Commentary

Major Newspapers Claim Right To Keep Scoops Exclusive

Several days ago, Rolling Stone magazine published an explosive profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, in which he sharply criticized administration officials. By Tuesday, nearly every major media outlet had picked up on McChrystal's remarks. Today, McChrystal was relieved of his command.

The magazine obviously invested economic resources in the profile, which was written by a journalist who was embedded with the military. But once McChrystal's quotes appeared in print, they entered the public sphere. It's ludicrous to imagine that Rolling Stone could have prevented other media outlets from summarizing or quoting from the article had the magazine wanted to -- which it did not.

When one news publication breaks a big story, columnists, bloggers and reporters from other publications follow up on it. Often they add new details, but sometimes they only add commentary. And in some cases, they might not add anything new, but merely distribute the information to a wider audience.

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Doing so might increase these other publications' audience, but it also serves the public. Many people who watch CNN or read The New York Times don't read Rolling Stone, and would have never known about McChrystal's remarks had they not been summarized or excerpted.

Nonetheless, a host of major newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, have just filed a legal brief with a federal appellate court arguing that, in some situations, publishers should be able to prevent their scoops from appearing on rivals' sites.

The brief was filed in an appeal of a lawsuit by three banks against the financial site TheFlyOnTheWall.com, which allegedly misappropriated the banks' hot news by publishing summaries of its stock recommendations early in the morning -- in some cases before the banks' clients had received the tips.

The newspapers say they're not taking a position on the particulars of the dispute. Rather, they want the appellate court to reiterate that publishers can obtain injunctions against companies who misappropriate so-called "hot news" -- or time-sensitive exclusives -- when those companies engage in "systematic, continuous and competitive republication" of others' content.

It's an odd argument for newspapers to make, considering how often they rewrite others' scoops. While they might deny doing so systematically or continuously, it's not at all clear that a court would agree.

Even more to the point, the very idea of time-sensitive information makes no sense in the Internet age. The minute news breaks, readers spread articles in real-time on Twitter and Facebook, meaning that newspapers have no realistic way of maintaining a monopoly on their so-called exclusives.

Nor should they want to. Hoarding the news certainly doesn't serve the public and, as a business model, it leaves quite a bit to be desired in the era where consumers can easily and instantaneously republish the articles they read.

4 comments about "Major Newspapers Claim Right To Keep Scoops Exclusive".
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  1. Susan Breidenbach from Broadbrook Associates, June 23, 2010 at 6:23 p.m.

    These legacy publications have not figured out how to play in the Web 2.0 (and beyond) world, so they are trying to stuff the Web 2.0 genie back in the bottle. If they get their way with this, free speech as we know it in this country will be gone. And what will they have achieved? Pushing more business offshore.

  2. Steven Cohn from Media Industry Newsletter, June 23, 2010 at 6:27 p.m.

    This argument is silly.

    As far as I know, the Rolling Stone article on Gen. McChrystal was credited by every major news organization. (The bloggers who stole or plagiarized the copy belong in the gutter.)

    That is no different from Woodward and Bernstein (and The Washington Post) being credited for their Watergate reporting 38 years ago. That greatly enhanced their reputations.

    Rolling Stone's reputation was enhanced, too, whether or not the article was read in the in the magazine or rollingstone.com, and that is a great asset.

    Steve Cohn
    Editor-in-Chief
    Media Industry Newsletter

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 23, 2010 at 6:35 p.m.

    One reason for a hold off, if needed, would be for fact checking. Rolling Stone's story was Rolling Stone's story published and presented by Rolling Stone, not before. Reporting from the story is different than reporting the story. Inside information in the financial arena may come under a different set of rules as well, but that is for the financial experts to figure out. There is a very delicate balance here.

  4. Darren Davis from Artisan News Service, June 24, 2010 at 1:16 a.m.

    You can't copyright news. You can copyright copy. Plagiarism of direct sentences or quotes should not be tolerated by any reputable organization. As Steven said above, organizations like Rolling Stone should protect their intellectual property (the actual copy), and media owners and writers should know that it's wrong to lift anything from another publisher. Even if a writer writes in their own words, the info should always be sourced. Hence the reason why Bloggers who generally are not schooled in this are not journalists. Info is info and once it hits the public it's fair game.

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