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:
Lee responded, in part (you can see the entire exchange here):
Here’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.
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?
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.
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