In the recent dust-up between the Washington Post and Gawker, Post reporter Ian Shapira was upset when his story was excerpted on the media gossip blog Gawker. While blogs and even mainstream news articles have been quoting, excerpting and summarizing other stories and blog posts for years, there’s never been accepted etiquette on how to do so.
According to Shapira, his editor told him: “They stole your story. Where’s your outrage, man?” Stealing is a serious charge in the world of journalism, even though story ideas, scoops and angles are stolen daily. If a blog is excerpting content from a news story and crediting and linking to the original, isn’t that so-called stealing really a form of promotion?
The Post itself offers numerous ways for readers to share Shapira’s own story, from putting it on Digg, Facebook, StumbleUpon, Twitter, Reddit and more. Are they telling people to “steal” the story or “promote” it? Where does the promotion end and the stealing begin?
I had my own experience with Valleywag’s Owen Thomas excerpting a story I wrote on MediaShift last February about Second Life. While my original story probably received a couple thousand page views, the Valleywag post has had more than 60,000 views. The art I captured in Second Life for the story was lifted without my permission. There are two major quotes I got that were re-used in the blog post.
But there is one key difference between the Post excerpt job and the one from MediaShift: Thomas did a better job re-framing the story with his own angle. His headline takes a much harder stance, “The End of Second Life,” while saying the virtual world is “firmly headed into irrelevance.” That’s something I never would have said, even though such a vehement statement is likely what brought all the traffic to Valleywag.
So there’s a difference between the way Gawker heavily excerpted Shapira without adding much and the way Valleywag more lightly excerpted my story and gave its own spin on it. I decided the time is right to create a taxonomy of sorts for all the excerpting and linking that goes on between blogs and news organizations — and between news organizations as well.
I wanted to create a graphical way to denote where a practice falls between “stealing” and “promoting” — so I included the “Steal-O-Meter” to show where it lands. A shout-out goes to the folks at PolitiFact for inspiring the meter.
What It Is: A blog post that excerpts heavily from the original story without adding any significant new material.
Example: Generational Consultant Holds America’s Fakest Job at Gawker
What’s Lifted: Multiple quotes from the story, usually the best ones.
What’s Added: A summary of the rest of the story.
Bottom Line: Appears to promote original story but doesn’t give people many reasons to check out the original.
Summary with Spin
What It Is: A blog post that excerpts heavily from the original story and also includes more material or a strong opinion or additional angle.
What’s Lifted: Usually a passage or paraphrase from the original story.
What’s Added: A summary of the rest of the story, along with original ideas or reporting.
Bottom Line: While it might be borrowing a lot from the original, at least it can stand on its own by adding original material.
What It Is: Excerpting other people’s stories with credit, but making it look like the writer is writing for the site that’s excerpting it.
Example: AllThingsD’s Voices section. (The site used to point people to an internal page with the excerpt before going to the original site, but that practice has changed after complaints were filed.)
What’s Lifted: The headline and first few paragraphs from the story verbatim.
What’s Added: A link to the rest of the story on the original site.
Bottom Line: Includes absolutely no original material, but does whet appetite to click to read more at original site. Should not include deceptive packaging.
Retold Story with Credit
What It Is: News wires and other reporters simply retell a scoop from another news outlet, giving credit to the original report, lifting quotes and sometimes adding new material.
Example: JPMorgan looking to sell 23 office properties — report at Reuters
What’s Lifted: Most important news, quotes and storyline.
What’s Added: A local or different angle, but usually not.
Bottom Line: This common journalistic practice of repeating a story told elsewhere — but with credit — still doesn’t fly for doing anything original. Even worse is that these stories rarely link to the original online.
What It Is: An automated news aggregation site reusing a headline and blurb, along with art, without adding anything new.
Example: Anything found on Google News site.
What’s Lifted: Headline, photo and the first line or two of the story.
What’s Added: Nothing, though some stories now have original comments on Google News.
Bottom Line: Google News drives tons of traffic to news sites, and reuses very little material. Very few users of Google News can get all their news just from the site without linking to originals.
Reuse without Authorization
What It Is: Site scraping, where one site completely lifts all content from original without credit, linking out, or getting permission.
Example: Year in Review — 10 MediaShifting Moments of 2007 with MediaShift content scraped by Panic Re-Programming
What’s Lifted: Entire story, artwork and links.
What’s Added: Credit for someone else.
Bottom Line: Outright stealing with no credit and absolutely no redeeming quality. Not only is this wrong, but it’s illegal when used to make money off someone else’s copyrighted content.
What It Is: A blog that links out to related material on another site.
Example: You can find it all over the blogosphere.
What’s Lifted: A headline, a quote, or an idea.
What’s Added: A whole new story around it.
Bottom Line: Links are the currency of online journalism and blogging, and when used judiciously help to spread ideas and promote others without taking too much from them.
I’m sure this is not even close to an exhaustive list of the ways stories are lifted or shared online. Add your own examples in the comments below, and tell us where you think it lands on the Steal-O-Meter, and I’ll add it above, with credit to you.
UPDATE: Many folks in the comments were complaining that the Steal-O-Meter was weighted too heavily on stealing, without enough “yellow” in the middle and green on the “promoting” side. One person even mentioned that I had “stolen” the wrong kind of image. Fair enough, though the image was reused under a Creative Commons remix license. Anyhow, I went in with my crude Photoshop skills and fixed the images to give more weight to the middle and promotional sides so that stealing isn’t an overwhelming force. For those wondering, the underlying image is of a battery tester.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.