Attribution Is a Two-Way Street

To add to yesterday’s post about the WaPo/Gawker spat, Spencer Ackerman offers another example of a blogger breaking a story that got picked up without attribution by numerous mainstream media outlets:

This is the fault of an outdated newspaper convention that equates proper referencing with an admission of professional failure. Before the internet, it was pretty easy to get away with slighting your colleagues. But now that everyone has GoogleNews at their fingertips, it looks like exactly what it is: churlish and archaic vanity. Everyone can see who got the story first. Not a single reader, I’ll bet, will ever say, “Aha! Because Noah Shachtman got the story first, clearly Julian Barnes is an inferior reporter!”

It’s not just blogs, either. There are a ton of specialist newsletters doing deep in-the-weeds reporting — Inside the Pentagon is one — that newspapers treat like uncreditable wire copy. This has to end. I credited Bloomberg and the LAT in my story today, because they got material I used. It didn’t hurt my pride or discredit my piece. Not citing itwould have, though.

2573472909_e85a2cb6d0_bThere are a couple of things worth highlighting here. First, I think newspaper partisans drastically underestimate the amount of important, “deep in the weeds” reporting is done by blogs and other online media outlets. In the field I know the most about, tech policy, the best material is almost all produced online. Ars Technica, for example, covers tech news in a way that’s more thorough, more insightful, and more timely than any dead-tree publication. The folks at Wired’s Threat Level blog do a ton of high-quality reporting on the security and privacy beat. And for all its flaws (and there are a lot of them), Techcrunch regularly breaks news about the latest developments in the technology industry. The commonly-repeated claim that all the important news is broken by traditional newspapers simply isn’t true.

Secondly, online media sources are way more sophisticated than their print colleagues when it comes to providing proper credit for breaking stories. The blogosphere has evolved a subtle set of norms about when linking is appropriate, and it even has a fairly sophisticated enforcement mechanism: if you gain a reputation for not giving credit where it’s due, others will be less likely to give you credit for your stories. The result is a robust link economy in which the people who break news do more often than not get credit (and the traffic that goes with it) for their work.

Of course, if you start with the assumption that all the “real reporting” is done by a handful of print newspapers, and that anyone who writes for a blog must not be a real journalist, then you’re going to miss these subtleties.

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