This weekend, the Washington Post’s Ian Shapira detailed in a piece entitled “The Death of Journalism (Gawker Edition)” how the triumph he felt when Gawker blogged about a story he wrote turned into anger after his boss asked him why he wasn’t angry that his story had been stolen.
After reviewing Gawker’s eight-paragraph post, Shapira came to the same conclusion as his boss: he’d been ripped off.
In his piece, Shapira details the work that went into developing the story he wrote about Washington-based “business coach” Anne Loehr, who advises old folks on how Gen Yers operate in the workplace. He explains that it took him over an hour to interview Loehr over the phone initially, which doesn’t include the time it took to type out 3,000 words of notes he took. Much of the information Gawker used — Loehr’s quotes — required a half-hour drive on Shapira’s part to attend a two-hour session Loehr put on that the Post journalist recorded. Transcription of that session: four additional hours.
In other words, Shapira spent a lot of time establishing the foundation for his story. Time that he was, of course, paid for by his employer, the Washington Post.
What did the Post get out of Gawker’s rehash of the story Shapira wrote? Some traffic but in the overall scheme of things, probably not enough to cover the true cost of the article’s production. Needless to say, as a journalist who is watching many in his industry lose their jobs, Shapira isn’t very comfortable with the situation:
The Post just completed its fourth round of buyouts since 2003; and although the company reported on Friday that it had returned to profitability in the second quarter, the newspaper division, which is pretty much us, continues losing money. Standard & Poor’s expects that the company’s gross earnings will drop by 30 percent this year. Gawker Media, on the other hand, reported last week that its revenues in the first two quarters of 2009 were up 45 percent from the first two quarters of last year.
This all gets down to the challenge journalism faces: pageview economics. It took Shapira hours to produce an article for the Washington Post; it took Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan “a half-hour to an hour” to rehash it. So almost all of the labor cost was shouldered by the Washington Post; but Gawker took the Washington Post’s work product without having to pay for the real work. In pageview economics, it cost the Washington Post far more to generate pageviews advertising could be sold against than it cost Gawker for its pageviews.
Shapira notes that this imbalance is the reason why some are arguing for the restoration of an “unfair competition rights” law that once existed in the United States. Essentially, this law forbid the “replication and resale” of original reporting. The law was dropped at the urging of the Justice Department, which had monopoly concerns.
Today, the balance has shifted. News organizations don’t have to worry about monopoly charges. Many have driven themselves into the ground and the internet is kicking them while they’re down. Do they deserve that fate? Maybe not, but at the same time it’s hard to feel too sorry.
The reality, however, is that the incident with Shapira’s article makes a strong case for those who believe the originators of news need protection from competitors who compete unfairly by essentially ripping off the information they develop. Producing the news isn’t cheap and although I’m not one to encourage heavy-handed government regulation, I’m also think most of us don’t want a society free from organizations that invest in actually developing the news, not just regurgitating it. At some point there does need to be a balance. News organizations can’t expect the world to go back to the way it was; at the same time companies like Gawker shouldn’t expect a free ride.
Getting back to pageview economics, I find it somewhat ironic that so many have complained about the AP’s plan to aggressively pursue payment for the for-profit use of its content.
In a post on Mashable, Ben Parr comments on the “jaw-dropping starting price” of $2.50 per word. He goes on to write that “the entire policy is a battle against the direction of progress, and the price point is way off“. But is it? How much did each one of Shapira’s words cost the Washington Post? When you factor in all the hours he spent recording, traveling, transcribing, writing and revising his ~1,500 word article, along with the time invested by other newspaper staff (editors, etc.) to get it published, I suspect the total cost might be “jaw-dropping” to a blogger who has the luxury of focusing more on pageviews than on profitability given his low overhead.
So while the AP’s plan might not be so great in the overall scheme of things, I can’t help but think that if many of the bloggers out there were forced to originate their own news and saw the cost of generating each pageview increase exponentially, they might find that $2.50 per word is actually a bargain.
Photo credit: krossbow via Flickr.