Thursday, September 3, 2009

Whose News Is It Anyway?

Posted By on 09.03.09 at 12:02 PM

Our mothers taught us — don't take what isn't ours.

The other day, in the LA Times, author M.G. Lord explained why that isn't nice. She wote about her recent crummy experience being assigned to write a review of a new book on the history of the Barbie Doll and discovering that it was laced with quotations she'd compiled for her own book on the subject 15 years earlier, quotations presented "verbatim and without specific attribution."

"I felt violated," Lord wote. "Histories do not grow on trees. The first person to cobble out a definitive narrative has to do a ton of work. You interview hundreds of people and hunt down documents, which can be especially elusive if influential people would prefer that they stay hidden. You separate truth from hearsay. Then — with endnotes — you meticulously source all your quotations and odd facts so future scholars will know whence they came."

You don't find endnotes in newspapers, but you do find attribution. If what Lord was protesting isn't plagiarism it's close — it's the appropriation of her research, her reporting if you will. And she wasn't asking for the moon in return — simply attribution.

Among journalists these days, feelings are running particularly high about appropriation. There's a new word for it, aggregation, and the old-fashioned working stiffs have a pretty stringent view of what the rules of the road need to be when other Web sites aggregate their reporting. There's a commercial dimension to the aggregation argument — every site wants to maximize traffic, and every site wants its original reporting read by the public where it originated. But the ethical dimension is as potent — the idea that mere aggregators are parasitically benefiting from the labor of bona fide journalists.

When it comes to plagiarism, journalists know it when they see it. Improper aggregation is headed in the same direction.

The Hartford Courant - SAGE ROSS/GNU FREE DOCUMENTATION LICENSE
  • Sage Ross/GNU Free Documentation License
  • The Hartford Courant

There's constant chatter on local blogs and tweets about when the limits of aggregation are being exceeded in Chicago. At the Hartford Courant recently there was no argument. The Courant is a Tribune Company daily, and although the Chicago Tribune itself has obviously taken a beating in the last few years, I hear that the company's outlying papers are the places to see what bankruptcy and frantic amateurism can really do. The Courant has made itself a leading example.

It was just accused of "misappropriating on a wholesale basis" stories that originated in Manchester, Connecticut's Journal Inquirer and showed up on the Courant Web site.. The Journal Inquirer's publisher wrote the Courant's publisher, "While attribution to the JI of the occasional big story we have broken may be welcome, the Courant's frequent use of the JI's work to report ordinary events in the towns in which our circulation overlaps is not welcome — it's theft of copyrighted material and costly to us."

Jeffrey Levine, the Courant's "director of content," replied publicly. "Aggregation is the process of synopsizing information from other news sources, most commonly by placing a portion of the information on your web site and linking to the original story, as is done by Google News," said Levine in a statement in the Courant. "It is a practice being used increasingly by traditional news organizations around the country."

Levine made aggregation sound like, if not a good thing, something ethically neutral. But then he allowed that after hearing from the Journal Inquirer, the Courant had examined its aggregation practices and discovered "legitimate points of concern. Most importantly, we discovered a mistake in our editing process when we take articles from our website to our print newspaper. We found that we inappropriately dropped the attribution or proper credit and in some cases credited ourselves with a byline to a Courant reporter."

In short, the Courant had been posting stories from other papers on its Web site, and then culling those stories to run in the print edition as its own, sometimes actually slapping on the byline of a Courant reporter! The Courant was reviewing its "editing procedures," Levine announced; yet he had to admit there was an example of this misappropriation in a preprinted section of the Courant that very day.

"The Courant violated fundamental standards. This was theft," asserted Andy Schotz, chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, in an SPJ statement issued Wednesday.

You might be asking yourself, what is a "director of content" anyway? Well, it's a new title for a new age. The tired old title of "editor" has been set aside by the Courant in favor of "print platform manager," and the person the print platform manager reports to is the "director of content." This is Levine, whose background is in marketing, and who wears two hats as content director of both the Courant and the local Tribune Company TV station. When he arrived at the Courant earlier this year, the local Fairfield Weekly wrote that he was taking over a newspaper transformed:

"Gone are the daily's state politics writer, its prize investigative editor and the reporters who covered state police, religion, the environment and so many other beats that made the Courant as comprehensive and relevant as any metro daily in the country. In its place is a newsroom with lots of empty desks and a new boss whose orders are to make the Courant the best 'platform agnostic content' provider on the planet."

In the life of a director of content, when it rains it pours. Just a couple of weeks ago the Courant suffered a spate of regrettable publicity when its consumer columnist, who'd been at the Courant 40 years, was dismissed after writing a critical story on a major advertiser. The column was spiked, though the columnist posted it on the Web site he promptly launched after leaving the Courant. The columnist's boss, identified by the New York Times as the Courant's "editor and print platform manager," told the Times that in a meeting with the columnist, "We said we wanted to go to more helpful news, and less gotcha news.”

True gotcha news isn't worthy of a serious newspaper, but gotcha news that is actually hard-hitting investigative reporting should be untouchable. In these days when, as the Times pointed out, desperate newspapers have taken to "running front-page ads [the Times itself does this] and ads that look like news articles," directors of content and print platform managers who spike columns and can annoying reporters don’t ever seem to get the benefit of our doubts. Not in these days of empty desks and silly titles.

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