Original Reporting And The Law of Diminishing Returns

Ian Shapira, a reporter at The Washington Post has written a great piece on the tenuous relationship between mainstream news organizations like the Post and new media vultures like Gawker.
At first Shapira was excited that Gawker picked up one of his stories, but after a confrontation with his editor at the Post who said “they stole your story,” the reporter began to rethink the equation.

I started thinking about all the labor that went into producing my 1,500-word article. The story wasn’t Pulitzer material; it was just a reported look at one person capitalizing on angst in the workplace. With all the pontificating about the future of newspapers both in the media and in Capitol Hill hearings, I began wondering if most readers know exactly what is required to assemble a feature story for a publication such as The Post. Journalism at a major newspaper is different from what’s usually required in the wild and riffy world of the Internet.
Gawker’s version of my story, headlined ” ‘Generational Consultant’ Holds America’s Fakest Job,” begins by telling its readers to “Meet Anne Loehr” — with a link to my story but no direct mention of The Post. It then condenses her biography: “Loehr is 44. She spent the entire decade of the 90s running hotel and safari operations in Kenya.” That’s information I got after an hour-plus phone call with Loehr and typing out 3,000 words of notes.

Shapira suggests that Gawker pay the Post and other sources for the right to repurpose its content, which is a good idea, but one that only works for well endowed new media companies like Gawker. For instance, AdPulp could not pay The New York Times or Ad Age for that right because we don’t have the income to do so, despite a sizable audience here. So, should we refrain from lifting and riffing? Is it wrong? Is it stealing when I pull two paragraphs as I’ve done above? I don’t believe it is, but it’s a fine line that we and others like us dance.
Shapira also points out that First Amendment lawyer David Marburger, along with his economist brother Daniel, wants to amend the copyright law so that it restores “unfair competition rights” — which once gave news organizations the power to sue rivals if stories were being pirated. That right stemmed from a Supreme Court ruling in 1918 in favor of the Associated Press in a complaint against a rival (Hearst-owned) wire service that had been ripping off its stories.
Margurger’s attempts sound like someone trying to put the genie back in the bottle, a path favored by the recording industry (that’s widely seen as clueless, reckless and greedy by fans and many musicians). However, I’m aware that this is a complicated issue with no easy answers. I think most of us would agree that people need to be paid for their work, but in media, fewer and fewer people are being paid. Mainstream news organizations are shedding talent at an alarming rate. Meanwhile only the most popular and well run new media organizations have writers on staff. The rest pay a nominal fee ($25 per post) to freelancers, while the great majority pay their writers nothing at all, as the pubs have no income to work with, or an income so small from display and text advertising it’s hardly worth mentioning. Huffington Post is an exception–the site makes money for its owners while refusing to pay writers.
Further complicating matters is the fact that most sites like this one are an amalgam of styles. We lift and riff, but we also wade through a mountain of tips, press releases and creative submissions to present original content. So, let’s pretend AdPulp had the revenue to compensate our sources and that we gladly paid for the right to repurpose. Would we have any guarantee whatsoever that those who repurpose our work would pay? Of course not, and we wouldn’t pursue a costly legal remedy. All of which tells me that the solution is not legal in nature. This is a business problem and those of us in the media business need to solve it.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.