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.