As Mark Gimein noted last week in The Big Money, the media giants have put the Web’s journalistic “parasites”—blogs, aggregators, Google—on notice that they will no longer allow them to pinch their copy without reimbursement. The Associated Press has threatened legal action against thieves of its intellectual property, MediaNews executive (and AP Chairman) Dean Singleton has seconded that threat, and News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch and Robert Thomson, the top editor of News Corp.’s Wall Street Journal, growl in harmony.
Their fury against the Web is not isolated. Pinch any journalist (print, Web, or broadcast) who creates what he considers original copy, and he’s likely to regale you with the stories of how his publication’s product has been stolen or otherwise misappropriated by a Web site. More often than not, the wronged will point his finger at the Huffington Post, the self-styled “Internet newspaper” launched by Arianna Huffington in 2005. When not accusing the Huff Post of outright theft, these angry writers and editors will seethe about how the site routinely abuses the “fair-use doctrine” by milking the essence out of other publications by lifting the salient paragraphs out of their stories.
Here’s an example of the Huffington Post technique. To the aggrieved, it doesn’t matter that the Huffington Post supplies a “Read the whole story here” link at the bottom of the lifted paragraph. It doesn’t matter that attribution for the paragraph can be found if you know where to look for it on the cluttered page. They’ll bluster that the damn page looks like original-to-Huffington Post copy, and they’re pissed about being ripped off.
Just try to talk them down with the observation that Huff Post reporters Sam Stein, Ryan Grim, Jason Linkins, and Thomas B. Edsall do lots of original journalism on the site, and that the site pays for its Associated Press content, and that hundreds of bloggers submit their work directly to the site. You’ll get nowhere.
I personally don’t like the way the Huff Post “showcases” the work of other journalists, but I don’t get heated about it, either (with exception of the violation of the Chicago Reader mentioned above). Borrowing, sponging, lifting, scrounging, leaching, pinching, and outright theft of other publications’ work is firmly in the American journalistic tradition.
For example, during the “yellow journalism” era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, newspapers blatantly lifted one another’s stories. In one case, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal grew so furious at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World’s purloining of their copy from the Cuban theater of the Spanish-American War that they invented a war hero by the name of Colonel Reflipe W. Thenuz and killed him off, with this report:
Colonel Reflipe W. Thenuz, an Austrian artillerist of European renown, who, with Colonel Ordonez, was defending the land batteries of Aquadores was so badly wounded that he has since died. Col. Thenuz was foremost in the attempt to repulse the advance and performed many acts of valor.
The World rewrote the Journal’s fiction as:
Colonel R.W. Thenuz, an Austrian artillerist well know throughout Europe, who, with Colonel Ordonez, was defending the land batteries of Aquadores, was so badly wounded that he has since died.
As Denis Brian writes in Pulitzer: A Life, the Journal then revealed its hoax, noting that Reflipe W. Thenuz was a rough anagram for “We pilfer the news.” The Journal continued to rub the World’s nose in the theft for a month, Brian writes, proposing to build a Col. Thenuz monument funded by “Confederate notes, Chinese cash and repudiated bonds” donated by readers. A comic poem honoring Col. Thenuz and a full-page cartoon by the Journal ridiculing the World followed.
Pulitzer and the World, which was as sinned against by Hearst’s Journal as much as sinning, got ultimate revenge in 1918. Hearst had started a wire service of his own, International News Service, because the Pulitzer-controlled Associated Press blocked him from buying that wire’s copy. A lawsuit arose when Hearst’s INS went ahead and rewrote the facts contained in AP wire and moved them, and the courts created a “hot news” doctrine that stopped the upstart’s borrowing.
Henry R. Luce helped himself to the content of the nation’s newspapers, which he and his staff rewrote without much in the way of attribution, when he and Briton Hadden founded Time magazine in 1923. The plundering went on well into 1937, James L. Baughman writes in Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media, with one top Time staffer telling a group of editors, “We don’t pretend to be reporters at Time. We are rewrite men.” The Time tradition of helping oneself to the bounty of others goes on at the Week, where the staff borrows heavily from other publications for every issue but at least returns lavish attribution.
The gripe against the Huffington Post isn’t the total amount of borrowing as much as it is the frequency and concentration of their borrowing. By that I mean that no publication screams “theft” when a thousand blogs do the same thing as the Huff Post but do it once each. In fact, they love it when a thousand blogs excerpt and point to their copy. What they find insulting, I think, is that the Huffington Post borrows again and again and again without end, and they serve millions of pages and sell ads against this borrowed copy.
Instead of getting wigged out at the Huffington Post, offended sites would be smarter to glean a lesson from experience. Top journalists aren’t going to like hearing this, but not everybody has time to lounge about with the 2,000-word masterpiece that you and your editor handcrafted. They want to get to the salient point, and they want to get there now. As heretical as it may sound, the Huffington Post is adding value by skinning alive that beautiful baby seal you just birthed and serving its fresh, beating heart to readers in a hurry.
Instead of feeling diminished by the Huff Post’s excerpts, more publications might want to pre-empt the site by serving distilled versions of their own articles. That’s right: Even the Post and the Times and the Journal can learn something about how to serve readers from the Huffington Post.
Don’t cluck your tongue. The Washington PostCo. and the New York Times have already conceded that there is a market for a shorter version of the day’s news—they just haven’t gotten around to putting it on the Web. The Post Co. has published the Express, a weekday free tabloid, since 2003. The Times produces its eight-page “synopsis” of the daily newspaper called TimesDigest for hotels, cruise ships, and health clubs. If the Huffington Post is such a threat, both companies should repurpose these tightly coiled reads to the Web. When you’re in a hurry, information reduction is a good thing!
Finally, this will irritate my colleagues in the press, but much of the Huffington Post’s success has to do with their superb mastery of search engine optimization, the swiftness with which they post the most timely videos (especially during the campaign), the regularity with which they update the news on their home page (I’ll bet they count clicks in real time), and their willingness to publish sugared trash (Padma Lakshmi butt nekkid) alongside the broccoli of serious politics (Thomas B. Edsall) without flinching. (One major Huff Post downside: It’s ugly like a bleeding naked mole rat painted DayGlo.)
A story belongs to its author and his publication for one news cycle, which in the Hearst-Pulitzer era generally meant the hours or minutes it took to compose and plate the story and print it in the next edition. In the digital era, ownership of a story is even more fleeting. Etiquette demands that journalists give their colleagues ample credit, something that I always try to do. But etiquette speaks with a soft voice, and I don’t know of many readers who are as concerned about journalists’ hurt feelings or where the news “originated” (whatever that means) as much as they worry about its truth-value. In any event, no reader should be denied the news just because the competition got there first. If a publication thinks it has a copyright infringement case or a violation of the hot news doctrine, it should take it to court. Otherwise, please pipe down.
One more semi-nice thing to say about the Huffington Post: If I needed an up-to-the-minute news feed 24 hours a day—and I don’t—and I had to choose between the New York Times Web site and the Huffington Post, I’d hold my nose and click on the naked mole rat.
No article about the derivative quality of the Huffington Post is complete without a mention of the founder Arianna’s back story. In the Oct. 13, 2008, New Yorker, Lauren Collins writes this about Huffington:
Her synthetic gifts have, at times in her career, raised questions. Her Maria Callas book prompted accusations of plagiarism from a previous biographer of Callas; the case was settled out of court. Lydia Gasman, now an emeritus art history professor at the University of Virginia, says that Huffington’s Picasso biography included themes similar to those in her unpublished four-volume Ph.D. thesis. “What she did was steal twenty years of my work,” Gasman told Maureen Orth in 1994. Gasman did not file suit. (Huffington denied both allegations.)
If that passage were smaller, I’d broadcast it via my Twitter feed. Send your condensations of Collins’ passage to firstname.lastname@example.org for my amusement. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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