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.
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This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.