On Wednesday, Gawker reporter J. K. Trotter published a bombshell exposé accusing Mic.com news director Jared Keller of stealing from at least eight news organizations for as many as 20 feature stories.Gawker’s story was passed to me by a friend and colleague who knew that Jared and I, once friends, have not been on good terms for quite some time. In March 2013, Jared anonymously leaked portions of what I assumed was a private conversation to Gawker for a news story. When I confronted him about it, he said our conversation was not “off the record” and therefore fair game for him to divulge.
Humiliated by the experience of having a friend leak excerpts of a private conversation, but armed with the excuse that it was apparently not “off the record,” I published the remainder of our conversation a few months later. The conversation included a section where Jared disparaged his then-employer Bloomberg. The conversation got back to some managers at Bloomberg, and Jared was dismissed for violating his non-disclosure agreement.
Although I was angry when I published the full conversation, my intention was more or less to clear the air and present what had been leaked in a fuller context. It wasn’t to punish anyone or get anyone fired. It was something we both could have handled better.
But whenever it comes up, the conventional thinking of our peers is that I was out for blood that day. So it probably came as a surprise when, in viewing the Gawker post and at least two others on Jared’s alleged plagiarism, I reacted with part apathy and part sympathy.
Being humiliated publicly for a professional misstep sucks. It sucks even more when you’re being called out for something that almost every digital publication — certainly every digital news startup — does on a daily basis.
The Gawker post identified three articles in which Jared allegedly lifted source material from another news organization without any indication that the words published under his byline were not his own. But the article also identified 17 articles in which Jared could be found guilty of copying material from another news organization with a direct attribution to the original source.
If the latter sounds like a terrible offense, consider that nearly all the major digital publications do exactly the same thing nearly every single day. The practice is called “aggregation,” and many of the top news websites on the Internet today — from the Huffington Post to BuzzFeed and, yes, even Gawker — owe much of their success to it.
Aggregating is meant to be a journalistic practice in which a writer excerpts details from multiple news articles and collates them into a single narrative — often as a way to simplify a convoluted subject. To paint a visual, think of how The Daily Show brings together historical news clips from the major broadcasters and pieces them together to help explain a topic of discussion.
That’s how aggregation is supposed to work. And when it works that way, the end result can be beneficial for both a newsroom, its audience and the original sources used.
But what passes for aggregation these days often isn’t. When BuzzFeed copies a concept from Death and Taxes, or lifts an image from a photographer without permission, that isn’t aggregation. When Huffington Post editors create articles based entirely on Reddit threads, that isn’t aggregation. When Deadspin (a Gawker-owned blog) uploads a copyrighted football game broadcast by FOX to its own video player for a 50-word article that doesn’t even contain a link back to FOX’s website, that isn’t aggregation. It’s content theft.
But it’s the kind of content theft that often passes for aggregation. It’s the kind of content theft that BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post and Gawker have built digital empires from, the kind of practice that earns them tens of millions of monthly viewers to articles, listicles, videos and slideshows that often contain third-party material with very little source consideration.
It’s the kind of practice that media observers have passed off as “innovative,” mostly because the theft is both profitable and excusable, and it’s the kind of practice other newsrooms — startup and legacy — have tried to replicate. Two years ago, News Corporation purchased the social media wire Storyful, a company whose main service is redistributing media found on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to its clients. A different news startup called Circa has grown in popularity by offering condensed news stories on its mobile app that mostly contain details pulled from articles published online by other organizations. (It should be noted that Storyful works to determine the authenticity and ownership of third party content and gets permission from the owner or licensee before redistributing it to third parties, and that Storyful does not claim ownership of the content it redistributes; likewise, Circa publishes links to the sources its editors use at the bottom of each news summary published on its app).
This seems to be the practice that Mic.com was trying to build its success on. Looking through the archives, one can find many more examples of “aggregation” than aggregation. In fact, when you look closely at Gawker’s accusation of theft, what you find isn’t so much a reporter accusing Jared of plagiarism, but of aggregation gone wrong — or, as Capital media columnist Peter Stern called it, “irresponsible aggregation.” Peter explained 17 of Gawker’s noted examples in this way:
“Keller linked to the original news source — often a wire service — but also reprinted language from the original source without setting it in quotation marks or block quotes.”
In other words, Jared’s alleged offense isn’t that he stole material from other articles. The alleged offense is that Jared stole material from other articles the wrong way. If Jared had copy and pasted the same source material into a block quote, Gawker would still have had a point in alleging the material was stolen, but it likely would have been dismissed by everyone else as mere aggregation. Instead of 20 examples, Gawker would have had just three — hardly an epidemic (and cases where Jared was possibly sloppy due to stress brought on by a changing workplace at the time, if POLITICO’s sources are to be believed).
The problem is, even if Jared had copy and pasted another reporter’s text into a block quote, it still would be content theft. It would just be a bit more excusable, because that’s how so many digital news publications operate these days. Often aggregation reporters and editors excuse their content theft by suggesting they’re offering the original creator “exposure” in exchange for appearing in their article — but ask any wire, newspaper or TV reporter whose day-to-day job is pouring over thousands of documents, picking up the phone to interview sources, confronting public officials in their offices or being dispatched to remote war zones about their thoughts on repurposing their stories for “exposure,” and you’re almost certain to find agitated journalists who feel more ripped off than blessed.
We need to ask ourselves if it’s more important to use five-point font and one-word links in our source credits when we blog and aggregate, or if that kind of practice disrespects the hard-working journalists who pound the pavement every day in pursuit of a story.
None of this is to excuse what Jared may or may not have done as alleged by Gawker. But it is to say that singling Jared out for his “aggregation” is unfair — mostly because it’s become an acceptable practice nearly everywhere (including Gawker). It exemplifies a need for the media industry to have a broader conversation about the practice of repurposing other people’s work in whole, something that has passed as “aggregation” for far too long when, in actuality, it usually amounts to stealing.
That’s the kind of dialogue Gawker should have encouraged through their exposé on Jared’s alleged offenses. Instead, they decided they would attempt to humiliate him, because — like content theft — scandals equal clicks.
[ Update: Since this post was originally published early Thursday morning, it has been reported that Mic News has dismissed Jared Keller over the alleged incidents. Mic says their investigation is ongoing.
Update 2: This post has been updated to offer additional context on the services provided by Storyful and Circa. ]