On March 4, Gawker published a first-person piece by James King, a former worker for the Mail Online (or DailyMail.com) who had some critical things to say about the fast-twitch, aggregation-fueled news organization: “[T]he Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication,” wrote King, in a piece that carried the headline “My Year Ripping Off the Web With the Daily Mail Online.”
Sharp-edged stuff, for sure. A bit too sharp-edged, argue lawyers for Mail Media Inc. in a defamation suit filed today in the New York State Supreme Court. “As a result of Defendants’ defamatory statements,” reads the 34-page complaint, “The Mail’s reputation, goodwill, and business have been damaged.”
As he explained in his story, King worked as a freelance news writer at the Mail Online from May 2013 until July 2014. In a narrative rich with workplace detail, he depicted an aggregation mill in which writers would get assigned a voracious number of news capsules from other outlets to more or less rewrite in the style of Mail Online. “We were simply given stories written by other publications and essentially told to rewrite them,” writes King. “And unlike at other publications where aggregation writers are encouraged to find a unique angle or to add some information missing from an original report, the way to make a story your own at the Mail is to pass off someone else’s work as your own.”
And so it went, a litany of charges against the Mail Online, all ending in one heck of an indictment. King notes that his managers offered to convert him to a full-time staffer, but he declined. Nor did the story end with its publication, as it now includes an appended response from the Mail Online plus a rebuttal from King. A March 6 followup also drew fire from the lawsuit.
Contrary to King’s essay, lawyers argue in the lawsuit that the Mail Online “trained employees and independent contractors on, among other topics, proper sourcing and attribution, and provide additional instruction to employees and independent contractors and, when warranted, discipline, including firing for failure to follow journalistic best practices, including those relating to truthful, accurate reporting and proper attribution and sourcing,” reads the suit. Further, it notes, “editors at The Mail had to repeatedly remind Defendant King of the need for proper attribution and to add hyperlinks to articles on which he worked during his time performing work for The Mail.” Also: King’s responsibilities at the outlet were curtailed after his bosses discovered that he’d plagiarized an article for the site, alleges the suit.
Other nitty-gritty elements of the complaint go directly after King himself. They include a Facebook posting in which King wrote of his contempt for a supervisor at the Mail Online and an allegation that over a 10-month period he’d failed to show up for shifts “no fewer than fourteen times.” Also mentioned is a tweet from former Gawker editor in chief Max Read disparaging King. Remember, however: Whatever King’s failings, the suit admits that the Mail Online did indeed offer him a job.
The Erik Wemple Blog crops up now and again in the complaint: “In August and September 2014, Defendant King approached Erik Wemple, a media reporter for the Washington Post, and shopped the article he had written about his time at The Mail to Mr. Wemple, in an effort to have it published by The Washington Post.” As the suit notes, this blog ended up not publishing the story. The Erik Wemple Blog declines to expand upon this matter here or anywhere else.
The suit seeks unspecified damages to be determined at trial.
Whatever the merits of King’s story, it didn’t exactly upend conventional wisdom about the Mail Online. Take, for instance, this June 2014 Guardian piece titled, “Mail Online ducks questions from News Corp over its lifting of copy.” Or this Poynter story from March 2012, titled, “Editor of Daily Mail’s website defends attribution practices in face of growing criticism.” Or this Poynter story, also from March 2012: “Daily Mail grabs story from Newsweek/Daily Beast.” Or this Poynter story from February 2014: “Daily Mail rips off Yahoo News story, then updates with ‘credit.‘” Or this March 2013 New York Times story, which carries a quote from a spokesman from the New York Daily News: “[T]here’s been an ongoing pattern where they didn’t credit stories.”
Gawker Media sent the Erik Wemple Blog this statement: “While we’re not surprised that the Daily Mail doesn’t like what James King had to say about his time working there, this baseless complaint doesn’t even attempt to refute the vast majority of the author’s detailed anecdotes about his experience as a Daily Mail writer.”
Updated to add an additional Poynter story and a statement from Gawker.