Journalism and the Arrogance of Power

This week’s link-bait champion is a story by the Washington Post‘s Ian Shapira. Last month, Shapira wrote a profile of a “generational guru” named Anne Loehr who charges corporate executives hundreds of dollars an hour to dispense platitudes about today’s 20-somethings. The same day, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan did a post that pulled out the funniest quotes from Shapira’s story and added a few sentences of Gawker’s patented snark. Finally, last Sunday, Shapira wrote a long follow-up titled “The Death of Journalism,” arguing that Nolan’s post is a prime example of what’s killing “real reporting” of the kind that’s practiced at the Post.

In the last four days, so many people have weighed in that it would be impossible to summarize the whole conversation in one blog post. Mike Masnick and Matthew Ingram have two of the sharpest takes I’ve seen. But one thing I haven’t seen anyone point out is that Shapira’s complaints about Nolan could just as easily be made about Shapira himself.

Shapira is angry that Gawker reaped several thousand pageviews by doing a post that was basically just a summary of his own work and didn’t share a dime of the advertising revenue. But my question for Shapira is this: how much revenue did the Post share with Anne Loehr, the subject of the Shapira’s story? After all, Shapira’s column is basically just a summary of some things that that Loehr and some of her students said. Shouldn’t Loehr be getting a cut?

323608825_de8f210e40_bOf course, journalists would retort that paying your sources is tawdry checkbook journalism. Reporters have gotten used to getting material from their sources for free, and on their own terms. Some even take umbrage if a source insists on having more control over the interview process.

Moreover, as Spencer Ackerman notes, mainstream media sources routinely mine one another’s stories for material. Attribution is given only in the most clear-cut cases, and revenue-sharing is unheard of. Moreover, mainstream media outlets are rather less likely to give credit to non-traditional sources like blogs than they are to other major media outlets. Indeed, until recently many mainstream media outlets refused to put outbound links in their news stories at all.

Still, Shapira did spend a lot more time writing his story than Nolan spent quoting it. So isn’t it true that Gawker depends on people like Shapira to provide them the raw material to write about? Not really. The Internet is chock full of stupid people saying funny things that sites like Gawker could snark about. Shapira was simply one source among many. If Shapira hadn’t written his story, Nolan would’ve simply written about something else. And in many cases, the “something else” would not have been something that Shapira would regard as “real journalism.”

Indeed, as Gawker itself has noted, the Washington Post‘s communications shop understands this point all too clearly. At the very same time Shapira was working on his piece, the Post was sending Gawker daily emails urging them to “rip off” more of their content.

DE-Zeitungsrollenoffsetdruck_by_SteschkeSo Shapira’s complaints ring a little hollow to me. I think that what’s fundamentally going on here is the following: until the emergence of the web, newspaper reporters were members of a tiny elite that had exclusive access to the means of mass communications. That made reporters powerful people; advertisers needed newspapers to promote their stuff and sources needed reporters to get their message out to a wide audience. Decades of privilege bred a certain degree of arrogance. The print journalism profession has developed an elaborate, self-justifying ideology in which their own activities are central to the functioning of American democracy.

In the last decade, newspapers have lost their privileged position. Now everyone can publish for a large audience. And so lots of people are doing to the Post what the Post has always done to the rest of the world: treat them as raw material from which to fashion stories, without sharing any of the resulting revenue. The only way this could be considered an outrage is if you’ve grown used to the process only happening in the other direction.

This isn’t to deny that the Post is in a tough spot. Nor is it to deny that the Post does a lot of worthwhile things, and it would be nice for them to stay in business. But what’s happening isn’t “the death of journalism” or the end of “real reporting.” It’s the death of a one-way model of journalism in which a handful of print and broadcast journalists decide what to cover and the rest of society gratefully accepts what’s dished out. Shapira seems to regard his employer as separate from the “wild and riffy world of the Internet,” but he’s wrong. The Post is now just a medium-sized fish in a vastly larger pond. If it wants to survive, the first thing it needs to do is to get over itself.

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2 Responses to Journalism and the Arrogance of Power

  1. Pingback: Going Solo

  2. Ferguson says:

    “If it wants to survive, the first thing it needs to do is to get over itself.” Sadly this holds true for many parts of today’s culture. I look forward to reading more!

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