deny it: It's boosted traffic to both the Outlook piece and the original story. And I was happy that another news organization found the generational consultant as intriguing as I did. But what does that really do for me? I don't know exactly. I am not an aspiring media critic (at least not yet -- I am 30, so I hope to be in the business for many more years to come). I tend to write stories about institutions or people that are not in the limelight that often or to the same degree as Gawker.

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Philadelphia: I noticed you left out one group of your piece. You didn't mention Slate. Why? They engage in the conduct you rail against. Yet are owned by the same group that employs you. Do you have a response?

Ian Shapira: Dear Philly: Yes, Slate did refer people to the story, but they didn't heavily excerpt like Gawker did. I don't mind the referrers, and I don't mind the headlines and links. I just mind the extreme appropriation without compensation.

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Washington, D.C.: Ian,

I can understand your frustration, but I just think you're wrong. There are so many stories I see on Gawker that I go on to read at the source because they're so short. I end up reading the NY Times, or some obscure Midwest paper simply because the Gawker posts intrigue me and I want to know more. I also read the Washington Post online everyday. So I hope you don't think it's either/or, and quite honestly had I seen your article on Gawker or the Post, I wouldn't have bothered to read, either. It just didn't seem interesting enough.

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington DC:

Thanks for the blunt response. I can take it. It's hard to know for sure without statistics -- that are likely impossible to get. But I do believe that a lot of people don't need to read the original stories when they are heavily excerpted. Go on The Daily Beast and the web site boasts its "cheat sheet" in which summarizes stories from news organizations like The Post or the NYT or other blogs. The citation is really small and the descriptions of the stories are so detailed that, in our time-crunched lives, I don't know how many people would actually click through.

I just went to the Daily Beast and conducted an interesting experiment. Their top ten stories on The Cheat Sheet? Eight came are from old-school media orgs, including: AP, WashPost, NYT, the WSJ, USA TODAY. One is from Politico (which makes a lot of its revenue from its print edition), and one is from TMZ.

When you click on the item, it takes you to another Daily Beast page. And then you have to click on a small italicized link to get you to the original source.

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Logan North, D.C.: I read your piece and was not able to garner much sympathy. The Post has ripped off the reporting of community weeklies and the like for decades with no or little attribution. Features on the network evening news are constantly being ripped off from the New York Times. So why the whining? People will read the Post if it reports interesting, significant, and accurate news first. Some will even pay for it; I've had a subscription for 30 years, although I found your initial piece was not worth my time.

Ian Shapira: Dear Logan North:

I wanted to post your comment because the allegation is interesting and worth attention. I haven't had too many changes to rely on local papers for stories, but I think your anger is justified. And I am sorry you didn't find the initial piece worth your time. There are other great stories in The Post.

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Savannah, Ga.: Just a note of support -- I'm with you on this one. Don't back down from the snark brigade -- they are parasites. The internet is killing intellectual property rights, and a blog is no substitute for professional reporting. Thankfully I think the bloom is off the rose already, though that is thin solace for the thousands of out of work journalists.

Ian Shapira: Thanks Savannah!

The snark brigade can have legit value, and I am not against the style of Gawker. It's not the kind of journalism I'd want to do, but I see why it can be fun and why it has impact and can be smart.

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Dayton, Ohio: Ian, an interesting article about a huge issue, but you left open a very important question about efficiency and productivity.

Why did it take you four hours to transcribe notes? Why did you have to do an hour interview to get a few biographical facts?

It's not just that Internet journalism is sloppy, fast-and-loose, or unedited. It's also that Internet journalism is simply more efficient -- or perhaps, I should say that Internet journalists are more efficient.

Papers need to take a hard look at how they are gathering, reporting, and editing the news, with an eye towards improving productivity.

Ian Shapira: Dear Dayton:

It took me so long to transcribe the session because I use an application on my iPhone, and it's hard sometimes operating the application as efficiently as I'd like. (Using your finger to active the pause and play -- and then listening again and again to make sure you got that one quote exactly right.)

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Washington, D.C.: Do you hold amateur bloggers -- the ones who don't have the time or resources to break news, as the Post does -- to the same standard you're trying to hold Gawker to? If some guy with a LiveJournal account had posted the exact same thing Gawker did, but getting only a fraction of the resulting page views and no ad revenue, would you also call that wrong?

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington:

Good question. I am not sure. Gawker is a major web site that competes for advertisers. I am not sure someone's LiveJournal blog would have the same weight, but you never know, depending on what the blog is about and how viral its popularity is.

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Washington, D.C.: You object to Gawker taking the funniest quotes out of your article for the purposes of commenting on them. Do you also think The Daily Show should stop running excerpts of interviews and pieces done by other networks, so Jon Stewart can then make jokes about it? Do you think Comedy Central should cut NBC, Fox, etc. a check every time he does?

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington:

I don't know the legalities of networks using feeds or clips from others. Maybe they can use 30 seconds without having to pay a fee? I don't know.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What is your response to Gawker's revelation that "Nearly every day -- 26 times in July alone -- a Washington Post staffer not only sends us links to its expensive reporting, but even pulls out the most interesting quotes, so as to make it easier to pirate?"

washingtonpost.com: The Time Gawker Put the Washington Post Out of Business (Gawker, Aug. 3)

Ian Shapira: Dear Silver Spring:

This is hardly a revelation. News organizations for a long time have had publicity departments and it's only been until recently that The Post stepped up its game to alert web sites and others about our work. And it makes total sense, especially because it allows reporters to concentrate on getting good stories. And, without any other options, the Post should be letting popular web sites know about our stories. In my case, however, the Gawker writer found his story on his own. He scans the web sites of major papers every morning.

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Ian Shapira: All right folks, that about does it.

Thanks for reading. One last word, though:

If newspapers and other organizations get paid for the original stories they produce -- either by other each other or by readers -- that means journalism for everyone improves. It means that we pay Gawker when we want to use a heavy portion of their writings, and it means they would pay us when they would want to use a lot of our material. (How much? I have no clue.) And if readers paid us for the material they get for free, that'd be even better.

Chris Anderson, the Wired editor and the author of a book called Free, recently posited that in the future journalism might be an avocation, a hobby because in the future, the business model might not support a full living wage and benefits.

But what kind of information and stories are you going to get when the people delivering those stories are hobbyists? When they are not people who are focused day in, day out on journalism. Either they will be independently wealthy (which carries its own complications of perspective and diversity) or they will be people who, based on time alone, are only halfway doing such an important job.

And to Gawker's credit, Nolan and other Gawker writers get bonuses if they exceed their web site traffic expectations.

(And surely, this whole debate has helped out on that front, too.)

Thanks again.

I am reachable at:

shapirai@washpost.com and twitter.com/ianshapira and facebook.com/ianshapira

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