Tuned In

The Post Vs. Gawker: When Does Linking Become Larceny?

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Washington Post writer Ian Shapira recently reported a feature on a business guru who consults executives on how to deal with twentysomething employees and clients. When Gawker wrote a snarky post based on (and linking to) his article, he was thrilled at first. Then, prodded by an editor, he looked more closely at the Gawker post and decided that, because it recapitulated his article so throughly, he had been “ripped off,” which he then wrote in a commentary.

In the past few days, this case has caused a media mini-controversy about the value and etiquette of linking and writing posts based on others’ reporting. It’s been seized on as an example of the cluelessness of old media or the fecklessness of new media. Was he robbed? Overreacting? In this specific instance, it seems each side is a little bit wrong. 

First, Shapira does acknowledge that being linked was not just flattering, but worth something, because it sent him traffic. (Gawker, I can attest, is a big driver of readers.) But mostly he dwells on the fact that, with minimal effort, Gawker got to attract pageviews and sell ads against an article he spent hours upon hours reporting. 

That may be true and it may be unfair, but it doesn’t follow that Gawker’s gain was the Post’s loss. That would assume that readers, in some marketplace of journalism, were offered a choice between reading Shapira’s story or reading Gawker’s. They weren’t; the people who would encounter Gawker’s post were most likely Gawker readers, and probably would never have known Shapira’s story existed at all if not for the post. (You could argue that Gawker is “parasitically” undermining the Post’s business model, but even if that’s true, by that logic Gawker is ultimately dooming itself by dooming the Posts of the world.) 

Getting linked like that is not just flattering for journalists nowadays, it’s necessary, and it’s a good thing. Does that mean Gawker is in the clear here? Not on this particular post. Shapira’s legitimate beef is that, while it sent traffic his way, it so throughly repeated his own reporting that it made reading the original all but beside the point. 

The rules of how to do this kind of post are not set in stone, but in general, it’s better to summarize an interesting article and refer readers to the original, or add some value to it with analysis or opinion or more information, and give explicit, clear credit. (Rachel Sklar argues this better and more thoroughly at Mediaite [a Gawker competitor, of course]. You should read her post. See how easy that was?) I’m not saying that doing otherwise should be illegal. But it is uncool. 

Gawker’s posts generally do add value, in my opinion; this one fell more in the retyping category. That happens sometimes; it’s just something bloggers wrestle with. I’m sure if you went through Tuned In, you’d find posts by me that repeat too much and add too little.

Bonus question: If I do that am I “the mainstream media” ripping someone off, or am I a “blogger” ripping someone off? See, the fact is, the Internet did not invent the practice of swiping stories. Local newspapers have rightly griped for years that big national papers, TV networks—and yes, newsmagazines—swipe stories from their pages and send people to re-report them with no credit. That too, is a ripoff. As it is when big media outlets cherrypick stories from local news blogs and re-do them without credit. If there are bloggers out there who rip off journalists, they’ve learned from the masters. 

Ultimately, this story is not about mainstream media being better or holier than new media, or vice versa. It’s an increasingly meaningless distinction anyway. What it does show us is that, print or online, certain principles apply. They include giving fair credit and generally having some sense of self-respect.

But it they also include acknowledging that the Washington Posts of the world need the Gawkers of the world. Trying to legislate or litigate them out of existence is not just futile but self-defeating. So is Shapira’s suggesting that bloggers should pay for any link in a post they sell ads against, which basically, amounts to saying: please never link to my articles. [Update: Here’s a Gawker retort noting that, in fact, media outlets have publicity departments begging daily to have their pieces blogged in Gawker.]

Linking, within common sense rules of decency, is good for everyone. Try to repeal it, or even discourage it, and everyone gets ripped off.