Press Box

Is Michael Wolff a Parasite?

Sharon “the Wrap” Waxman vs. Michael “Newser” Wolff.

A dispute today between Sharon Waxman of the Wrap and Michael Wolff of Newser proved the old barroom maxim that every fight ends up on the floor.

By the time the bouncer separated them, Waxman had accused Wolff’s content-aggregation site of “parasitism,” because it summarizes other sites’ stories and gives them only scant credit; Wolff had sneered at Waxman’s enterprise as “a low-traffic news site about the movie business”; the Wrap’s chief operating officer had asked Newser to give more conspicuous credit; Newser’s chief executive officer had put Waxman on notice that her charge that Newser was a “free-rider” skirted libel; and Waxman, invoking the “hot news doctrine,” promised to send Newser a cease and desist letter demanding that they “stop using (abusing) our content.”

It’s hard to take Michael Wolff’s side in any dispute, but that shouldn’t automatically cloud our judgment. At the risk of being dragged into this fight about ego, hurt feelings, libel threats, intellectual property, and lawyers, allow me to side with the despicable Wolff. Waxman calls him a parasite, but I think he’s a host. And the limited success of his site, which serves copy in sushi-size mouthfuls, is trying to tell Waxman something about the Web audience.

It’s hard to argue with the headline of Wolff’s attack on Waxman: “The New News: I Can Say Anything You Can Say Shorter.” Newser’s rewrites of copy from the Wrap, not to mention Slate, the Associated Press, Radar, Politico, the Guardian, and about 1,700 other sites do a pretty good job of cutting to the meat of stories. Take, for example, Newser’s 140-word distillation of my 1,025-word piece  urging Diane Sawyer not to take ABC World News’ anchor chair last fall. As a Brobdingnagian among journalists, I don’t much like seeing myself cut down to Lilliputian form. But I’ve got to admit that Newser has a knack for finding the most salient 75 to 150 words in a piece for excerpting and rewriting.

Newser is pretty good at this but nowhere near as good as Jim Romenesko, another news aggregator whose ability to detect the very germ of the story, sometimes buried beneath layers and layers of sediment, and to extract it still astonishes me. How wonderful it would be to send Romenesko my raw copy for some of his expert analysis about what’s interesting and what’s new and then rewrite my stories around those findings! The lesson that Romenesko (and, to a lesser degree, Newser) teaches is that the mattresses of words that journalists rest their stories on aren’t always as precious as we think they are. Sometimes shorter is better. And even when shorter isn’t better, sometimes shorter is good enough to satisfy the average reader.

Waxman grouches in her piece that she wouldn’t be so irate about Newser’s condensation of her copy if it produced lots of traffic for the Wrap, but it doesn’t. “In our 14 months of our [sic] operation,, with an audience of about 3 million unique viewers per month, has sent us precisely 1,600 users,” she writes. From this we can deduce one of several things: 1) that Newser readers are so satisfied by the digest of Wrap copy that they don’t feel the need to click through to the Wrap after reading; 2) that Newser readers would click through if they could find the link, which I’ll agree Newser makes it difficult to find; or 3) that Newser readers find Wrap stories so insufficient they don’t even click to view the digests, let alone click the hard-to-find link back to the Wrap. If that’s the case, the copy theft that Waxman seems to be complaining about isn’t really taking place.

I suspect that what’s got Waxman so furious is not that Newser rewrites and condenses its copy, which a million blogs do, or that it makes finding the links back to the original source difficult, which it does, but that Wolff is attempting to make a business out of rewriting and condensing other people’s copy. She imagines that her stories contain value and that Wolff’s contain none, that he’s snaking page views that rightly belong to her. Neither is true. The fact that about 2.5 million unique users visit Newser each month indicates that abbreviating and rewriting other publications’ copy for maximum effect—something journalists have been doing since the dawn of journalism—is a smart idea. Newser’s moderate success might be trying to tell the Wrap that it should write snazzier headlines, offer—as an option—brief versions of long stories, and do a little aggregating of its own.

Waxman’s notion that the “hot news doctrine” will bring Wolff to heel is naive. The protections of the hot news doctrine are very specific and very limited. As this review of a recent book about hot news points out, the requirements of a hot news case “include that the plaintiffs (1) gather information at a cost, (2) that the information is time-sensitive, (3)  that the use of the information by the defendant is ‘free-riding,’ (4) that the defendant is offering a service in direct competition with the plaintiff’s, and (5) that the capacity to free ride threatens the existence of the plaintiff’s commodity.” Even if Waxman could make such a case, all Wolff would have to do to stay on the right side of the law would be to wait a few hours between a Wrap posting and a Newser condensation, as the hot news doctrine doesn’t give any editorial operation ownership rights over the news.

Is Wolff a parasite? Oh, he can be a pest sometimes. A writer once compared him to a hyena. But I prefer to think of him as a host.

Addendum, April 8: Don’t miss Round 2 of Waxman vs. Wolff.


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