The Evolution of Journalism (Or: How The New York Times Stole My Blog Story)
Ian Shapira’s piece on Gawker’s stealing his Washington Post story is getting passed around by journalists and new media types like HPV on a college campus. If you’ve somehow missed it, here’s the short bloggy version: Shapira spent two days reporting and writing a 1,500-word article on a business coach. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan spent a half hour repackaging it for a Gawker post titled ‘Generational Consultant’ Holds America’s Fakest Job.
Shapira used the episode as an opportunity to decry the death of journalism and attack blogs for wielding the shiv. Gawker’s Gabriel Snyder went on the defense yesterday to explain that what the Washington Post calls “snark” is actually a “point of view” that adds value to Gawker’s version of the story. I agree. I’d also like to weigh in to say that blogs often bring much original content to the news cycle, and that newspapers and mainstream media are increasingly “stealing” from us bloggers.
Case in point: a series of stories I wrote for the legal blog Above The Law earlier this year about Justice Antonin Scalia having his privacy invaded by a Fordham Law School professor.
I’ve been an associate editor at the legal tabloid blog Above The Law for a year and a half. Like Gawker, Above The Law is a snarky news website, except we cover stories about law firms, lawyers, judges, and law schools. We cover original legal stories and also often link to and repackage content from the mainstream media.
In April, I attended a privacy law conference at Fordham University — an all-day conference, I might add. During one of the sessions, a law professor talking about “information privacy” mentioned that Supreme Court Justice Scalia does not believe in the “right to privacy” since he’s an originalist in his interpretation of the Constitution, and that right was not spelled out by ye olde Founding Fathers. So this professor assigned his class to compile a dossier on the Justice, scouring the Internet for all the information they could find on him, including his home address; addresses, phone numbers and photos of his family members; and other odd information.
That made me go, “Whoa.” I looked over at the only other journalist at the conference: Noah Shachtman, a contributing editor at Wired, who was speaking on one of the panels that day. He was fiddling on his BlackBerry and didn’t seem to register the significance of this. “Yes, scoop!” I thought to myself.
When the panel ended, I went up to the professor and asked him questions about the dossier. I reported the story the next day on Above The Law: What Fordham Knows About Justice Scalia.
Then I called the Supreme Court and talked to its public information officer, Kathy Arberg. I told her about the story and asked if Justice Scalia might have a response. He did. He was annoyed and his response was scathing toward the professor. It was great; Nino knows how to give good quote. Arberg sent me the response via e-mail and I wrote another story on Above The Law: Justice Scalia Responds to Fordham Privacy Invasion!
That caught the attention of the mainstream media.
First ABC News repackaged my story: Law Students Collect Personal Info on Justice Scalia. If you compare the stories, you’ll see that the journalist Scott Michel did no original reporting. He regurgitated Above The Law’s coverage and cited us as the source about halfway through the article. A variety of other mainstream media also picked it up, including the holy of holies, The New York Times.
The NYT’s Noam Cohen wrote Law Students Teach Scalia About Privacy and the Web. Again, my story was repackaged and Above The Law was mentioned as a source about halfway through the piece.
After giving me a quote about the incident, Justice Scalia refused to talk to other media about it. The New York Times notes this…
Justice Scalia declined an interview request through a spokeswoman but he did give a response about the episode to Above the Law.
…And then used our coverage. Cohen also got additional quotes from a student in the class, privacy expert Dan Solove, and from the Fordham law professor — who was annoyed I had written the story.
I’m a struggling blogger making very little money. I would have been happy to write that story for the New York Times on a freelance basis and get paid for it. (As Washingtonian Magazine invited me to do for its June issue.)
But that’s not how these things usually work. As journalists — the traditional ones and the “new” ones/bloggers — we get stories out into the world, and then they bounce around and gather steam and get read. It’s exciting!
I’m happy my story was covered, regurgitated and repackaged. It’s an important story about a topic –privacy– that I am passionate about.
It’s not primarily bloggers killing newspapers. It’s a public that doesn’t want to read real paper anymore. It’s readers who want humor, voice, and a strong point of view in the news they read. It’s companies that are cutting back on advertising in the middle of a recession. The world is evolving and we all need to change with it, and embrace the ease with which our little stories can now get out and spread their little wings and fly.
That said, give credit where credit is due. Mention the original source for a story high up in your piece if your reporting’s not original. Mention the journalist by name even — as a fellow journalist, you know we have huge egos. And encourage your readers to follow links to the original source(s).