Attribution, Context And Herding Cats

Lolcat - I can haz attribution

As editor of a site that was curating before curation was cool, I’ve helped set policy for attribution — link and credit unto others as you would like them to link and credit unto you. As a reporter and blogger, I’ve been done unto the wrong way and reaped the benefit when it’s done right. As a board member of the Society of Professional Journalists back in the day, I helped create some of the early guidelines for online journalism. So I should be cheering on Simon Dumenco in his crusade to standardize aggregation attribution, right?

Not exactly. I cringed at David Carr’s report that Dumenco is forming a council to standardize and evangelize attribution. We need another council like we need another bad infographic — and there’s nothing journalists, bloggers and those who are both dislike more than being told how and what to do.

This isn’t about “aggregators.” We are all Spartacus in that sense, especially if we get paid for sharing what we read. (Or as my GigaOM colleague Mathew Ingram writes,”it’s called curation if you like it, aggregation if you don’t.”)

It’s about attribution and context.

I get the reasons for trying to call attention to the issue and I totally get the need for forming fair internal policies at media outlets that aggregate (i.e. every news org at this point). I’m also intrigued by Maria Popova a.k.a. @brainpicker and her plan for attribution codes but I’m focusing on the one trying to form a new organization to push standards.

Hearing Dumenco and others on the subject at an SxSW session and talking with him after the session didn’t change my mind.

The back story

Dumenco, a media writer for Advertising Age, went public last year with his frustration over the way a post of his was picked up by HuffingtonPost.com. (Carr and Dumenco are former colleagues of mine from the late, lamented Inside.com.) The writer far overreached and was disciplined. That post drove a tenth of the traffic to his piece as a simple aggregated link from Mediagazer. It wasn’t a singular instance in the quote-a-sphere but it wasn’t supposed to be common HuffPo practice and among most professional news org, it was an outlier. Others are far more bright line as routine occurrences. Still, it was Dumenco’s “Howard Beale” moment and he has been on a mission about aggregation and attribution ever since.

Now he is forming a council with charter members including Slate and The New York Observer. Each will pay $295 for their company to belong to something he plans to incorporate as a 501.c.3 non-profit organization. Dumenco says the founders will “attempt” to come up with guidelines and best practices starting via a shared Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Doc. He plans to publish the results and, among other things, to use them to encourage education in journalism schools. His panel includes representatives from Columbia University.

Starting with the choir

In a sense, he’s starting with the choir: news orgs that want to improve their own process and educators looking for a common language that will encourage meaningful attribution. (Not all attribution is meaningful — a hyperlink buried in a post that wouldn’t exist without the original and doesn’t namecheck the outlet or the writer in the text can leave the reader thinking the story sprang from the aggregating site. Ditto for sites that link at the bottom of a very long post riffing off the original.)

“Really it’s about people that are in this space saying, ‘Yeah, we aggregate a lot, we’re aggregated a lot. We know there are bad ways to do it but how can we define best practices? … A lot of people do it flawlessly and don’t need to be educated.” He wants to reach the rest. It isn’t a moral issue, he told SXSW attendees. It’s about collegiality and the value of ideas.

Dumenco knew the reaction from some quarters would be quick and negative, laughing that he could have written the Gawker headline “We Don’t Need No Stinking Seal of Approval from the Blog Police.”

But he also thinks it makes what he’s trying to do sound like something it’s not: “To me, it’s ridiculous to call it a ‘police force.”

He doesn’t expect to able to enforce anything and it doesn’t sound like he really wants to, although he did mention professional organizations that reinforce some policies by banning those who break them from awards or other benefits. (Having logged hundreds of hours plus in dicussions like this, it’s safe to say the education-guidance-enforcement debate is a constant when it comes to professional codes of ethics.)

Herding cats

What he does want to do is get people thinking about how to attribute in ways that further the value of the original, not detract from it. Does that mean aggregating the way Dumenco or his group says you should? It would be far easier to herd cats.

This isn’t academic publishing. We’re dealing with people who can’t even agree on lower casing internet and with companies creating their own styles, not sticking to the AP Stylebook. If enough news organizations agree to a format, it could catch on and become a template.

It also would be close to amazing if the people involved can agree on what their own orgs should do and implement it internally in a way that sticks. Should they? Every newsroom, virtual or physical, needs guidelines and how to attribute should be one of them.

Writing online has changed a lot and thinking about the new nuances of context is something to encourage, not dismiss. Gabe Rivera offers a great example of how to deal with changed context. On Techmeme and Mediagazer it was fairly easy to see where a story originated; on Twitter, it all looked like it came from his sites no matter the source. Now the tweets include links to the originals, the twitter handle of the writer (much appreciated) and a link back to its place on his aggregation sites.

Do I wish others would follow suit? Yes. Do I want or think a new nonprofit should make it happen? No.

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