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Summary:

In the wake of the plagiarism case involving New York Times writer Zachary Kouwe, blame has been placed on the high-speed nature of blogging. But the real issue lies with the paper’s failure to understand the culture of the web and the value of the link.

In the coverage of New York Times writer Zachary Kouwe, who resigned recently amid accusations of plagiarism, much has been said about the demands of writing for the always-on web, and how this might have contributed to Kouwe’s missteps -– something the writer himself referred to in a discussion of the incident as described by NYT public editor Clark Hoyt. But Reuters columnist Felix Salmon was the first to put his finger on what I think is the real culprit: a lack of respect for the culture of the web, specifically for the value and necessity of the link.

Kouwe describes in an interview with the New York Observer how he felt under pressure to cover offbeat news items for the blog as they came up, and would pull together bits and pieces of coverage from elsewhere on a story and then rewrite them into his own post or story. This, he says, is how the plagiarism occurred: by not realizing which pieces of text he had pulled from somewhere else, and which he had written himself. As Salmon notes, what a blogger would do in this case (or at least a good blogger) is link to other sources of material on the same topic rather than rewriting them:

Anybody who can or would write such a thing has no place working on a blog. If it’s clear who had a story first, then the move into the age of blogs has made it much easier to cite who had it first: blogs and bloggers should be much more generous with their hat-tips and hyperlinks than any print reporter can be.

Linking isn’t just a matter of etiquette or geek culture (although it is both of those things); it’s a fundamental aspect of writing for the web. In fact, the ability to link is arguably the most important feature of the web as a communications or information-delivery mechanism. Before the web came along, journalism and other forms of media were like islands unto themselves, each trying to pretend that it existed alone, without any connection to what came before it. Links are like bridges and roads, allowing these islands to connect to each other, and making it easier for readers to draw connections.

Links also make it easier for readers to understand a writer’s perspective, and thus are an important tool in disclosing bias (in an eloquent discussion of how transparency is the new objectivity, author David Weinberger said that objectivity was something “you rely on when your medium can’t do links”).

Unfortunately, however, those bridges and roads can also take readers elsewhere, and if your business depends (or you think it depends) on keeping those readers on your island, you might think twice about building that bridge. So you might recreate information that exists elsewhere, in the hope that readers won’t notice. Is that part of what pushed Kouwe to rewrite material for the blog? Salmon suggests that it might be. And if it did, the NYT writer is far from alone.

That’s not to say web-only sites are free from this kind of behavior. Some news sites have become notorious for either rewriting an entire post from a competitor, or excerpting huge portions of the content on their own sites, with just a small link that credits the original source. The economic incentive is the same, whether it’s a web-only outlet or a traditional media web site: to aggregate page views and sell them to advertisers. But at least most web-only sites that do this tend to include links (even if they are in small print at the bottom). Similar behavior in print publications usually comes with no links at all.

Plenty of mainstream publications have avoided linking out until relatively recently, or at least have linked as little as possible. The New York Times is in that group, despite its status as a leader in so much of what we think of as “new media” online. For a long time, the newspaper’s web site would only link (when it linked at all) to internal NYT topic pages. It has started adding more links to external sites, but many stories still contain no links at all. Lots of newspapers do the same thing.

In some cases this is a technical issue, in that print-based content management systems often make it difficult to include links. But an even bigger part of the problem is cultural. Traditional print media workers are used to thinking of themselves as the be-all and end-all of information, the only source that anyone could possibly need (despite the fact that many stories are based either wholly or in part on reporting by wire services such as the Associated Press and Reuters), and are loathe to give anyone else credit. That has to change.

The ethic of the web, as Jeff Jarvis repeatedly points out, is “do what you do best, and link to the rest.” If Kouwe or his employer had fully embraced that approach, he might not have had to apologize for anything.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr users Skedonk and Lujaz

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This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

  1. I agree. I’ve worked on newspapers too, and newspapers hate to attribute anything to anybody. We would be told by our editors to rewrite Reuters news stories even when we had the right to republish the entire news story. Why? Because newspapers want it look like their reporters originate the news — not other news organizations.

    When I became a journalist/blogger more than five years ago, I loved the fact that I could quote directly from many news sources and then add my contribution to the story.

    But the New York Times newsroom culture is slow to change. This embarrassment wouldn’t have been an embarrassment if its reporters were allowed to do the decent thing and attribute and link back.

    In today’s online newsroom, you have to attribute and link because there isn’t enough time to try to ‘stand-up’ a story that someone else has broken, using your own contacts. That might have been possible when your next deadline was hours away, but that doesn’t work today.

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  2. A very insightful post! It’s a story of competitive advantage vs. compromising integrity.

    It really differentiates the ideologies of journalists vs. bloggers. I can understand where traditional reporters (i.e. NYT) may not want to insert links into their own posts, especially to sites outside of their network.

    The entire journalism industry has been economically ravaged. Competitive advantages have become more vital. Any justifiable method to project a ‘you read it here first’ impression has to be considered.

    I agree the issue is cultural in nature. I notice very few or no links on newspaper websites. Traditional media outlets seem to adhere to ‘traditional’ operating procedures in some ways. I wonder if these outlets will ever gravitate to ‘new media’ etiquette.

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  3. Miguel Marcos Monday, March 8, 2010

    One logistical issue is quality of links over time. I would imagine the NYT wants quality control over not only it’s active content but it’s archive as well. They would have to implement some mechanism to regularly check on the validity of links over time + what happens in the archive when those links go bad. Not an easy issue to tackle.

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    1. Miguel, I don’t see that the NYT has to make any kind of guarantee about the life-span of their links. I think that may be one of the excuses that publications use for avoiding them though.

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      1. They don’t “have to” but they may “want to”. Before they publish they make sure their sources are reliable and back up what they are going to publish. In the offline world, we know that sources sometimes look reliable and turn out not to be: remember Judith Miller and Jayson Blair. I think they have no interest in publishing something with links, one or more of which might be modified subsequently to misrepresent what the original article states. The link also has the potential to be hacked: It may also go down temporarily or be taken off permanently.

        Links are out of their, and everybody’s, control. Perhaps they could opt to link to a snapshot of a web source at the time of publishing (like archive.org), with the appropriate disclaimer, and with the subsequent possiblity of viewing the live web link.

        Still, as I stated, that would require some investment on their part to follow up on this and make sure the web links are live and still live up to the claim of backing up the NYT story so the archives remain a solid source of historical news.

        I don’t believe this is a red herring at all. I have very, very high expectations when I read a NYT article. I don’t have anywhere near that expectation of the majority of other sites I regularly read online. If I read a NYT article and clicked on an external link only to get a 404 or, worse, something changed, my perception of the thoroughness of investigation and sourcing of the paper would change. The solidity of their reporting is a unique and highly desirable characteristic of the NYT, something that other web news sources would take years and years to develop. They nuture that that.

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  4. Let’s remember just how deeply this culture extends . . . and at the Times in particular:

    Write something there and include a link, and it gets the dreaded NOFOLLOW treatment.

    REALLY? they want you to interact, but people who do so, IN CONTEXT, are treated like . . . well wait, what exactly are they treated like?

    It’s not the same as what you do to spammers; those comments don’t get posted at all, and all comments on the Times website are moderated before posting. No, they put up your comment, and go out of their way to discredit your links.

    So: you’re welcome to be here, and to speak, but we’ll tell our friends not to listen. Kinda like having young children at a party.

    <

    p>Jeff Yablon
    President & CEO

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  5. I think you’ve nailed it. The Times will never fully embrace the link as long as they view it as a gateway for readers to leave the (imagined) warm, all-embracing information cocoon that their brand represents, rather than an opportunity for readers to engage deeper with the content. In this respect their approach to the web simply does not match observed user behavior. There are plenty of outbound links on this page (and even on a NYT page due to advertising), yet I’m still here leaving a comment, aren’t I?

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  6. [...] “ethic of the web” and the value of a link.  (GigaOM, [...]

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  7. [...] Which brings me to Zachary Kouwe and the New York Times. What went wrong and led to Kouwe’s departure from the Times for plagiarism has been dissected from several points of view. There have been questions about the punishing pace of being a young reporter who has to turn out tweets and blog posts and Web stories and print stories. And the Times (and by extension the rest of the mainstream press) has been lambasted for not embracing the culture of the link that underpins the Web. (For three good takes on what happened, see Felix Salmon at Reuters, Paul Smalera on True/Slant and Mathew Ingram at GigaOM.) [...]

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  8. Rainier Wolfcastle Tuesday, March 9, 2010

    I agree with commenter Miguel Marcos re links degrading/disappearing over time, and the nightmare that results for the NYT archives.

    In addition, NYT has a strong reputation to uphold. One of the problems with linking to outside content is that the linked content rarely meets the journalistic standards of an outfit like the Times.

    How does the Times reconcile their desire to avoid providing misleading, incomplete, one-sided, and/or unvetted content to their readers with the blog-linking model? Isn’t linking to content, in the modern web context, synonymous with providing that content to one’s readers? If so, isn’t the publication doing the linking responsible for what is written at the linked location?

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    1. Rainier, I think that’s a bit of a red herring, frankly. Plenty of websites, both from traditional media entities and others, say that there is no guarantee either implied or explicit in their links, and the Web seems to function perfectly well on that understanding.

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  9. The flip side of this story is the advent of new linking tools like http://clp.ly that bring attributed context in the form if clips and quote with link.

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  10. [...] totally RT @mathewi: my take on the Zachary Kouwe plagiarism thing: "The NYT Needs to Learn the Value of the Link"Close [...]

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