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Nieman Journalism Lab
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This Week in Review: A limp response to plagiarism, and a proposed tax to save newspapers

Plus: Praise and scrutiny at Quartz’s launch, a Pew study on the geography of news consumption, and the rest of the week’s media and tech news.

Plagiarism and traditional media’s crisis of confidence: The parade of plagiarism scandals extended to Canada this week, when Margaret Wente, a popular columnist at The Globe and Mail, the country’s largest national newspaper, was accused by a professor named Carol Wainio of lifting content from five writers in a three-year-old column. The Globe and Mail’s public editor, Sylvia Stead, gave the accusations a very perfunctory review late last week, attributing the charges to an “anonymous blogger” (though she’s exchanged emails with Wainio in the past about her blog), not calling it plagiarism, and generally taking Wente’s explanation at face value.

Several observers found that explanation woefully lacking: Colby Cosh of Maclean’s called it “frantically defensive,” former Ryerson j-prof John Gordon Miller said it had “irreparably compromised” Stead’s integrity as public editor, and the National Post’s Chris Selley said the Globe needs to “stop treating its readers like fools.” The paper responded to the outrage by dealing Wente some unnamed punishment (she’ll keep writing as usual) and reorganizing the chain of command to give the public editor more autonomy. In a memo to staff, the paper’s editor also called Wente’s actions “unacceptable,” though he also did not use the p-word.

Wente wrote a column aggressively defending herself and taking several shots at her accuser in the process. Stead, the public editor, was a bit more penitent in her follow-up, acknowledging she had erred in not being thorough enough, not calling the offense unacceptable, and in referring to Wainio as anonymous.

Poynter’s Craig Silverman, a former Globe columnist, covered several key questions about the scandal, calling the paper’s response inadequate and dismissing busyness and web culture (as Jesse Brown of Maclean’s posited) as reasons for the plagiarism. Likewise, Cosh still wasn’t pleased with the paper’s response, noting that it’s given no indication of how it plans to stop this from happening again.

Several observers saw this as a critical moment for public confidence in Canada’s traditional media institutions. Toronto reporter Karen Ho and former Globe web editor Kenny Yum both made that point, with Yum wondering if the Globe should really choose to defend Wente rather than its own reputation.

The Tyee’s Shannon Rupp called the scandal a turning point for the gatekeeping authority of Canada’s legacy media (and one that reveals the Globe to be more interested in exploiting its readers than serving them). And GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram — another former Globe reporter — said the paper needs to get used to no longer being on a pedestalThe open, factchecking nature of the web, he said, “imposes a duty on media entities that goes beyond the simple admission of error. Transparency may not be pleasant, but it is the only realistic option available.”

Do newspapers need a government subsidy?: The long-running debate over government subsidies for journalism was revived this week when Guardian investigations editor David Leigh proposed a £2-a-month tax on broadband to be distributed to U.K. papers based on their share of online readership. The proposal was based on the idea that while newspapers are struggling, paywalls aren’t the answer in the U.K., where the publicly funded BBC will always be free. If newspapers die, Leigh said, “it will be a disaster for democracy.”

Leigh’s Guardian colleague Roy Greenslade said the idea’s well worth considering, though he wondered why big media would be funded instead of startups. Others made similar points, though they were much less receptive than Greenslade. Ewan Spence of Forbes raised a number of questions about the idea, concluding that having the government decide which news outlets are worth supporting is a dangerously slippery slope.

Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics’ POLIS had the most thoughtful post on the subject, including the argument that “it is vital not to equate ‘journalism’ with ‘existing news media organisations.’ Whenever an industry changes profoundly because of social and technological shifts, someone gets hurt.” Institutions are still important, Beckett said, but the ones that adapt the best won’t necessarily be the ones that are most prominent right now. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM echoed his point on the difference between saving journalism and saving newspapers.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt also made this point, arguing that if certain newspapers can’t adapt and innovate, the government should let them fail, not prop them up. (He also pointed out that it would be pretty easy to game web traffic numbers if that’s what the fee was based on.) For the University of Central Lancashire’s Andy Dickinson, the most alarming part of the proposal was the idea that journalists still saw a hard separation between their journalism and the economics of the businesses they worked for.

Paul Carr of PandoDaily took issue with Leigh’s assertion that newspapers are essential to properly functioning democracy, arguing that if that’s the main value of traditional journalism, the industry is doing an awful job of convincing the public of its own worth. Dominic Ponsford of the Press Gazette also ripped Leigh’s idea, but proposed an equally controversial one in its stead, arguing that publishers should block Google from indexing their material and create their own news search engine.

Quartz’s app-free, link-heavy approach: The Atlantic debuted its new business news site, Quartz, this week, and the talk around the launch wound up highlighting some long-simmering conflict around the journalistic value of linking and aggregation. The site’s editor in chief, Kevin Delaney, emphasized in his kickoff post some of Quartz’s defining qualities — mobility, simplicity, collaboration, and openness. The New York Times’ David Carr put the site in the context of The Atlantic’s larger digital strategy, which remain centered on free digital access with support through sponsorships and events, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram praised that strategy in a post of his own.

Peter Kafka of All Things D detailed one of the most distinctive qualities about the site’s tech side — though it’s mobile-centric, it’s not creating any apps but will instead have readers access the site through their mobile browsers. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman listed a few of the benefits of that approach — universal accessibility, simple URLs, total control — but said the design still needs some work. Here at the Lab, Joshua Benton gave the site a smart, thorough review, breaking down the context behind its design and content choices, and laying out some of its key challenges going forward.

Paul Raeburn of Knight Science Journalism’s Tracker was more skeptical, especially regarding Quartz’s choice to cover “obsessions,” rather than beats. (He didn’t see much difference between the two.) PaidContent’s Jeff John Roberts focused on the business model, agreeing with Ken Doctor’s prediction that sponsorships wouldn’t be enough to fund high-quality content and Quartz would have to dip into subscriptions.

The Columbia Journalism Review’s Hazel Sheffield also gave a critical review that centered on the site’s lack of commenting and “original content. That critique triggered a lively Twitter discussion about the relative merits of linking and producing content in-house, part of which was Storified by CJR’s Kira Goldenberg.

Reading roundup: A few smaller stories in the media world you might have missed this week:

— The Pew Research Center released two fascinating studies this week, the first examining the differences in news consumption among those who live in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman and the Lab’s Adrienne LaFrance both summarized the key findings, with Sonderman focusing on rural residents’ proclivity toward traditional media. Former newspaper editor John L. Robinson used the results to aid his point about the importance of gaining readers’ interest, more so than trust. The second was a meta-study looking at trends in media consumption, noting in particular the vulnerability of TV. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon put together a good summary.

— The Lab’s long look at j-school innovation continues, and USC journalism professor Robert Hernandez highlighted this week with a strong post urging students to take charge of their own journalism education. One of his former students, Kim Nowacki, gave her own tips for “hijacking” j-school. Also, John Wihbey of Journalist’s Resource called for j-schools to teach students digital research, and Arizona State’s Dan Gillmor urged them to ground students in the liberal arts. PaidContent also looked at another news org/j-school partnership, this one between MIT and the Boston Globe.

— Rupert Murdoch eased up in his war against Google, the company he once called a “parasite” on news orgs, by allowing his papers the Times and Sunday Times to be indexed in Google’s search results. PaidContent looked at what might have been behind the decision, and what it might do for those papers.

— Finally, a couple of useful posts for those trying to find journalism or media jobs: Bob Cohn of the Atlantic described what digital media employers are looking for, and at Poynter, Matt Thompson provided some great tips for applying and interviewing for journalism jobs.

Photos by Swire and Antje used under a Creative Commons license.

What to read next
Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 20, 2014
“A lot of people check their phones before they get out of the bed in the morning, and they check social media before the news sites.”
  • StanleyKrauter

    Most voters don’t take notes when they read a newspaper or listen to a news broadcast. 
    But reporters don’t care about stupidity by voters.  Their job is to report the news.  They are not responsible for educating the public (according to their professional standards).   So reporters are never going to communicate like a teacher would by publishing an annual one week review of events and conditions.  Which could be republished as a print on demand paperback book so voters wouldn’t have to take notes.  They could just buy an annual photographic memory. 
    And the people who work for the Nieman Foundation are never going to do anything to stop our government from being corrupted by lobbyists because the Nieman Foundation is a membor of a special interest group of foundations that have special privileges that are written into our tax laws.  So the Nieman Foundation won’t say that the news media should communicate like a teacher because this would force every politician to line up in a circular firing squad and shoot at the special interest groups that are standing behind another politician.  The Nieman Foundation cares more about itself than its country. 
    But this won’t stop the “intelligentsia” of the journalism business  from writing irrelevant articles about government subsidies for the news media. 

  • Zoe A

    This “it was just one column” meme is frustrating. Wainio highlighted multiple articles in her blog, and has been the cause of corrections appearing on at least five separate Wente articles for “improper citation” and in some cases simply making stuff up. It’s shameful.

  • David Beers

    You’ve misspelled the name of the Tyee’s columnist. She is Shannon Rupp (not Yupp).

  • Joshua Benton

    Fixed, thanks!

  • hutu406
  • qing.xi