NYT reporter defends Forbes writer accused of ‘stealing’ his work

Nick O’Neill started a little kerfuffle over the weekend with his post, “How Forbes Stole a New York Times article and got all the traffic.”

O’Neill said that Forbes writer Kashmir Hill took the New York Times Magazine excerpt of Charles Duhigg’s new book, “cut out the crap and got to the real shocker of the story,” which resulted in “a mind boggling 680,000 page views, a number that can literally make a writer’s career.”

What does Hill have to say about this? She tells Romenesko readers:

I must admit admiration for O’Neill’s skill with headlines. Suggesting Forbes “stole” the piece is just the right kind of attention-grabbing title to get people to click. In fact, I clearly identified the source of the article and block-quoted at length to make clear this was the NYT’s reporting, not mine.

O’Neill’s reaction? “She may be partially right,” he tells me. “My headline demonstrates the importance of a headline, which is what the article is about.”

As for Duhigg, the Times reporter says he’s not troubled by Hill’s repackaging of the excerpt. “If Ms. Hill is kind enough to read my magazine article, and even kinder to spend time writing a post about it, than more power to her.”

I asked the three to weigh in on the flap. Here’s what they sent in emails:

Kashmir Hill

KASHMIR HILL

I took a great piece by an excellent reporter and created a version of it that was better for an online audience. This is a big part of what I do as a “new journalist.”

Immersing myself in the intersection of technology and privacy, I do my own reporting for long-form pieces and blog posts, and I riff on what others write. My piece didn’t take off just because of its sexy, tweetable title — though that helped — but because I found what was most compelling in a nine-page piece and put it front and center (while including lots of links back to the original article). The New York Times article is a delicious nine-course dinner; mine is an equally tasty, bite-sized snack for readers on the go. Most readers online are looking for something quick and easy to digest, so my version worked better for them.

Charles Duhigg’s piece is a masterful look at how Target gathers information about its customers and mines it to keep them loyal and better market to them. But as a writer who has covered the privacy beat for four years, what leaped out at me as the gold mine of the piece was the anecdote about Target data-mining its way into customers’ wombs so effectively that it picked up on a teen’s pregnancy before her father did. I ran with that anecdote and the sexy privacy issue Duhigg dug up — Target’s use of predictive analytics — distilling that from the larger piece for my privacy-interested audience. This is not a new or surprising practice in the world of online journalism – what has caught people’s attention is Forbes’ transparency. Thanks to our analytics being public, you can see the avalanche of social media love it triggered and the enviable million page views it garnered. O’Neill assumes that’s more than the New York Times itself got (though he has no evidence of that; only the New York Times knows how often the piece has been read).

Hill's story

I must admit admiration for O’Neill’s skill with headlines. Suggesting Forbes “stole” the piece is just the right kind of attention-grabbing title to get people to click. In fact, I clearly identified the source of the article and block-quoted at length to make clear this was the NYT’s reporting, not mine. O’Neill is right about the New York Times’ headline –”How Companies Learn Your Secrets” — not resonating online. For one, it’s too generic a title in the age of the Wall Street Journal’s ‘What They Know’ series, which has explored over and over again how companies grab data about us in ways we wouldn’t expect. Secondly, it actually reflects only one angle in a multifaceted piece about companies’ attempts to influence our habit formation. There’s lots of other interesting stuff in the piece’s nine pages, but I cut through that to the privacy meat of the story for my audience. And ultimately for a much larger audience. I suspect I drove a ton of traffic to the New York Times that they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten because they hadn’t sold their story quite as well as I did and didn’t create a short version of it that was easy to share and digest online. (Advice the NYT should consider is having their own bloggers tackle long pieces like this and chunk them up for the online crowd – a tactic the Wall Street Journal has effectively employed.)

O’Neill suggests that the “mind boggling” amount of views on my piece “can literally make a writer’s career.” I’m already a staff writer at Forbes (and am not, by the way, paid according to how many readers I attract). While it has certainly proven I’ve got a way with packaging and headlining pieces, my reputation was already established in the journalism and privacy world. My long-running expertise when it comes to privacy issues is part of the reason why my take on Duhigg’s piece had the initial audience and push that helped it go viral.

Nick O'Neill

NICK O’NEILL
Whether or not it was literally “stolen” (which some, including Kashmir, may have inaccurately interpreted as plagiarism), I would support what I assume is Kashmir’s position: remixing content is an important part of creating content on the web. It also happens to perform incredibly well. However there is an important question that’s raised: when someone else spends a significant amount of time to research and develop something, is it not them that deserves the majority of the recognition?

In the case of Kashmir Hill’s article, she could argue that recognition was clearly given on many instances throughout the article. However “bringing attention” to the article actually resulted in significant revenue for Forbes. She has attracted over 1 million page views. If Forbes were to generate a CPM of $15 per page, that would amount to $15,000. She only had to put in a couple hours at most to create the article versus the New York Times writer who put in far more time to perform the research. Even if the New York Times was capable of generating as much traffic as Forbes (which it didn’t appear to at first glance) it’s clear which model is more profitable here: provide a new title and summarize another article.

I wouldn’t say that what Kashmir has done is a bad thing, it’s just a result of the current state of online content. I’ve done the exact thing myself on many instances over the years and in many cases I was able to outperform those people who I summarized. Do I feel bad about it? Not at all, it is what it is: the game we’re playing. We can get together at conferences to discuss whether or not this is a good thing for the future of content and discuss on our blogs, but in the meantime Kashmir Hill is going to continue to play the game as aggressively as I do. That strategy is what lead to my title and at this point nearly 40,000 visitors to the article on my site.

Charles Duhigg

CHARLES DUHIGG
Complaining about someone re-writing reporting is kind of like kvetching about the rain: it’s pointless, because you’ll end up wet regardless of your protestations. Every journalist relies on other people’s work. I became a reporter because I wanted to find important ideas and share them. Whether that happens through my authorship, or someone’s summary, is less important to me than making sure the news is spread.

That said, there are two points I thought I would share:

First, the story in the NYT Magazine is an excerpt from a book, The Power of Habit, which comes out next week (on February 28, to be exact) The Times was kind enough to highlight this fact both in a sidebar and by linking to my website. Kashmir Hill, the author of the Forbes summary (and who, as far as I can tell, is a talented writer and seems like a very pleasant person), could have mentioned the forthcoming book. She could have linked to the amazon page. She is under no obligation to do so: no journalist, as far as I’m concerned, has any obligation to hawk someone else’s book.

But, it would have been good manners. (Ah! And I now see Ms. Hill has updated her post to link to the book! Graceful manners wins another day!)

Second (and this is, I think, a more important point): Every writer at some point has to decide why they got into this game. I became a journalist after getting an MBA and working in private equity. Journalism was not the most lucrative decision. (In fact, when I was working as a newspaper intern and living in my in-law’s basement, I think I qualified as the lowest-earning member of my business school class.) But I became a journalist because I wanted to change the world, and thought that reporting and writing offered me the best odds.

So, I don’t begrudge any journalist doing what it takes to get published and make a name in the world. (And, in fact, Ms. Hill has done a public service. As one commentator here said, my article has “tiny-ass font” and “felt draggy draggy draggy.” And the NYT has a paywall! The nerve.)

However, at the end of the day, I think it’s worth gently posing the question: what do you want to do with your life? Again, I don’t begrudge Ms. Hill. I once sold blood to make payroll – and though I wouldn’t recommend the experience, I’m not ashamed of it. If I was starting in journalism today, I would probably be summarizing every story I could find (and it probably wouldn’t even occur to me to mention someone else’s book.)
But every hour spent summarizing is an hour not spent reporting. And at the end of the day, this job is only really fun if you discover what no one else already knows.

In any event, I’m just glad folks saw the reporting.

I’ve been luckier in this life than I have any right to be. And, I have no business judging another journalist’s decisions. If Ms. Hill is kind enough to read my magazine article, and even kinder to spend time writing a post about it, than more power to her. The Internet is great because it’s an open marketplace – and, clearly, there were a lot of people who liked her summary (probably more than they liked my article.) Hopefully, next time, the Times (and I) will be clever enough to attract those readers ourselves.

* How Forbes stole a New York Times article and got all the traffic
* How Target figured out a girl was pregnant before her father did

Comments

comments

21 comments
  1. Heidi said:

    Nick O’Neill’s original piece was riddled with inaccuracies to start.

    First, he inaccurately identified the magazine that had the re-purposed piece.

    Second, he inaccurately identified how many “likes” the New York Times story had gotten.

    He is guessing that the Forbes piece got more page views – with absolutely no evidence to back it up.

    And his headline – that the article was “stolen” was both salacious and inaccurate. The fact that this joker got so many page views off of his personal assumptions on how the piece did on each platform and why isn’t journalism.

  2. trey said:

    I think I’m more concerned by the fact that the condensing of these long form articles is generally more appealing to the public. Stopping this kind of article repurposing, whether it is right or wrong, is impossible if there is demand for it. I guess we want our soundbites.

  3. Hey Heidi,

    As for the pageviews it’s based on a comparison of likes. The two things tend to have a relatively high correlation.

    If by “Salacious” you mean sexual, that’s awesome. People love reading about sex as do I. What do I know though, I’m just a joker that churns out massive pageviews.

    Best,
    Nick

    P.S. If you want further advice on generating page views I’m always available for consultative purposes ;)

  4. Josef K. said:

    Nick,

    Don’t get so defensive. You’re in over your head. Real journalists read Romenesko, not SEO punks like you.

  5. Viv said:

    A few things:

    (1) The popularity of Longform.org, Readability apps, etc. contradicts the notion that on-line readers have short attention spans and hate reading long pieces.

    (2) I read the Duhigg’s piece before I read Hill’s blog post. Having read Hill’s blog post, I agree that she stole the story. For me, the line of stealing versus “remixing” is pretty clear in this case. Summarizing is not “remixing”.

    (3) To me “remixing” is contributing a different angle to a story, like:
    > adding viewpoints that might contradict some aspects of the story
    > linking to other sources that support the same story and drawing some unifying conclusion about all of them
    > mentioning a related fact/angle in support of the piece that author did not

  6. Do Go On said:

    Look, Kashmir invites criticism.

    Another question is: what the hell has happened to Forbes? The last few times I’ve been on [Forbes.com], the writing is about as thoughtful as the daily boob section on HuffingtonPost. Their magazine still has some thoughtful articles, but the “brand” is taking a hit these days.

    So…Kashmir is branding herself a privacy and law technology reporter. Her qualifications? A Pookie Cute photo that looks like it’s from a high school spring break, an internship and hanging out in newsrooms, and “I was an editor at Above the Law, a legal blog, relying on the legal knowledge gained from two years working for corporate law firm Covington & Burling — a Cliff’s Notes version of law school.”

    She also admits in her bio, that although she is an expert privacy reporter, she doesn’t believe in privacy. Oh, and she has no apparent technology background.

    Oh, good. Sounds about right for a person branding herself, again, as a technology, law, and privacy and social media expert. Having no education in the area or a job actually creating or wrestling with technology. Mmmm kay. Her own branding and cutesy bio invites people to call her out. Especially since she works for Forbes, not iVillage.

    So, say I’m in the target audience of business managers and owners. So would I follow this reporter to actually have thoughtful things to say about how I should invest in privacy? Would she even have the background on how to parse through the technical issues or even be open to the idea of privacy and security..? I don’t think so.

  7. Dan Mitchell said:

    C’mon now. Kashmir Hill does a fine job on that beat, at least from what I’ve seen. She seems to know her stuff. And I’d say her background is pretty decent. For example, the last time I read Above the Law (maybe when she was working there, I don’t know), it was a pretty good blog.

    There are plenty of reporters and editors, including at high-end publications, who have less experience and/or are terrible at what they do. The business about her photo and bio is a lot more puerile and inane than anything she has done – and, taken together with the rest of this, including the reference to iVillage, transparently sexist. And at least she’s not slamming people anonymously. If you want to disagree with her, fine. In fact, if you want to denigrate her experience, talent, or opinions, also fine. But it’s probably best not to be childish and inappropriately insulting about it.

  8. You know this is the way it goes as every has different dots to connect and you win some and you lose some and tomorrow is another day but journalists and bloggers (who always credit such as I do to the source) are good partners as many of my readers read me and follow the link to the source. That’s fair.

    If you want to get into something not fair read about a Hedge Fund that spammed me for something different and how reputation restore didn’t work for him:)

    Talk about aggregation, this was not done very well at all and you get to see all the flaws and some are quite humorous too.

    http://ducknetweb.blogspot.com/2012/02/healthcare-blogger-gets-spammed-by.html

  9. As per Viv’s comment, there needs to be a clear distinction drawn between the advancing of a story and a mere “reblog,” or recitation of someone else’s work under a glossier, SEO-friendlier headline or cover.

    As someone whose reporting for a startup online newspaper was once picked up by Drudge — but the “reblog,” alas, not the original! — and who now reblogs news every day in order to subsidize my research and reporting on other pieces (as well as pay my rent) I’m touched by how gracious Duhigg was, but must slap my forehead at how Hill missed the point.

    Yes, “reblogging” or “repackaging” or whatever is part of today’s online “journalism” world, for good or ill. However, unless you’re a mere content farmer, you advance the story. Or, credit the source immediately and throughout.
    Slapping an SEO-friendlier headline on someone else’s work does steal their traffic — and, ultimately, their money. I doubt many of Forbes’s readers clicked through to the NYT piece, and fewer still bought Duhigg’s book.

    That said, Hill’s merely playing the game as the rules are written. Ask Gawker or the Huffington Post. Unless paywalls or something else changes drastically — or once Facebook likes or quick 30-second page visits stop being the yardstick by which we’re measured — this is going to continue.

  10. If there is a lesson here, it is about giving length choices to readers. If Hill had the opportunity to make a short, punchy, easily readable version, it is because the New York Times had not provided it.
    Maybe all stories, – especially long ones – could be offered in several versions: 50 words, 250, 1000, etc. whatever works best.

  11. Phil de Haan said:

    I read the Hill piece on Forbes first. A Facebook friend had linked to it.

    After giving it a quick read I was a bit confused. At first I thought it was original reporting by Forbes on Target’s marketing efforts. Then I clued in and realized what was going on, so I headed over to the NY Times site to read the actual, original reporting. Which, I thought, was outstanding.

    In fact, I printed it and brought it home for my wife and 15-year-old daughter to read. So, Hill’s reporting, via Facebook, brought three readers to the original NY Times piece who might otherwise have missed the article.

    So, is that good, bad, indifferent? Not sure. But it’s certainly emblematic of the new world we live in vis a vis journalism, blogging and even, I would suggest, PR.

  12. Anaryl said:

    The core of thematter is, and I was stupid enough to come to this page thinking there was a story here is that we all share content.

    In this case, Ms Hill gets paid to write a rather sensationalist headline, and basically copy and paste chunks out of a piece she liked.

    Plagiarism? Unlikely since she credited the source. Journalism? No.

    However, if I was her boss, I’d be wondering why I’m paying someone to copy and paste someone else’s work off the internet.

    And part of what you do as a “new journalist”?, Please Ms. Hill lay off the social media platitudes.

  13. James said:

    .. then more power to her … THEN!

  14. Uncle Oswald said:

    What so many apologists for the “new rules” seem to forget is that, once aggregation and “remixing” become dominant, the market for creators of truly original content will inevitably shrink. (I, for one, have no intention of doing my job for free.)
    And when there is no new content, what will the aggregators aggregate? What will the “remixers” remix?
    What is being “stolen” isn’t just the content; it’s the economic model that makes professional-quality original reporting possible.

  15. Jerkstore said:

    Did she actually write “go viral”?

  16. Del Boca Vista said:

    Kashmir Hill seems incredibly satisfied with herself, and what scares me is that an entire generation of journalists thinks this sort of “remixing” is journalism. They graduated into a field dominated by the Huffington Post and its SEO-bait clones, so they know nothing else. The self-praise is particularly off-putting, all the bits about “distilling” and “creating a better version.”

    It’s incredibly disrespectful to those who do the original reporting, and the organizations that pay that considerable expense. What will the Kashmir Hills of the world do when there’s nothing left to aggregate?

  17. A guy said:

    DBV, you’re being incredibly ageist when you ascribe a characteristic to “an entire generation of journalists.” Oh, those pesky young whippersnappers and their remixing! As if there aren’t entire graduating classes filled with eager young reporters champing at the bit to get the jobs we older vets cling so tenaciously to. “Remixing” pays the bills. I’m sure many of this younger generation you deride would kill for a 40-hour a week job in a guild newsroom, but those are hard to come by, in case you’re new to Romenesko or something.

  18. A guy said:

    I don’t recall seeing that quote anywhere in my comment, rknil. Thanks for putting words in my mouth. I certainly don’t think it’s right. I’d love to see all these “remixers” with well-paying jobs that let them create original reporting. What I object to is Del Boca Vista’s suggestion that there’s an entire generation of young journalists who don’t know how to be journalists, or who somehow think repackaging others work is “journalism.” It’s not like these HuffPo writers are choosing to remix articles because it’s their passion. They’re doing it because no one will pay them to get out there and report.

  19. Del Boca Vist said:

    A guy, you’re off the mark. I’m one of the “pesky young whippersnappers” myself, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone taking a job to pay the bills. That’s not the case here. Hill believes she’s doing great work, heaps generous praise on herself for creating a “better version” of the piece, cites her “long-running expertise,” and says the story proves how awesome she is at rewriting other people’s stuff. Absolutely absurd.

    You’re right, some people stuck aggregating would probably love traditional reporting gigs. Many more would not, and wouldn’t know what to do if they had to create their own content. Original reporting, interviewing and following a story are different skills than chopping up someone else’s work and stealing their ad revenue.

  20. A guy said:

    I was objecting more to the “an entire generation” part of your remark than anything else you said, DBV. Hill herself does seem to take an unreasonable amount of pride in work that is not all that difficult to perform.

  21. Monica Perciva said:

    This is just one story. Kashmir Hill generally does original reporting and she does it very well.