Speaking about new technologies that have the potential to significantly or irrevocably alter the state of journalism in the twenty-first century is an exercise in both grandstanding and educated speculation—primarily because we don’t exactly know what’s going to alter that state. (Case in point: the exponential growth of the photo-sharing site Pinterest, and the recent move by Flickr to disable pinning of copyrighted images.) This isn’t to say the matter isn’t worth discussing, which is precisely why February’s Carnival of Journalism asks what “emerging technology or digital trend … will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead?” I’d like to argue that the second, qualifying question—“How do you see it playing out in terms of applications by journalists?”—is the more robust, and tricky, question to answer.
As an example, think back to last week when this story surfaced on Jim Romenesko’s blog: Nick O’Neill accused Forbes writer Kashmir Hill of stealing author Charles Duhigg’s work. An excerpt from Duhigg’s forthcoming book (The Power of Habit will be on bookstore shelves tomorrow) was published in The New York Times Magazine; Hill, according to O’Neill, “cut out the crap and got to the real shocker of the story,” something that grabbed her “a mind boggling 680,000 page views, a number that can literally make a writer’s career.” O’Neill’s fundamental question: “When someone else spends a significant amount of time to research and develop something, is it not them that deserves the majority of the recognition?” (Read Romenesko’s post, linked to in the first sentence of this paragraph. He has responses from all three parties, including Hill’s counter-argument that she provided plenty of in-story recognition of Duhigg and for his work.)
The digital trend here is one that has been around: linking and “repackaging” stories. Nieman Journalism Lab today published a good read by Jonathan Stray on the value of linking to other stories. But the essence of the matter comes down to the nature of journalism itself: sniffing out stories, conducting interviews and research with sources, and publishing a wholly original work. In the digital age, original works can be of the traditional variety or an amalgamation of information collected from previously published articles, which are then linked to, and this is what we call attribution. (By the way, I think both have merit. To be clear, plagiarism—what would have been, in this example, Hill’s taking Duhigg’s words without attributing him by name and without using quotation marks, which she did not do—is blatantly wrong, for professional and ethical reasons.)
How this might impact journalism rests squarely upon our interpretation of the act of reporting itself. Or, in other words, in a digital age, is information free?* What we gain by linking and repackaging are, respectively, more thorough and robust articles and a wider readership for certain stories. Depending upon the subject matter of said stories, we might view repackaging as a necessary function as it relates to our mission as journalists: exposing truths and drawing people’s focus to issues of paramount importance. (Another Nieman article to read: On ProPublica and “aggregation in the people’s interest.”)
But what complicates this interpretation somewhat—and what would complicate such an interpretation of a well known digital trend if the interpretation gained legs, so to speak—is economics. Ideas, and information, are not scarce goods, as economists would say. And if we behave as strict adherents to that rule, then the question of what journalists are worth, monetarily speaking, gets completely exploded. (Refer to last month’s Carnival topic, when we wondered if good journalists can be good capitalists; my sense is that no one wants to admit they are a capitalist, unless, of course, it’s at the risk of not receiving a check for a published article.)
Interesting to consider is a wider-scale, slightly adapted version of something like Spot.Us,** which would take the digital trend here—linking, repackaging—and ensure that compensation went to both the repackaging author and the writer whose material was repackaged. If that were the case, I wonder how many allegations of work-stealing would get thrown around.
*This is the point where some people will probably stop reading, as I always end up taking these Carnival of Journalism topics and turning them into questions better left to brandy-drinking sessions in fireplace-bedecked rooms replete with high-backed leather chairs. (If you have one of these rooms, please, let me know.)
**SHAMELESS PLUG TIME! I am still seeking funding to complete a story about a Mississippi cyclist struck from behind by a car, an accident which put her in the hospital and therapy for months, and has resulted in a frustrating series of events with the state’s legal system, mainly because of the qualifications of Mississippi’s three-feet law.