Thu, 09 Jul 2009 02:21:00 +0000

I was reporting a story — a man had died in a traffic accident.

A few hours in, I found a friend of the deceased. The two of us looked over the scene of the accident and he told me about his late friend.

I called in the reporting — some heart-wrenching quotes, too. Soon, a short breaking-news item was posted on the newspaper’s website. Then I came into the office to write a piece for the next day; just in case I missed something, I scanned the local TV stations to see what they had.

And there it was: my reporting, unattributed.

Several TV news stations took a quote, as if their reporters worked up the courage to talk to this man. I guess they assumed they missed the press conference at which he said these things. But there was no press conference — just me, a young reporter, not even old enough to drink, with his arm around a grieving man’s shoulder, asking him about his friend.

But I still had a story to write, so I forgot about it.


I remembered that story today after I read a piece by Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz.

She writes: “Change the federal copyright law.” It’s how to save journalism, she says.

The idea arises because bloggers and news aggregators often treat reported stories like a news wire — except the payment comes in the form of an attribution: something like “according to [insert newspaper here.]” That means newspaper websites lose hits because readers can get their news elsewhere without ever reaching the original reporting. I’m assuming thousands more people saw the TV reports than read my story.

I'm not referring to all aggregators here. In fact, many aggregators are good for news websites because they simply write an enticing headline that links to the source's story. However, in Schultz's column, David Marburger puts it best: They are "parasitic aggregators... capturing the heart of the stories so that readers have no need to visit the site of the original story."

Original reporting costs money; news aggregation, not as much. Just for comparison, the New York Times draws 10.9 million people a month — and it costs them about 1,000 newsroom employees. The Drudge Report draws seven million people a month — and it’s run mainly by two guys. Still, the world needs reporters, not just aggregators.

But the better business model is the aggregator.

So that’s why Schultz and others suggests implementing copyright laws that prevents information from being republished without payment — at least not until 24 hours after a story is published. She says it’s possible because there is precedent: The International News Service used to take the Associated Press’s information, rewrite it and transmit it for profit. The courts said that was illegal.


However, copyright laws aren’t going to get tighter because there is, well, precedent. It’s called local TV — they’ve been plagiarizing and borrowing for decades.

In May, a former radio producer wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “Print journalists consider it plagiarism. Broadcasters call it a ‘rewrite.’ ”

OK, that’s harsh. But, at best, plenty of local TV and radio stations (not all) simply get the b-roll they need, get the basic info, and then buffer it up with information other news sources — sometimes with attribution, sometimes without. And viewers don’t really care. They just tune out for half a second when they hear, “according to…” It happened to me. I’ve seen it happen to others, repeatedly.

The same thing is happening on the internet, except instead of b-roll and a broadcast tower, all you need is time to aggregate information in a marketable package. And although TV and radio didn’t sink newspapers, the force of the internet might.


What we’re fighting over is original reporting — who can take it, and who can’t?

But solutions are difficult.

Tighter copyright laws will only turn newspapers into the recording industry and the RIAA — not good. Also, I don’t think pay walls and subscription services will solve much, either, because you only need one person with a subscription to share information with the world.

One way to avoid being aggregated is to be so big that you’re the aggregator. Readers only need to come to your site to get information, so aggregation is tamed. That’s certainly been suggested. But working for a super media conglomerate feels a bit Big Brother-ish to me.

Also suggested: micro-reporting. It’s irrelevant to the masses but ultra relevant to a niche group, so aggregation is useless. And that’s certainly something “new media” people are pushing. But, still, there is a natural urge to want to be relevant.

And with both micro-reporting and big media, aggregation will still be more successful, financially, than original reporting. Newspaper people often say the public will pay for good content, and that’s why they’ll survive. Problem is, anyone can take that “good content” and aggregate it.

We are running out of solutions to make a business model that provides original reporting while being profitable, much less more profitable than aggregation. However, we need original reporting for our country to function the way it was intended. We need watchdog journalists, investigative reporters and industrious beat writers.


Without solutions, it brings us to an uncomfortable question:

Is our model of government, along with rampant social media, unable to sustain profitable reporting-based journalism? Does it need to crash — do we need a catastrophe — before it is fixed?

Aggregation is causing journalism institutions to lose money, and making original reporting worth less to those institutions. But this system won’t work if there is too much aggregation and not enough original reporting. So here’s the big question:

Will we realize when the aggregation market and journalism market has reached a happy balance, or will the aggregation market go so far as to suffocate the news industry and, subsequently, kill itself?

I hope it’s the former, and I hope that’s now.