By Shari Phiel
By now it’s no secret that newspapers, in general, are struggling to survive against the onslaught of “news” sources provided by the Internet. In December 2008, The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a study showing that 40 percent of Americans now get their national and international news from the Internet. Newspapers came in slightly under at 35 percent with television coverage still the number one source at 70 percent. Those numbers won’t hold though. Americans under the age of 30 turn to the Internet just as often for their national and international news, said the research center, both coming in at 59 percent.
But it isn’t just online newspapers people turn to for their news though. It’s also from bloggers and news sites like Huffington Post, the Daily Kos, Yahoo! News and Google News, to name but just a few. But you have to wonder just where these online sites are getting their news content.
Used to be you could count on getting your news from employed highly trained staffers who spent countless hours doing research, checking facts, finding sources and then getting the interviews needed for a story. It’s not uncommon for me to spend five or six hours just doing the legwork need for a 600 word article, let alone the additional hour or two spent actually writing it up.
That’s not necessarily the case for online news sources. Sites like Google News, Yahoo! News and others simply re-circulate top stories from major outlets like CNN and the Associated Press while others keep a small staff on hand to write new stories or rework previously published stories. With that lack of journalism training comes a lack of adhere to a journalist’s code of ethics.
Take for example the recent situation George Smith, Jr., social media specialist for the Crocs company, faced at the BlogHer summit in Chicago. Smith was approached by a blogger looking for a pair of the plastic clogs previously being given away by the company, but had run out.
Smith reported on his own blog that the woman then proceeded to tell him, “Ya’ know, if you don’t give me shoes, I could totally write something bad about you on my blog.” Thinking she surely had to be joking, Smith tried to dismiss the comment. Smith says the women then added “It’s just a pair of shoes. It’s a lot easier to give them to me than deal with the negative press I could make.”
In this day and age of mixed print and online media, I wonder how many more of these incidents Smith will face before he lumps all writers in the “blackmailer” category. The next time a journalist is questioning Smith on how social media is being used to revive the company’s falling stock prices will he just be waiting for the other shoe to drop (so to speak)?
Another, more recent example is the case of Washington Post writer Ian Shapira. In early July, a 1500-word article written by Shapira about Anne Loehr, a Washington-based consultant who advises Baby Boomer and Gen-X’er clients on the Millennial generation, was picked up by New York culture and media Web site Gawker.com.
At first, he was “feeling a bit triumphant,” said Shapira on his Aug. 2 Washington Post blog. “My article was ripe fodder for the blogosphere’s thrash-and-bash attitude.” It wasn’t long though before Shapira realized Gawker.com hadn’t excerpted or sourced his material, but had essentially stolen it altogether. Shapira described the Gawker piece as a “cut-and-paste” with only a brief mention of him and no mention of the Post.
While it may violate every code of ethics in existence for journalists, it isn’t illegal. “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,” noted Shapira.
It is by no means an uncommon practice for bloggers, nonprofits and news aggregators to use content from other sources, and is a practice most people — including reporters — are happy to see continue. As a writer, I’m thrilled to see my articles picked up by other sites, as long as appropriate attribution is provided. It keeps the story alive and gets my name out in the public. Although there will always be a few bad apples out there, most sites follow both the written and unwritten rules of “net-iquette.”
Gawker.com has defended its reporting, saying Shapira’s and the Post’s criticism is more likely a case of sour grapes. “The bigger threat is that blogs say the things that hidebound newspaper editors are too afraid to let their reporters write,” said Gawker.com writer Gabriel Snyder in an Aug. 3 post.
Gawker and Snyder have a point about the changing face of news. But it seems the missed the point of Shapira’s and the Post’s criticism. Regardless of the backlash, Gawker.com and sites like it aren’t likely to stop anytime soon. But to paraphrase something a colleague said over the weekend, I wonder who Gawker will steal from once the Post, and newspapers like it, are all out of business.