In a controversial move on Wednesday, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. relieved executive editor Jill Abramson of her duties. Shortly thereafter, an internal report titled “Innovation” was leaked to Myles Tanzer at BuzzFeed. The report, which Joshua Benton from the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard called “one of the most remarkable documents I’ve seen in my years running the [Nieman] Lab,” exposed many of the struggles The Times is facing in a digital world. They’ve lost 80 million homepage visitors in the past two years, a fact that was quickly picked up by hundreds of journalists and that has now been beaten to death.
I read through the report in hopes of finding a fresh angle. On page 28, in a section titled “Opportunity: Evergreen,” I found something that I believe to be even more important and devastating than the drastic decrease in homepage views – and in many ways responsible for it: an acknowledgement from The Times that many digitally native outlets are repurposing their content and there’s not much they can do about it.
The section began with the following paragraph:
“On Oscar night, The Times tweeted a 161-year-old story about Solomon Northup, whose memoir was the basis for ‘12 Years a Slave.’ After it started going viral on social media, Gawker pounced, and quickly fashioned a story based on excerpts from our piece. It ended up being one of the best-read items of the year. But little of that traffic came to us.”
Four short paragraphs reiterated The Times story, followed by excerpts and a picture of the 161-year-old post. Instead of traffic going to The Times, Gawker simply repurposed the content and racked up over 214,000 views.
I read posts from between 15 and 20 different outlets on any given day. I’ve noticed that while The Times, The Wall Street Journal and some others still put out long-form articles on a daily basis, many outlets – not just Gawker – specialize in rewording content in short, easily-digestible ways that results in thousands of views and shares. Imagine the problem that this poses to traditional outlets still spending enormous amounts of time and resources on original content. The traffic that they depend on to fund those resources is being redirected to outlets that can take an article with days, weeks or even months of research invested in it and paraphrase it in a matter of minutes. Many of these outlets understand the digital world much better than the old guard does and have shareability down to a science.
On one hand, I feel like it’s created a new wave of journalism guided by shaky ethical standards. There’s nothing wrong with quoting another journalist or paraphrasing their thoughts, but when a significant part of your business model is based on waiting for them to produce content then rewording it in a few paragraphs with a link to the original article at the end, you’ve entered a gray area. While I wouldn’t go as far as calling it plagiarism, since a plagiarist typically wouldn’t give any credit, it does seem like a form of stealing.
On the other hand, I understand how the immediate nature of the Internet has changed everything, journalism notwithstanding. To build engaged, dedicated audiences, outlets must provide information in real-time, even if that means using information that someone else found first. Plus, there’s no denying that attention spans are shorter than ever and short posts that get right to the point is just what readers are demanding these days.
What concerns me is that if we build a media world where too many outlets are based on “find, reword, share” models, the outlets whose work is usually being shared will eventually become so weak that they’ll collapse. As logic would dictate, and as the report confirmed, these new types of outlets syphon significant amounts of traffic away from them using the information they put out in the first place, resulting in budget and staff cuts, of which we’ve seen many in recent years.
For several months now I’ve wondered whether this bothers The Times and others, but because I’ve never seen a public reaction from any other the major outlets, I couldn’t be sure. It was possible, I thought, that in some strange way it was benefiting them. The leaked report confirmed that they are, indeed, concerned about it, as they should be, and they aren’t benefiting from it. It might be too early to tell the long-term effects it will have on journalism. Personally, I think we’d all benefit from more original content, but I also understand that outlets are built on the desires of their audiences. If readers support paraphrased information, that’s what they’ll get while the quality of people to paraphrase suffers.