Link-phobic bloggers at the NYT and WSJ

By Felix Salmon
March 8, 2010
Clark Hoyt, the NYT's public editor, has a good post-mortem on l'affaire Zachary Kouwe, and asks whether "the culture of DealBook, the hyper-competitive news blog on which Kouwe worked" was partly to blame for his plagiarism.

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Clark Hoyt, the NYT’s public editor, has a good post-mortem on l’affaire Zachary Kouwe, and asks whether “the culture of DealBook, the hyper-competitive news blog on which Kouwe worked” was partly to blame for his plagiarism.

It’s a good question, but also a dangerous one, because I fear it will help to keep blogs marginalized at the NYT and elsewhere: is there something inherent to the culture of blogging which breeds a degree of carelessness ill suited to a venerable newspaper?

The answer, in truth, is not that the NYT has gone too far down the bloggish rabbit hole, but rather that it hasn’t gone far enough. Kouwe was a reporter for the newspaper as well as for Dealbook, and as far as I know he has never had a blog of his own before or since. Big mainstream-media publications, when they hire people to write their blogs, generally hire people with no blogging experience at all — something which is both ill-conceived and dangerous. Some journalists make good bloggers; most don’t. So rather than gamble that you’ve found one of the rare exceptions, why not make prior blogging experience a prerequisite for such positions?

The fundamental problem with Kouwe was that when he saw good stories elsewhere, he felt the need to re-report them himself, rather than simply linking to what he had found, as any real blogger would do as a matter of course.

Kouwe’s interview with John Koblin is a portrait of a journalist utterly failing to grok what a blog can do:

Mr. Kouwe says he has never fabricated a story, nor has he knowingly plagiarized. “Basically, there was a minor news story and I thought we needed to have a presence for it on the blog,” he said, referring to DealBook. “In the essence of speed, I’ll look at various wire services and throw it into our back-end publishing system, which is WordPress, and then I’ll go and report it out and make sure all the facts are correct. It’s not like an investigative piece. It’s usually something that comes off a press release, an earnings report, it’s court documents.”

“I’ll go back and rewrite everything,” he continued. “I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that’s what probably happened.”

If there’s a minor news story on a trustworthy wire service, and you think you need it on the blog, then link to it. You add no value by rushing — with “essence of speed”, no less — to get the exact same story yourself. You’re a well-paid full-time journalist at the New York Times; there are surely higher and better uses of your valuable time than going back to rewrite a story which already exists elsewhere.

The sin that resulted in Kouwe’s departure from the NYT was that he rewrote badly, and left large chunks of other people’s work unchanged in his own copy. But the true underlying sin was that he spent so much time rewriting in the first place: the beauty of blogs, which exist to link elsewhere, is that he should never have needed to do that at all.

Kouwe once wrote, in an email quoted by Teri Buhl:

Things move so quickly on the Web that citing who had it first is something that is likely going away, especially in the age of blogs.

Anybody who can or would write such a thing has no place working on a blog. If it’s clear who had a story first, then the move into the age of blogs has made it much easier to cite who had it first: blogs and bloggers should be much more generous with their hat-tips and hyperlinks than any print reporter can be.

The problem, here, is that the bloggers at places like the NYT and the WSJ are print reporters, and aren’t really bloggers at heart. I discovered this a couple of weeks ago, after I posted a long and detailed blog entry on the court case between JP Morgan and Mexico’s Cablevisión. The WSJ’s Deal Journal blog didn’t link to it, but a couple of days later, the blog’s lead writer, Michael Corkery, had a piece in the print version of the newspaper which added nothing to the story, quoted the same Cablevisión executive that I had spoken to, and didn’t mention my post at all.

The decision not to cite or link to my blog was made by Dennis Berman, the editor of the WSJ story and a former Deal Journal blogger himself. Corkery and Berman read my piece and spent a couple of days re-reporting it, yet despite the fact that both of them have worked as bloggers, neither felt any need to link to me — or even to link to the court ruling in question. It’s a print-newspaper mindset, and it reveals something important: if even the WSJ’s bloggers eschew obvious links, there’s really no hope that the newspaper will genuinely embrace the power of the web at any point in the foreseeable future.

Both the NYT and the WSJ have built blogs as something of a link ghetto: if you want to find an external hyperlink anywhere on their sites, the only place you’ll have a decent chance of finding one is on the blogs. (There are a few noble and notable exceptions, Frank Rich being one of them: the web version of his column is always full of interesting external links.)

That’s depressing enough — but what’s more depressing still is that even the bloggers at the NYT and WSJ are link-phobic, often preferring to re-report stories found elsewhere, giving no credit to the people who found and reported them first. It’s almost as though they think that linking to a story elsewhere is an admission of defeat, rather than a prime reason why people visit blogs in the first place. It’s a print reporter’s mindset, and it should have no place at Dealbook, Deal Journal, or any other blog.

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Comments
8 comments so far

The print reporter mindset is to be lazy and copy off the kid next to you?

Posted by UncleBillly1 | Report as abusive

Felix –

This is a real question – not rhetorical banter:

Are you arguing that these kinds of stories should not be re-reported – or just that it shouldn’t be a blogger’s responsibility to do that re-reporting? (i.e. that a blogger should be an analyst/commentator when it comes to items that have already been reported elsewhere)

Part of the question is this – with regard to your point: “…the blog’s lead writer, Michael Corkery, had a piece in the print version of the newspaper which added nothing to the story, quoted the same Cablevisión executive that I had spoken to, and didn’t mention my post at all.”

It seems clear from the timing and context he should have credited you. But, beyond that, and from the point of a “news” publication rather than a blog, do you think that it simply should NOT have been re-reported at all? Or are you really just saying it turned out to be worthless time spent since it wasn’t additive?

I ask the latter, in seriousness, because it raises the question of whether, in a “news” environment, it is simply enough to “tip one’s hat” and observe that someone else has done some reporting. That would seem a tougher issue, especially if you believe there’s such a wide range of quality in reporting, and that perhaps one can’t always rely on the first to get the story.

Posted by fixedincome | Report as abusive

fixedincome, I do think that the JPM/Cablevision story was and is an important one, and I’m very glad that the WSJ ran with it. I also understand that if the WSJ’s going to run a major story on that topic, it’s going to have to do some reporting of its own. But I also think that if the story is important enough to put on the front page on a Saturday, it’s also important enough to at least link to on the previous Thursday when it first came out. And of course one of the great things about blogs is that once you start linking to things, people start emailing and commenting and writing on their own blogs while linking back to you — and so you learn more for your own story two days later, and maybe you can move the story forwards a bit.

I would like to argue that it’s more than a tip of the hat. When bloggers link to each other and to news stories, the reader can get different perspectives and biases (yes, we’re all biased, but that’s not usually a bad thing), and draw conclusions based on a broader array of reporting. The bloggers cooperate as a community even as they compete in a smaller sense on the facts of the story, which provides them with more information and broader insight.

Felix, the WSJ story also ran in print, and I would guess that it was prepared for print, and posted on the blog as an afterthought. Links would have had to have been added after the story was put to bed, so to speak. I know it’s weak, and shows the limitations of print media, but I would guess that’s why many print organizations lack copious links.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Felix, I think you’re missing the key incentives here.

The hostility to linking outward from newspaper websites is largely a byproduct of their fear, suspicion, and resentment of other sites that have taken to linking, quoting, or excerpting their own reported content. Most major papers, and the journalists who work for them, feel (with some justification) threatened by the trend toward aggregation. They don’t like it when some blogger gets tens of thousand hits for a post built around a story they spent weeks or months researching – that’s their revenue, they believe, in someone else’s pocket. And that scorn for link-based blogging as inherently derivative and exploitative carries over into their own writing – there isn’t a first-rate paper in the country that does a good job linking to content.

I’m not without sympathy for that complaint, even though it’s fundamentally misguided. There’s a lot of very bad linking and excerpting that takes place on the web. But on the whole, it’s more of an opportunity than a curse. And even if they don’t like, it’s the emergent reality, and newspapers are going to have to adapt to it if they’re going to survive. Walling themselves off is simply a prescription for irrelevance.

This is why successful bloggers and trained journalists come at the issue so differently. Bloggers are predisposed to believe that they are taking part in a journalistic conversation, with their readers and with other bloggers. They expect their audience to cobble together information from a wide variety of sources, including their own blog. Journalists are trained to assemble and present information to their audience – generally with the presumption that their audience has no prior exposure to the story, and no other means of finding out about it. That story will run in a single package, a newspaper assembled from stories cobbled together from a wide variety of journalists.

In other words, the fundamental conflict here is between two visions of how content ought to be assembled, presented, and read. Newspaper journalists – and particularly old-guard editors – see in blogging the negation of the newspaper as a product. Not without reason. But that’s the argument you’ve got to tackle head on if you want them to change their minds. It’s not enough to rail against the stupidity of pointlessly replicating work, often in inferior fashion, when you can simply link to it. That’s not going to change minds. It’s not enough to point out that the moral dubiousness of linking to someone else’s content and generating hits from it is far outweighed by the outright sins of lifting that content without due acknowledgment or ignoring a worthwhile story just because someone else got there first. After all, they’ve been behaving in that fashion for their whole professional lives, and have long become inured to complaints.

There are only two chances for change. The first is that a younger generation of journalists, weaned on blogs and the internet, will come to understand newspapers as media organizations that exist within the global content stream of the internet, and pivot to take advantage of that fact. And while I’m optimistic that this will happen, I worry that too many good publications will disintegrate before it takes hold. The other is that blogs like yours, which combine first-rate reporting with generous and thoughtful linking, will continue to gain market-share, until even the stodgiest old papers feel compelled to hire away their authors or to find ways to replicate their success. We can hope.

Posted by Cynic | Report as abusive

Great discussion. In many ways, this thread’s content testifies to upside of blogging as a medium, as outlined by Felix and some of the commenters.

Posted by Jon_Jacobs | Report as abusive

As a (involuntarily former) print reporter, I think the real problem here is not the phobia of links but of “hat-tips,” or crediting other papers. The mentality is that if you’re reading us, you should be reading *us*, and we’re not going to a) link to other papers, thus sending you away from us and to them, or b) cite other papers, convincing you that you should have been reading them in the first place. It’s a legacy of the days (probably not gone) when the NYTimes and WashPost see what the other has the next day at 11 p.m., and an editor calls his reporter at demands he get the same story (although it won’t be nearly as good).

Thirteen years ago I was at a paper in Texas that actually had style rules for how to refer to the three other nearest dailies, and each was different, based on how the deceased owner had felt about them. I spent weeks reporting a series on water projections. The other paper in the county, which had the same owner (the wife of the aforementioned deceased owner) and was just 30 miles away, dispatched a reporter to write its own water story, covering the same ground but not as well (because it was rushed), rather than reprint the content from its neighbor.

It’s that culture of competition rather than cooperation that is the problem. And even when cooperation exists, it almost never becomes the active collaboration in which multiple reporters from multiple papers will put together a single story, the way bloggers will add to stories they see somewhere else.

Here’s a good example of it done right: California State Senator Roy Ashburn was arrested for drunk driving. A TV station in Sacramento quoted unnamed sources that he was at a gay bar. Talking Points Memo advanced the story by calling said bar and talking to the owner. Ashburn’s hometown paper, the Bakersfield Californian (where I used to work), tried to advance the story but couldn’t reach Ashburn. They got local comment, which wasn’t groundbreaking but was at least something. Then they tied all that reporting together and — get this — cited all the original sources, even for the print edition.

Posted by Atlemar | Report as abusive

speaking of bad blog policy, the overzealous folks at ctnews have “archived or suspended” the teri buhl piece you linked to. It’s not cached in google any more either.

Posted by ChrisNicholson | Report as abusive
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