Thursday, October 09, 2008

Update: NYT's Failure To Credit Original Writer

In response to my previous post complaining of NYT's lack of link to New York Post photographer Jason Nicholas' debut as a New York story, NYU Local, an upstart campus publication, questioned the rules of attribution online for a story. After all, if one publication breaks the story of a person once unknown, can a larger publication pretend that the person remains unknown to its own audience, and start the introduction over?

And moreover, what's the etiquette for linking online to such things? Should we preserve a breadcrumb trail?

With these issues in mind, I decided to respond to the exchange on NYU Local's site, in which City Room editor Patrick LaForge dashed off a comment, sans link, to NYU Local City Editor Nicole He's post:


The blog article in question does in fact link to the Washington Square News article.
We were unaware of that article — which, as this post notes, is not about Mr. Nicholas’s current legal troubles but about his past and his graduation. When a commenter pointed it out, we added the link, within hours if not minutes of publication. It is our policy to credit other sources, and we have.

Patrick LaForge
City Room editor

But LaForge is incorrect -- there exists no link to WSN on that post, which He confirmed in a follow-up comment:

Hi Mr. LaForge,

We took another look at the article in question (this one, yes?), and we can’t find any link to the Washington Square News, except in a comment left by Mr. Nusca. If you can show us where the link is, we’ll be glad to run a correction.

The link is still absent, as of 11:15 a.m. on Oct. 9. So I decided to respond. Of course, it's not the simple oversight of a link that I'm frustrated about -- it's easy to say I'm biased toward my own clips, naturally -- but the general idea of what function the City Room serves to its readers, the Times and the greater New York press scene. And, of course, the continual and complete failure of the Times to acknowledge wrongdoing, even if trivial:


You are correct in your assessment. There is no link to the WSN story.

The only additional link that appears in the City Room blog post is one to an article by Lincoln Anderson in Downtown Express, not the piece I wrote in the Washington Square News.

You raise a good point in this post with regard to the etiquette of attribution. For right or wrong, my thinking was not that it was a rewrite of my article, which it was not, but rather the easy assumption on the part of the reader that the Times first wrote about Nicholas -- after all, the first two grafs of mine and Moynihan's story are quite similar, even though they take a different turn at the nut.

I remember finding out about Nicholas from a friend. I remember walking through the night of the crime with Nicholas, cracking jokes, taking his picture. I remember being excited at getting the scoop on this interesting story, ahead of papers as small as The Villager and as large as the New York Times, not easy as an undergraduate journalism student. Young as I was, I wrote the hell out of that story -- I think it still stands as my longest clip for WSN.

So yes, in a link-happy blog like City Room -- particularly internal links, naturally -- I was looking for a little love on behalf of the tiny WSN, circulation 10,000. Online attribution etiquette is much different than the printed word, with so much more space available and words doubling in function as both content and doors to more content. An extra link to a local paper (or two, in the case of the Downtown Express) should have run the first time, in my opinion. By any measure, the City Room post was not brief.

It strikes me that, with the exception of paraphrasing exclusives from other places, City Room bloggers tend to publish with internal links first and external second. So while they like to say that it ends up as a nice 50-50 internal-external link spread, most NYT readers only catch the internal links when they read it the first time.

The City Room blog is a powerful publishing act, and comes with a lot of responsibility. It has become its own publication, in a way. Most New Yorkers first catch local stories there, in aggregate. That power is great; yet it's often disappointing when the blog begins to function as a nice in-house advertisement, simply reposting and promoting stories that can't fit on the front page (that's what the NY/Region section is for, isn't it?). I imagine it's a tough balancing act -- but I'd sure like to see more stories from smaller papers and magazines in the city, like the West Side Spirit or Chelsea Clinton News, that may not have as strong an online component.

After all, the Times gets to monetize those eyeballs either way. What's to lose? Everyone wins -- that's the mantra of web etiquette.

Perhaps my attribution criticism ought to have been directed at the original article, with neglected the attribution, and not the subsequent blog post, which was another step removed from my story. But as you said: With each additional reference, the origins become more concealed.

Perhaps I was simply looking for "City Room readers may remember Mr. Nicholas, who was the subject of a profile in in The New York Times in 2007 and in NYU's Washington Square News in 2005." After all, a little modesty wouldn't hurt the Times, would it?

A David vs. Goliath situation to be sure.

Andrew Nusca
The Editorialiste

I'd like to think that I know what I'm talking about, because I'm also an editor of a blog. But maybe I'm wrong.

Who do you think is right? Am I asking for too much, or is the Times just doing its job? Or is this just silly nitpicking over a source?

UPDATE 10/13: Look, even the New York Times thinks external links are news. Read "Mainstream News Outlets Start Linking to Other Sites." I kid you not.


Travis Mason-Bushman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Travis Mason-Bushman said...

No, you're not asking too much. Sadly, I've learned that stealing stories from college media without attribution is entirely routine for big-time newspapers.

In 2006, I spent months researching and investigating a story for the college weekly I edited, focusing on the campus' location atop an active earthquake fault.

An engineering study we obtained had concluded that virtually all of the college's buildings would suffer catastrophic damage and potentially collapse in even a moderate quake. Loss of life, were the buildings to be occupied, was probable.

I got the college's president to admit on the record that one option on the table was to bulldoze the 50-year-old campus and move the college to a new site.

Two days after we published the results of our investigation in a photo-and-map-laden package... the local MediaNews Group daily ran an identical (but shorter and shallower) story as their lead, right down to copying our exact photo locations. Nary a mention of the community college paper that scooped them.

Oh well, at least I got an ACP Reporter of the Year plaque out of it, and it does make a strong clip for the file.