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So you know: this is super inside media baseball and might be boring to a lot of folks. So, sorry! You have been warned. If you’re not interested in the minutia of media, this story is not for you. Move along.

We’ve all heard talk about how newspapers expect “credit” when online writers link to them. This isn’t an issue of plagiarism we’re talking about — instead, this is talk from “established” pubs who are expressing frustration that their publication’s not getting proper recognition for “breaking” (that is, being the first to report on) a story.

However, many folks toiling for Non Big News Organizations have expressed even graver frustration when stories they’ve reported on appear, sometimes days later, in larger publications sans without links or acknowledgement that the story appeared anywhere before the newspaper wrote its story. Does a recent exchange a local online writer had with a SF Gate employee indicate that this latter practice is about to be reversed at the Chronicle, or is it just another smashing symptom?

Earlier this week, a reader emailed us an email conversation they had with Chronicle reporter Henry Lee. After reading this Chron story from September 28, the reader emailed Lee asking:

how can you say “authorities said today,” when authorities actually confirmed this two weeks ago, as reported by The Examiner and the SF State paper on September 14?

Lee responded, in part (you can see the entire exchange here):

When the Chronicle is writing a story, if they were able to re-report the already-written upon information independently, it is not a situation in which it is policy to credit in the slightestHere’s the background on how this story got reported today. A reader e-mailed me, wondering if we had written any updates since the initial story penned by my colleague, Carolyn Said, who was working that Sunday…When I got the name from the medical examiner today, I naturally put the name into Google and found the various news stories in other media….Since we at the Chronicle did not follow this case on Day 2, we certainly did not have the independent knowledge of the name to enter into any search databases…

For incremental updates on stories such as these, it is virtually impossible to give credit to whoever is “first.” Often, a local wire service might put out the information; when that happens all Bay Area media will confirm the info and then report it. It would be difficult to ascertain, say, who may have reported something first if there may have been a simultaneous release by more than one outlet. If a factoid is easily confirmable with a phone call, then we do our own reporting. A news story in which we credit another outlet usually involves a larger, more substantive issue or involves using a snippet of info or an interview that only that outlet developed, i.e. “the Associated Press, citing sources, reported..” It would again be unwieldy to say, Ch. 5 broke this on TV, based on a Bay City News report, based on a student newspaper who saw this on foreign media” or “This was broken by the Times just two minutes before we reported it, but we would have had it earlier had it not been for a system malfunction.” This has happened at times. But we just report it, plain and simple. Sometimes there is a chain of successive reporting, sometimes we have independent snippets that forward the story beyond other media, sometimes there is a at-the-same-time release of info.

With full respect to the reader who forwarded this exchange to us, Lee gave a far more comprehensive, reasonable, and kind explanation that I would have provided if an email like that had hit my inbox.

But then today, SFGate Senior Business Producer Annika Toernqvist emailed Andy Wang, editor of real estate blog Curbed SF, regarding this post:

Hi, we noticed you wrote about our story on the penthouse on fourth street that is for sale (owned by twitter co-founder Evan Williams.) that is great, thanks. We assume you got it from us?

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/ontheblock/detail?entry_id=48679&tsp=1

Then we also noticed that both Gawker and Wall Street Journal wrote about it, both referring to you instead of us as the original source. Would have been good maybe if you have mentioned us in the intro text already, not just at the bottom as the source?

In Wang’s response to Toernqvist, he says (read the entire exchange here)

I’d like to explain briefly why I linked to On the Block at the bottom of my post — a fair choice, in my estimation, given the brevity of the post. Most of the information and photos came from a multiple listing service, already accessible to the public, and On the Block’s contribution was in linking the property to Evan Williams. No small point, granted, but Curbed’s post was very brief, and ended with a very visible (in my judgment) link to On the Block.

So, when the Chronicle is writing a story, if they were able to re-report the already-written upon information independently, as Henry Lee did, it is not a situation in which it is policy to credit in the slightest. But, when the situation is reversed, and in this case, adds some additional details (for this story, Wang created a photo gallery of the property from the publically-available MLS), not only is a link insufficient, but the link must be in the lede?

Eater SF (which is part of the same network of sites as Curbed) editor Paolo Lucchesi agrees that “There are times when the Inside Scoop has run several stories at once that appeared on Eater (or elsewhere) first” but acknowledges that as “only a once a week column… they’re playing behind the 8-ball to begin with.” He says he has ” never emailed the Chronicle demanding credit” in those cases.

The (American Apparel) story began ostensibly on our pages. And yet, the Chronicle’s reporting of it went without a single mention of any of the above blogs.SFist editor Brock Keeling also suspects that the Chronicle has gotten the tip-off on stories from his site “Though, I cannot say for sure.” He says he has emailed the Chronicle asking why he hasn’t been credited, “but it never amounted to a link. Why bother…I’ve had good communication with some folks at the Chron/Gate, and I’ve had bad communications with a few over there.”

In his response to Toernqvist, Wang says:

…since we’re on the topic of credit-giving… I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds in asking if SFGate is willing to return the favor? I see that On the Block links to other blogs from time to time, but the same can’t be said universally of other SFGate blogs, or for Chronicle stories in general. Earlier this year, the controversy over American Apparel in the Mission erupted largely online — on blogs like Curbed SF, Mission Mission, and SFist — before spilling out into the streets and community meetings. We didn’t just follow the story. The story began ostensibly on our pages. And yet, the Chronicle’s reporting of it went without a single mention of any of the above blogs. For anyone who followed the trajectory of the whole story, the omission was both conspicuous and puzzling, not just in terms of credit-giving, but in terms of reporting.

As of publication time, Toernqvist has not responded to Wang.

Violet Blue, Appeal contributor and Gate columnist, tells me “traditional media organizations have had many years to establish their own set of journalistic best practices, but, sadly, they’re not adapting them to work for the internet. Online best practices say that you must link to people who have reported parts of your story before you did, and it doesn’t undermine your work at all — in fact it gives your work more strength by proving that it’s not just you making the statement. As you know*, I fought tooth and nail to get the Gate to let me use links in my stories. We’re talking about a major attitude shift that needs to happen in terms of of crediting stories.”

Is the attitude shift Blue’s talking about in the Chronicle/Gate’s near future? Given how comfortable they seemed to be in demanding a change in how they were credited in Wang’s story, it seems like something like that might be on the horizon. When we reached Toernqvist via phone, she refused to answer our questions and referred us to SF Gate’s Executive Producer, Kevin Skaggs. We left him a voice mail, and will update you when he responds.

Photo illustration: Tim Ehhalt
*Violet says this because when I worked at the Chronicle, I edited her column

the author

Eve Batey is the editor and publisher of the San Francisco Appeal. She used to be the San Francisco Chronicle's Deputy Managing Editor for Online, and started at the Chronicle as their blogging and interactive editor. Before that, she was a co-founding writer and the lead editor of SFist. She's been in the city since 1997, presently living in the Outer Sunset with her husband, cat, and dog. You can reach Eve at eve@sfappeal.com.

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  • Christine Borden

    P.S. Tim’s photo illustration is awesome.

  • Tim Ehhalt

    Thanks. I’m famous, I’m on the internet!

  • velorution

    I think the issue is size and mainstreaminess. The Chronicle is a big paper and it doesn’t yet think it needs to hat tip the blogs. Same goes for other large outlets, for the most part.

    The most egregious case for me personally came when I wrote this article on bicycle parking at old meters when cities remove them for Streetsblog on July 1st, 2009:
    http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/07/01/when-old-parking-meter-poles-go-so-often-does-bike-parking/

    On July 16th, 2009, Patrick Walters of the Associated Press wrote the exact same story:
    http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=8096183
    He changed only one or two of the cities he referred to. He even interviewed two of the same sources I did, Transportation Alternatives in NYC and East Bay Bicycle Coalition in Oakland. Because his was a wire story, it was picked up all over the country, from Seattle Times to Huffington Post.

    I wrote him and asked if he got his story from my report, but no reply. The chronology is clear, the sources are identical in two instances, but the credit stays with the AP.

  • cedichou

    I am rooting for a Hulk-smashing-the-Chron trilogy.

  • bloomsm

    Seems like, as a user, the only thing I could add is that I’m not interested in “news” that the Chronicle regurgitates from another site. But, I’m also not interested in receiving footnoted or reference-laden articles, for ease of use. I do appreciate cited sources when the Chronicle is not relying on its own interviews or leg work, but the standards these days are such that I (reflexively) question stories that cite “Chronicle sources”. this is a super-inside newsroom concern.

  • Akit

    I had a suspicion that the Chronicle/SFgate was also using some of my material.

    One in particular was when I published on my blog on May 7th about cell phones being tested to pay for BART rides when Translink was on the horizon. Since I got information from Brittney Gilbert’s “Eye on Blogs” posting (on May 6th), and I gave her the appropriate credit for her work.

    Then on May 18th, I noticed a posting from “Matier & Ross” talking about BART’s cell phone experiment and the Translink program. Strangely, the press conference with BART’s James Fang doing the demonstration was on May 7th (as per Gilbert), and the Chron/Gate covered it on the 18th? When I first read the story from the duo, I was a little intrigued if they used any of my material.

    Andy Ross replied back to an e-mail I sent about my concern and stated that he never heard of my blog. Although, Phil Matier didn’t write back.

  • milkcluber

    What I’d really like to see is attribution to political consultants and hit men when they plant stories for their clients, like Gary South in Carla’s frequent reports on Jerry Brown, or laudatory reports on Newsom. Why give cover to paid flacks?