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:
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).
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.
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.
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.