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Aug. 3 2009 - 11:28 am | 27 views | 3 recommendations | 31 comments

Why Can Gawker Steal the News?

Image representing Gawker Media as depicted in...
Image via CrunchBase

So much of the talk about saving newspapers seems to miss the point: it’s not really important to save newspapers, but it’s really important to save news organizations. You can be a smart ass like Chris Andersen and talk about how much `news’ you get from Twitter, but for most important stuff that happens in the world, all of us get our news because some finite number of news organizations are committed to values like speed, accuracy and judgment, and pay talented and trained individuals to report on stories of significance and interest. As we all know, when people read those stories on the internet, the price they (or advertisers) pay is nowhere near enough to underwrite the cost of that talent.

One answer is that news organizations have to stop giving their product away on the internet, and lots of smart people are trying to figure out how to do that. But another is to prevent people from stealing it. There is a wonderful article in The Washington Post today by Ian Shapira, detailing how a feature he wrote for the Post was snatched by Gawker. Shapira details the hours he spent reporting and writing the article, although he does not discuss the months and years he invested in developing his talent, nor the months and years that his editors invested in learning their craft and nurturing people like Shapira. He does report that the writer from Gawker who ripped off the story spent about a half an hour doing it.

This is the sort of thing that must end, and it’s not too strong an idea to suggest that the way you end it is the same way you end (or try to end) armed robbery or Ponzi schemes or any other sort of theft: you outlaw it. Shapira reports on an effort to do just that:

“David Marburger is a First Amendment lawyer who, along with his economist brother Daniel, is stirring a minor controversy in the blogosphere with a proposal that might empower newspapers, or any news organization that spends the bulk of its budget on original reporting. They want to amend the copyright law so that it restores “unfair competition rights” — which once gave us the power to sue rivals if our stories were being pirated. That change would give news organizations rights that they could enforce in court if “parasitic” free-rider Web sites (the heavy excerpters) refused to bargain with them for a fee or a contract. Marburger said media outlets could seek an order requiring the free-rider to postpone its commercial use or even hand over some advertising revenue linked to the free-riding.”

Shapira says news organizations once had such protections, and that in 1918 the Associated Press was able to use the law against a rival wire service that had been stealing its stories. The law was abolished during the revision of the copyrightlaws in 1976 because it was that that it gave media organizations a “boundless monopoly” over the news of the day. Congress then dropped the exception. Clearly that threat no longer pertains.

For an interesting perspective on this, consider Charles Blow’s article about the music industry that appeared in The New York Times on Saturday. “According to data from the Recording Industry Association of America,” Blow writes, “since music sales peaked in 1999, the value of those sales, after adjusting for inflation, has dropped by more than half. At that rate, the industry could be decimated before Madonna’s 60th birthday. The speed at which this industry is coming undone is utterly breathtaking. First, piracy punched a big hole in it. Now music streaming — music available on demand over the Internet, free and legal — is poised to seal the deal.”

Yes, let’s recall the golden age of Napster, when it was considered cool to strike a blow against the sclerotic record companies. Yes, the internet was going to let young artists express themselves without the interference by the suits. Yes, artists were going to be able to keep more of what they earn instead of enriching their corporate masters. And yes, anybody could build an amazing music library for free just by sharing files–taking them from a pal, without paying the record company, or the artist, a cent.

Well, that’s worked out well. According to one study Blow cites, “of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs.” Meanwhile, “Apple is working with the four largest labels to seduce people into buying more digital albums.”

In other words, they’re trying to recreate the wheel. Meanwhile, fortunes were lost and stolen, jobs were lost, lives upset, and the culture impoverished, because people thought it was okay to let the record companies to get ripped off. And the same thing is happening with the news media. It’s time the freeloaders started paying. It’s time the thieves were run out of town.


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  1. collapse expand

    Shapira’s piece is an interesting one, but all the talk of blogs “stealing” news is a diversion. The real fact of the matter is that newspapers have failed spectacularly in adjusting their moneymaking model to the internet economy. I have no doubt that the beancounters will eventually catch up with some eventual stroke of genius, but until they do that we’ll see a lot more stories like the WaPo’s.

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    There are responsible aggregators and there are irresponsible aggregators — just like in any other human endeavor. Do we really want to start tinkering with copyright laws because one schmuck at Gawker forgot what “fair use” is?

    And doesn’t fair use already provide the framework for legal recourse to those who think their content is being patently ripped off?

    I think the onus is on The Washington Post and its brethren to catch up to the news habits of the Internet consumer, rather than relying on the government to make their archaic business models stand on shaky legs for another 10 years.

    Besides, if the copyright competition rights were restored the way you and Marburger envision, what will happen to the upstart content sites who are responsible aggregators and commentators — sites like this one?

    • collapse expand

      Gawker and other sites are just taking the work of other people, repackaging it, profiting from it, and protecting themselves with laws about fair use written in another era. The law is what people make the law to be, and I just don’t think news organizations have to sit there and have their work hijacked because that’s what’s allowable under the law–or, even worse, because the trendy ideology of the moment is the creative destruction of capitalism and so on. The news organizations should use their power to preserve themselves. Let’s see how popular Gawker et al are after they have to help pay the costs of their articles–and after readers have to pay for the pleasure of clicking on.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    This would make sense if the person reading the article on Gawker a) would have otherwise read the article on the Post’s site AND b) if people reading excepts on Gawker did not go on to read the whole thing on the Post’s site. Both propositions are doubtful.

    In fact, Gawker serves to advertise the Post and send more readers to it. It should charge the Post for each click through, just like Google does on sponsored links.

    As for the record industry, so what if sales dropped by half? Production and distribution costs dropped to zero for online sales. No CDs to burn, box, ship and store.

    • collapse expand

      The idea that Gawker sends more readers to the Post is nonsense. Gawker exists inside a bubble of its own snideness.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Thanks for substantiating my point. If Gawker exists in a bubble of its own snideness, how likely is it that its readers would have read the article on the Post’s site if it had not appeared on Gawker?

        The Post is not harmed by people reading its articles elsewhere unless those readers would otherwise have read the article on the Post’s site.

        As for bubbles of snideness, Jamie, you, as the former editor of Spy magazine and the author of Mr Stupid Goes to Washington, are living in a glass house.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Look–I grow a tomato to sell at my roadside stand. A guy steals my tomato and sells it at his roadside stand–more cheaply than I do, by the way. A customer buys the tomato from him. You say I’m not harmed unless he would have otherwise have bought that tomato from me.

          Not exactly. It’s true I am harmed if you would have bought the tomato from me. But here’s the point–why is it okay for the thief to steal my tomato at all? We don’t usually make robbery victims prove that they really really really needed the money that was taken from them, or that what they were going to spend it on was really more useful than what the thief was going to spend it on.

          And admit it–you never read Mr. Stupid Goes to Washington, did you?

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            Jamie – it’s an honor to reply to you, especially in the service of torturing an analogy:

            what if the Marketing Chief at your tomato stand decided your produce needed more shelf space. So she called up some other tomato vendors to pitch your wares. Another vendor takes her up on the offer.

            Rather than selling your tomato whole, Vendor B slices the tomato, selects a few choice bits, adds a leaf of basil and shake of pepper to it. On a napkin held between two popsicle sticks, he writes “From Jamie’s Tomatoes.”

            Per Gawker themselves, this is what they say happened: WaPo’s Communication Manager pitched the story to them. This is a common technique to generate additional traffic to piece, and it can work quite well.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            If someone steals your tomato, you don’t have it anymore. Big difference.

            I did read Mr Stupid. You gave me an autographed copy, which I treasure. It was a long time ago, though.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Does a 15-year career in newspapers make me a veteran or a pundit? I have no idea. But I do know that the onus of saving and protecting newspapers is on themselves, not the public. Their efforts to retain copyright on their own material is absolutely 100% fair. That said, existing copyright laws can protect them — and right now — if Gawker and other sites continue stealing articles verbatim. The individual newspapers should sue the abusers and let the courts decide. New copyright laws, such as the ones news orgs are now calling for, are a knee-jerk reaction to plummeting circulation and drastically falling ad revenue. I agree original material belongs solely to the copyright holder; but another change in the copyright laws is unnecessary and, frankly, a vengeful and bullying tactic that is, in effect, a mere warning shot across the Internet’s bow.

    Would newspapers go after radio stations who routinely, day by day, take articles and condense them to their salient points? Radio has done this since the first years of broadcasting — where are the lawsuits for copyright infringement?

    News — journalism — is not going to go away. But newspapers, if they want to survive, need to figure out how to change their outmoded product to sell in the 21st century. I’m a newspaperman — and I don’t even subscribe. If newspapers today want my business, then the product has to be radically changed to suit my tastes…and yours…and hers…and his…and the conservatives…and the liberals…

    The era of the one size fits all metropolitan newspaper is over. They’d do themselves better if they were to concentrate on reinvention rather than legislation.

  5. collapse expand

    By the way, that’s the first time I’ve seen “onus” used even once in a comment. Now that’s three times. I promise I’ll never use “onus” again.


  6. collapse expand

    I agree completely Jamie,

    So much time, money, resources and work go into producing one piece of investigative journalism that internet ad revenue (an issue that’s bigger than the scope of newspapers, and concerns the Internet at large) just can’t keep up. Then to see a cocky, entitled organization like Gawker just copy, paste, and add a sheen of snark to someone else’s work – it’s an affront to journalism, period.

    And I wouldn’t say newspaper execs screwed this up – the idea had merit: put your product online as a way to advertise for your paper / weekly. It backfired.

    But again, maybe it wouldn’t have if Internet ad dollars were able to replicate those of a standard publication – the question then becomes, who do we blame for that? As the Internet increases its lead as the choice for news consumers, why shouldn’t companies be able to demand more and more money from their advertisers?

  7. collapse expand

    The problem with anti-ripoff laws: is where do you draw the line? Unlike artists, reporters don’t create their material, they draw it from a reality pool that’s open to everyone. Even before the net, newspapers used to grab stories from each other, often calling up the same sources to get the same or similar quotes, doing a little rewriing of the original and slapping a “second-day lede” on top. How’s it possible to determine how much change has to be made in a story before it’s sanitized?

    • collapse expand

      Good point, Lewis. But I guess the existence of such things as syndicates and the Associated Press solved a lot of those problems. More to the point, I guess nobody minded when the local radio station composed its little news report from articles that appeared in the morning papers. Perhaps everyone felt there was a lot of money around and people could overlook some petty theft in the name of the public’s right to know. But there isn’t so much money now, and the originating enterprises are being killed by knock-offs. So we can’t sit here and say “Oh, aggregation sites are the wave of the future.” I don’t see how, unless they somehow support the original enterprise. Parasites look like the wave of the future, until they kill the host.

      One more thing. You say “Unlike artists, reporters don’t create their material, they draw it from a reality pool that’s open to everyone.” I don’t know that reporters are artists, but I know that you would be the first to say that there are great reporters and terrible reporters, people who are smart, hard-working, insightful, studious, and others who dumb, lazy, and unprepapred–and all gradations in between. Don’t tell me that the work of good reporters and good news organizations is the sort of thing anybody with an iPhone and a twitter account can do.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  8. collapse expand

    The ancient scribes are rebelling against the printing press and they maintain that the time and effort put into carefully constructing each letter of a missive is more important than the message itself. Can anyone own news? Aren’t the stories a part of our life and we all own them and have a responsibility, as citizens, to learn as much as we can about them? No one that I have encountered on the Internet is packaging a copy of print news media. They’re too smart for that The Internet producers are much more inventive, creative and challenging. And, they want our response and put it up too. A true public forum, and someone wants to stop that and make us all pay to know a particular slant on things? Ridiculous!

    • collapse expand

      Sorry–one guy dug out the story, the other guy echoed it. There’s nothing wrong with echoing the story, but if the originating voice is being driven out of business, you ain’t gonna hear no echo.

      And for what it’s worth, I see very little evidence that the internet producers are much more inventive, creative and challenging.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Well, which Internet providers are you reading? I read your story on this site and before that had never heard of you. I thought your story was interesting and your profile creative but I don’t have any actual journalism experience on which to base my opinion. I did teach journalism to high school kids, for some years way back, and that really was, for the most part, creative writing. When I found that a boy had copied the encyclopedia word for word and asked him about it showing him that all the words matched, he still claimed not to have copied it. But I pointed out to him that he had even included “see photo above” but had no photo. I do believe that we are in the midst of a new world of expression based upon the internet, digital photography, movies, art, we can’t go back and I don’t want to, even though I am a painter from the old school of using a brush with paint on canvas, something that will probably become obsolete or at least passe.. Now, I took the time to read Kashmir Hill’s piece about how the NY Times stole her internet story – so, apparently this works both ways. To me, the most important thing is that the public becomes more informed. But I am not a journalist who must earn my living from writing my articles, so, my comment may be irrelevant and just plain wrong.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        What is the difference between Walter Cronkite doing a 10-minute segment on on the CBS Evening News about the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate and this?

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  9. collapse expand

    What I have yet to understand about the ethics of online journalism is what killed the attribution system. What I recall from the occasional work I did for newspapers, and the larger amount for magazines, was that if someone else got part of the story, you said so, and then added something new. If you didn’t have anything new, your editor told you to go away until you had something that advanced the story. This system worked even when TV news was using print as an uncredited tipsheet. Why is internet different? Why do you think this doesn’t happen, or work, any more?

  10. collapse expand

    Marc raises an essential point. It’s completely clear to me — a staff veteran of three daily newspapers — that if or when you quoted material clearly broken by a competitor, you gave them credit. It’s called respect: respect for the fact they kicked your ass! Your editors and their editors and all your colleagues knew it. It also showed respect for the larger understanding that it indeed takes hard work, skill and experience to get a story first and right. With no shared framework of ethical standards, no rules exist.

    When I was a reporter for the Globe and Mail in Toronto I used to hear many of my stories on CBC radio before I went to work, rip and read radio. Standard stuff. But then, a newspaper job was safe.

    I agree this practice is egregious. If you have the skills, go do your own reporting. If you don’t, credit those who do.

  11. collapse expand

    Interesting debate that’s developing right here. Next door, there’s a sideline to it: can the news industry learn anything form Chris Anderson’s Free? http://trueslant.com/bartbrouwers/2009/08/04/anderson%e2%80%99s-free-in-the-news-industry-2/

  12. collapse expand

    Bart’s perspective, and now – just posted – Kashmir’s first-hand perspective: The Evolution of Journalism (or how the New York Times stole my blog story). A must-read as the conversation continues…

  13. collapse expand

    On a different note or angle – the big traditional news outlets are owned by corporations who may want to influence or even control what is reported. I think that the internet reporters work more independently, but I don’t really know this as a fact. I wonder about this. I do read the NY Times and The New Yorker magazine fairly faithfully. I choose them, even though I am not from New York and do not live anywhere near there, because they are well written intelligent pieces. But I can learn much more about the topics online. And, I can share those articles with others, to the extent that I can refer people to the internet version of the stories rather than having to mail them a newspaper or magazine.

  14. collapse expand

    Having read the articles now, I have to say that Gawker should have credited the source much more prominently and provided a link in the in the first sentence or at least the first paragraph. This particular case does look like theft.

  15. collapse expand


    “all of us get our news because some finite number of news organizations are committed to values like speed, accuracy and judgment, and pay talented and trained individuals to report on stories of significance and interest.”


    “unfortunately, our system is set up in such a way so as to filter out any meaningful coverage, and thus the information that is distributed into the mainstream is collected and presented by a small number of corporations that are completely focused on making money, and who pay semi-capable monkeys to shit on paper and call it journalism.”

    And please shut up with the fucking tomatoes.

  16. collapse expand

    All this tomato talk is inspiring me to break for an early lunch.

    Did the vendor buy the tomato from me? If so, he can do with it what he wishes. Did my marketing manager give it to him? Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not. Very early in my working life, I was the PR man for Harper’s magazine and The Atlantic, and I would pitch stories in the magazines to other people to write about. I believed then, and believe now, that a mention of an article in Liz Smoth’s column or on a radio talk show might sell a particular article, but would generally promote the brand. Does this still work, and in each and every instance? Does seeing Howard Fineman on MSNBC encourage me to read Newsweek? I don’t think so–it makes me think I’ve heard everything Fineman has to say.

    I remember being impressed, during the brief time I worked as an editor for Jann Wenner, that whenever Rolling Stone had a booth at events like College Music Conventions (or whatever they were called), RS never gave away free copies of the magazine. “Never give away the product,” was his motto.

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    About Me

    I'm a writer. l like rock-climbing, gourmet cooking, and yoga. I speak six languages and have a head full of long, thick, jet black hair. No, wait--hair--yoga--urdu--cooking--rocks--that's all somebody else. I'm just a writer. I've been an editor at Spy, Esquire, Time, and Playboy, and I wrote the novels The Coup and Mr. Stupid Goes to Washington, and otherwise I'm as ordinary as a cheeseburger.

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