A close encounter with the first kind: the obnoxious thieves of good journalism

A Huffington Post article purportedly published by the US bureau has flicked two quotes from a story first published by The Wire, on the influenza epidemics ravaging India. The story’s original author and its editor (me) reached out to HuffPo India folks via Twitter to get them to attribute The Wire for both quotes – and remove, rephrase or enclose-in-double-quotes a paragraph copied verbatim from the original. What this resulted in was half-assed acknowledgment: one of the quotes was attributed to The Wire, the other quote was left unattributed, giving the impression that it was sourced first-hand, and the plagiarised paragraph was left in as is.

I’m delighted that The Wire‘s story is receiving wider reach, and is being read by the people who matter around the world. (And I request you, the reader, to please share the original article and not the plagiarised version.)

But to acknowledge our requests for change and then to assume that attributing only one of the quotes will suffice is to suggest that “this is enough”. This is an offensive attitude that I think has its roots in a complacence of sorts. Huffington Post could be assuming that a partial attribution (and plagiarism) is ‘okay’ because nobody cares about these things because they’re getting valuable information in return that’s going to distract consumers, and because it’s Huffington Post and their traffic volumes are going to make up for the oversight.

For the average consumer – by which I mean someone who only consumes journalism and doesn’t produce it – does it matter that Huffington Post, in some sense, has cheated to get the content it has? I don’t think it does. (This is a problem; there should be specific short-term sanctions if a publisher chooses to behave this way. Edit: Priyanka Pulla, the original author: “It DOES hurt you, the reader. Each time you read bad journalism, it’s because content thieves destroy market for good journalism and skew incentives.”) However, if anything, the publisher effectively signals that consumers will be getting content produced in newsrooms other than the Post’s. The website is now a ‘destination’ site.

Who this kind of irreverence really hurts is other journalists. For example, Pulla spent a lot of time and work writing the piece, I spent a lot of time and work editing it and The Wire spent a lot of money for commissioning and publishing it. By thinking our work is available to reuse for free, Huffington Post disparages the whole enterprise.

This enterprise is an intangible commodity – the kind that encourages readers to pay for journalism because it’s the absence of this enterprise, and the attendant diligence, that leads to ‘bad journalism’. And at a time when every publisher publishing journalistic content online on the planet is struggling to make money, what Huffington Post has done is value theft. At last check, the article on their site had 3,300 LinkedIn Shares and 5,100 shares on StumbleUpon.

(Edit: “We didn’t know” wouldn’t work with HuffPo here because my issue is with their response to our bringing the problems to their notice.)

This isn’t the first time such a thing has happened with The Wire. From personal experience (having managed the site for 18 months), there are three forms of content-stealing I’ve seen:

  1. The more obnoxious kind – where a publisher that has traffic in the millions every month lifts an article, or reuses parts of it, without permission; and when pulled up for it, gives this excuse: “We’re giving your content free publicity. You should let us do this.” The best response for this has been public-shaming.
  2. The more insidious kind – where a bot from an algorithmic publisher freely republishes content in bulk without permission, and then takes the content down 24-48 hours later once its shelf-life has lapsed. The most effective, and also the most blunt-edged, response to this has been to issue a DMCA notice.
  3. The more frustrating kind – where a small publisher (monthly traffic at 1 million/month or less and/or operating on a small budget) reuses some articles without permission and then pulls a sad face when pulled up for the act. The best response to this has either been to strike a deal with the publisher for content-exchange or a small fee or, of course, a strongly worded email (the latter is restricted to some well-defined circumstances because otherwise it’s The Wire strong-arming the little guy and nobody likes that).

Dear Huffington Post – I dearly hope you don’t belong to the first kind.

Featured image credit: TheDigitalWay/pixabay.