The Strib, it seems, is outing folks all over town. But it has nothing to do with bedroom behavior. “Outing” is an official Associated Press term. The AP is a co-op; member news organizations share copy which AP rewrites and other members use. But in rare cases, a news organization can forbid other members — out them — from using those rewritten stories. In this case, the Strib has outed every TV, radio and online outlet within 30 miles of the Twin Cities.
The move will hit local TV stations where their growth opportunity is: the web. Once upon a time, newspapers didn’t care much that TV stations filled their broadcasts with the newspaper’s scoops. But everybody’s competing on the web; the Strib is a big net exporter of news content, and TV snaps up the AP version for its own home pages.
The outing, which began Monday, could reduce the volume of news — and unique visitors — rolling through wcco.com, kstp.com, kare11.com, with drive-by effects for MPR.org. “That’s a big one,” said one affected web guru not authorized to comment publicly. “We’ve been dealing with it all week.”
The Strib’s move is part of a slowly building trend; publishers in Seattle, Tucson and the Quad Cities have outed local broadcast competitors. But Star Tribune managing editor Rene Sanchez paints his paper’s move as a matter of honor more than business. When the AP writes a story, it’s supposed to credit the originating organization if there’s substantial original reporting. However, members on the receiving end can edit AP copy as they see fit. Too often, Sanchez says, Strib reporters would see their stories on a TV site stripped of any credit to the newspaper.
Recalls Sanchez, “In December, we had two investigative reporters spend two months working on what became a three-part series about MnDOT balancing money and safety. The second part is a front-page story about Highway 14 as a case study. The story hits Monday morning, and that afternoon, we see a TV website where the story is absolutely showcased – ‘Is this the most dangerous highway in Minnesota?’ I’m sure thousands of people clicked on that website to read a very abridged version of what Paul McEnroe and Tony Kennedy had written – with absolutely no reference to us!”
The final straw may have come two weeks ago. The Strib’s Pam Louwagie found a construction worker who had been knocked off the I-35W bridge, only to return to work on the same bridge months later. The day the story ran, TV sites republished it, sans Star Tribune credit. While not disavowing the publisher-pleasing aspects of online exclusivity, Sanchez says, “this step is rooted, in part, in the staff’s dismay about what’s happening to their enterprise work.”
Sanchez could not conclusively ID the offending TV stations in the Highway 14 case; AP did not include credit on the bridge worker rewrite, but issued a correction later. WCCO news director Scott Libin said the paper never made him aware of any problems until he received the letter Friday announcing Monday’s outing. “We would, in fact, like to know if we’re guilty,” he says.
Whoever’s at fault, I stand with the Strib on this. Whatever the paper’s business troubles or foibles, there are a lot of reporters and editors working damn hard to unearth original facts; they deserve copious credit. McEnroe and Kennedy made the Highway 14 story one that everyone wanted; even though Louwagie’s was a one-source story, she found the source no one else did.
Let’s face it — we live in an era where giving credit is easy. (Within reason.) Space isn’t a problem on the web, so TV site editors shouldn’t take out “reports the Star Tribune” or the credit line AP usually appends at the end. In fact, as a matter of principle, they or AP should take five seconds and hotlink those credits to the specific Strib story. Here, link-happy bloggers often act more professional than the professionals.
There’s another really delicious aspect to this, as anyone who’s competed against the Strib knows. Many an alt-weekly journalist or online scribe has a tale about the Strib “borrowing” original facts or analysis without credit. There was an interesting case study a few months ago involving Ed Kohler of thedeets.com and an embarrassing Target ad.
Sanchez insists the paper has strict standards about credit, and he’s standup enough to say anyone who feels burned in the future should contact him. (It’s firstname.lastname@example.org or 673-1731.)
Having spent most of my career as a “little guy,” it’s worth adding that we are not without sin. And to avoid the hypocrisy police, I should note that I first learned of the Strib’s move from Bob Collins at NewsCut.
Sanchez says TV stations can avoid the Strib police the same way I’ve advanced Collins’ nugget: add original reporting. “We don’t care if they read something in our paper and go out and grab their own facts and don’t credit us,” Sanchez says. Strib reporters, after all, have a TV on in their newsroom and often scramble after seeing something on the telly. “But until we get our own information, we will credit them if something runs on our site,” he insists.
I have the sense that this may turn out to be a short-term problem. One industry vet notes that the Strib’s victory may be pyrrhic, because TV sites might start playing up Pioneer Press stories on their well-trafficked sites. (That, too, might be a double-edged sword, since the web competition is much tighter between the PiPress’s twincities.com and the TV sites.)
For his part, the Strib’s Sanchez says “conversations” with the TV stations “have just begun, though there’s no idea where this is leading us or what might emerge.”