Archive - Sep 3, 2009

Covering the Local News

Last night, I went to the ribbon cutting for the Kucinskas loop at Beecher Road School in Woodbridge CT which was followed by an Ice Cream Social run as a fundraiser by the local Parent Teachers Organization. There were a couple of reporters local weekly papers there for the ribbon cutting. I’m not sure if they will talk about PTO Ice Cream Social. The day before, I attended the Woodbridge Commision on the Use of Publicly Owned Property meeting. I was there to hear if they had anything to say about the most recently purchased property by the town of Woodbridge, the Woodbridge Country Club, and, if the opportunity presented itself add some comments of my own about the club. When I get a chance, I hope to write up a blog post or two about these events.

This gets to a problem with volunteer citizen journalism. Volunteer citizen journalists, no matter what their level of experience and professionalism, only cover things that they are interested in when they have time to do it. There is a lot of other local news that volunteer citizen journalists might not have time or interest to cover that really needs to be covered. This is where we especially need professional journalists.

Yet this costs money, and news organizations are cutting reporters left and right. With fewer reporters, news organizations need to find other ways to gather news. Recently, the Hartford Courant has started using more material from other newspapers. Some people call this aggregation. Others call it plagiarism or theft.

James Smith of the New Britain Herald wrote:

It has even taken to stealing our stories with no attribution. Sometimes it will credit The Bristol Press or The Herald and re-print our articles both on its Web site and its “print platform.” Sometimes, and this is most troubling, our coverage will appear virtually word for word, but in a shorter version with no credit.

That’s called plagiarism, a fireable offense in any newsroom, as egregious as pandering to advertisers.

The once mighty Courant has been reduced to copying from its smaller competition.

Let me make a few observations. I have just copied text from Mr. Smith’s opinion piece. I have credited him, and since I’m writing online, I am providing a link back to his column. This is based on what we were taught to do back in high school. If someone writes something important, quote it and attribute it.

This sort of quoting is well within the area of “fair use”. A lot of people argue about what constitutes “fair use”. So, I thought it would be useful to quote what the U.S. Code, Chapter 17, Section 107 has to say:

In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fourth point is particularly interesting to me, what is the effect on the market. Hopefully, people that read my blog post will find what Mr. Smith says interesting and go read the rest of his column. I somehow suspect this isn’t the intention of the Hartford Courant when they copy large portions of other newspapers articles.

Rick Green, who writes for the Hartford Courant responds in his blog, “Jim knows as well as anyone that TV, radio, small and big papers and the AP have been doing this for years.” (Again, note the attribution, the link and the limited amount of material copied). This resulted in quite a long set of comments. I guess it all comes down to what “this” is. Fair use quoting of limited amounts of information with proper attribution has been going on for years and should continue going on. If anything, we should see more of it online.

However, lifting major portions of articles, even with attribution is where the Courant steps over the line. In a later blog post, Mr. Green reprints the Society for Professional Journalists’ release SPJ Ethics Committee: Hartford Courant Violated Ethical Standards:

Many media outlets aggregate information online, summarizing a story and then linking to the original. The Courant failed to carry the credit from its online version to its print version.

"However it happened, the Courant violated fundamental standards," said Andy Schotz, the chairman of SPJ's Ethics Committee. "This was theft."

Mr. Green focuses on the first paragraph about many media outlets aggregating information online and glosses over the second paragraph stating that the Courant violated fundamental standards. Yes, aggregation happens all the time. When done properly, it improves the news eco-system. When done improperly it is an ethical violation called theft. As an additional side note, Mr. Green did not provide a link to the release from the SPJ and the text was provided as an image which means it cannot be searched or easily copied into other articles.

To bring it back to the aspect of local news and acceptable aggregation, I have an agreement with the Journal Inquirer. The title and link to my blog posts about politics shows up in the opinion section of their online site. I include headlines and links to their stories in the Connecticut section of my blog. I believe it is our mutual hope that this will result in more people reading both websites.

The editor of the Journal Inquirer, Chris Powell, wrote and editorial entitled Local news is costly, so Courant rips it off. It puts the whole issue into the proper context.

Local news organizations are struggling to provide the news that we as citizens need to know but that volunteer citizen journalists do not cover as completely as should be covered. There are many great ways for volunteer citizen journalists and local news organizations to work together to make sure we all get all the information we need. Then, there is the approach that the Hartford Courant adopted.

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