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How does commentary affect the world around us?

WaPo vs. Gawker: Commentary in Action

Ah, my favorite website gets in a tussle again! I love reading Gawker, often just as much for the comments as the content. It’s one of the snarkier sites on the internet, as well as one of the few sites where the readers keep up with the writers in terms of witticisms. I feel like the quality of the commentary has declined a bit as the site has become more popular, but maybe that’s just a personal perception.

Regardless, Gawker has pissed off many people–who respond in the comments, or sometimes in articles of their own. To get linkified for a moment: Ian Shapira wrote an article about business coach Anne Loehr for the Washington Post, Gakwer mocked Loehr’s job, and Shapira got mad. Initially, Shapira was actually pleased he had been covered in Gawker: it brought more traffic to his article and to the WaPo in general. But then an editor instigated thoughts of theft in Shapira’s mind.

Did Gawker “steal” Shapira’s content? Of course not. It excerpted it, giving credit to the source. And most of what Gawker excerpted were quotations from the subject of Shapira’s article–not anything Shapira said himself. Shapira objects to Gawker’s actions largely by chronicling the amount of work he put into the article: hours doing research, attending one of Loehr’s sessions, talking to Loehr, transcribing various conversations, not to mention writing the actual piece. It does sound like it took lots of effort.

But that doesn’t mean Gawker stole anything. The blog never claimed to have originated the content. They credited repeatedly with links to the story, and sourced the story to the Washington Post at the end (Shapira’s name was never mentioned, but did he really write that story expecting to be showered with personal accolades?). There was no “theft” involved. Nor does Gawker’s response negate Shapira’s work. In fact, it’s a credit to it: if not for Gawker, thousands of people wouldn’t have heard of Shapira, or the subject of his article.

Another odd aspect of the situation is how long it took Shapira to respond. Shapira’s original article appeared on July 8. Gawker responded on July 9. But Shapira didn’t get back to the debate until July 31 (Gawker responded to that article on August 3.) What was the reason for the delay? Did Shapira have to spend several hours interviewing himself and transcribing the results? Or was it just another grab for Gawker traffic (one that most likely worked very well)?

But perhaps the oddest aspect of the situation is Shapira’s apparent underlying assumption that journalism is worth doing for the work itself. He emphasizes the reporting he put into the piece, but never mentions what he expected to come out of it. If you’re going to research and write an article on a topic, aren’t you doing that for the purpose of getting a response? Shouldn’t the point be to invite commentary, even if it’s critical (of your subject, not you)? Perhaps due to the greater difficulty of commentary in the past–i.e., letters to the editor, screened BY editors who assigned stories, being the main form of newspaper “commentary”–newspapers seem to be having a tough time finding the best way to invite reactions to their stories. But in the end, a Gawker commenter put it best: “How dare people talk about the story I wrote?”

Copyright and credit are important. But so is the free exchange of ideas. If newspapers and related services want to charge for public domain ideas, or prevent people from commenting on their stories, they deserve to fail.

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Filed under: Blogs, Commentary

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