Who owns the news?

newspapers Well it looks like we might have another hot button topic developing and as usual when it comes to blogs and traditional media it is about a journalist claiming that some dirty old blog has stolen their content. The journalist in question is Washington Post’s Ian Shapira who is whining about how Gawker cherry picked his original article for the best quotes and is now making money off of what is basically his work.

Using terms like “the blogosphere’s thrash-and-bash attitude” and “nervous about my precarious career as a newspaper reporter” Shapira paints a picture of a newspaper industry that is being undermined by unethical bloggers. He more than willingly admits to a subversive pleasure when he first saw that his original story had been picked up by Gawker. It wasn’t until his editor asked him where his rage was over how Gawker had stole his story that Shapira started to get angry.

An angry over how “his” story had been ripped off. Anger over how his story had been cherry-picked for quotes. It didn’t matter that Gawker ended up helping make his story more valuable by being the second biggest referrer. Ian tries to tie in the eyeballs reading his story, either directly or via the second biggest referrer, into how that traffic isn’t doing anything to help the paper’s bottom line.

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.

Well, before we all start getting the Kleenex out to wipe away all those crocodile tears we need to get over this idea that that it is the fault of bloggers that journalists are losing their jobs. They aren’t – not by the biggest stretch of your imagination. What is killing newspapers is a business model that is management and production heavy. We are talking about a business that has more editors pouring over stories and deciding if and when to publish them than journalists writing them.

Take for example the post by Clark Hoyt in the New York Times that examined why the errors in a recent story about Walter Cronkite happened

Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.

Five editors in a newspaper where the median salary for a copy editor is $80,000 or higher which means you have a minimum of $400,000 a year being spent on what is only a portion of the number of editors they have. This doesn’t even take into account the hundreds of thousands being paid out to those in upper management. It also isn’t taking into account the incredible yearly cost of printing and distributing each and every newspaper across the country.

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.

- Ian Shapira :: The Death of Journalism (Gawker Edition)

Those kinds of costs are unsustainable and they are not the fault of bloggers who are actually helping to prop up this failing business model with every link they include in their posts. They aren’t stealing food from anyone’s table or causing mortal damage to 401k’s. That responsibility lies totally at the feet of the people who own these newspapers and their total believe that they and only they own the news and own how it should be distributed.

The problem is they don’t own the news. They might own one of the ways that it gets reported and distributed but they don’t own the news or how people find out about it – not any more.

Interestingly enough I didn’t come to the root of this story by either Gawker or the New York Times but rather a great post by Stowe Boyd where the following section got me thinking about all this.

But Shipira thinks it is ‘his’ story because he wrote about it, did the legwork, transcribed the notes. He ‘owns’ it in some way, and he is being robbed of… something… by the Gawker piece building on his work.

So, at core, the issue here is something larger. Who owns the world of discourse? Who is allowed to profit, and in what way, from the actions of participants in this web sphere?

As much as people like Shapira, and his angry editor, might like to take pot shots at bloggers for “stealing” their content this is nothing new. For the whole period of old media’s dominance in news distribution newspapers have had their content quoted on television news broadcasts. Newspapers have quoted from news broadcasts and yet nobody during that time every point to the other and called them thieves.

But most obviously absent is an appreciation that the web — at least for those of us who are not approaching it as an economic snakepit — can be a non-zero sum game. The hypothetical value of Shapira’s story is not stolen by a Gawker author lifting the main points from the story, but it is increased.

- Stowe Boyd :: As Media Economics Shift, Old Media Can’t See The Forest, Only Trees

It’s not like a person is going to read some article in a newspaper that quotes someone from television news and go running to watch that newscaster. It’s not like some news anchor is going to quote some journalist and we’re all going to go running to buy a newspaper. Neither of these two ever add any value to the other when they quote these outside sources.

Yet, when it comes to blogging we do nothing but add value to the originating news organization by the very fact that we link back to them, just as I have done many times in this post. Newspapers and television news can not say the same thing.

If traditional news media want to survive they aren’t going to do it by blaming the people who are adding value to their content. They aren’t going to do it by claiming they own the news and therefore have exclusive rights to it. The only rights they have is in how they decide to distribute, or share, it.

If the traditional news media wants to survive they need to look at their own organizations and evaluate their internal structures as well as their delivery methods.

Blaming bloggers and using words like “cherry-picking” and “stealing” isn’t going to suddenly turn back time to when newspapers were the de facto arbitrators of what is news and what isn’t. Those days are gone but the news is always as it has been – free.


  1. 02/08/09 at 22:12

    I find the opening of this post is a little uncharacteristic-ly snarky for you Steve. Sure, I realize the purpose behind the whole 'Shooting at Bubbles' moniker – but normally the subjects you choose are a little more deserving.

    I guess what annoyed me is the way you've portrayed Shipira by selectively quoting his article. The fact Shipira willlingly refers to himself and his own article as another whinging old media reporter should give some clue as to his real mindset – that of a journalist who likes his current employment for obvious reasons, can recognize the potential and future of journalism on the web, and identifies some quite real issues.

  2. 03/08/09 at 14:24

    Shapira was more of a catalyst than anything else that led into my feelings about the newspaper and “news” media. I can understand to a point his backtracking on thinking that getting over 9,000 extra readers because of the Gawker post was a great thing. But blaming blogs for the overall decline of the industry he chose to make his profession is facetious given that he didn't even question once how this very industry was just as much to blame if not more so.

  3. 03/08/09 at 21:50

    Well yeah, totally agree with your comments about the problem with the newspapers is the huge and overheads and management costs. However what I got out of Shapira's article that I thought was a valid point was the fact all the media gets news and reports from other media companies, both blogs from papers and vice versa. Neither likes to see their stories taken with no compensation and bad sourcing and it does make sense for those big companies to have some kind of accepted method of presenting their sources, and perhaps providing compensation for the stories.