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Attribution is not dead if we don’t let it die

I got a tweet from my buddy and Reading Eagle designer Chris Reber a few weeks ago.

is attribution dead?

That came not long after, Vince Fumo, the embattled Pennsylvania state senator and legendary South Philly politician, was convicted on all 137 counts in his federal corruption trial.

In what was another great stand for an old friend, the Inquirer was all over the Fumo case (not long after another evergreen package on the city’s Please Touch Museum, which won it a national headliner award.

Beyond collecting all the Fumo history and details and using social media, reporter Bob Moran live blogged the March 16 pronouncement of guilt. Fox29 hack Steve Keeley thought the Inqy was doing such a good job that Keeley began reading Moran’s reports live on air, without attributing him or the Inqy.


A minor outrage followed, not the least led by Inqy freelancer Amy Quinn, who tweeted again and again and again on the subject. But what else is there to learn, in an age where some say attribution is falling to the wayside?

With the speed information travels, it’s easy to swipe someone’s reporting, turn things around and call it your own.

In media, there is often two camps, those who don’t believe or don’t want to believe technology is swelling and growing and changing revenue and readership models and there are those so caught up in the changes that they don’t realize not everyone knows about RSS, cares about social media or even reads blogs.

The problems with the first group are often discussed but the second often benefit by ignoring how many readers don’t understand even the simple measures used by journalists. For many, if not most viewers, nothing seemed strange about Keeley’s in-court reporting despite being, um, well, out of the courtroom.

Moran and the Inqy got the bullrush.

But, christ, wasn’t Keeley just aggregating content?

Folks are realizing that the cost of content creation can’t compare with the cost-effective role of content aggregators, like Digg does for news, Academic Earth does for education and many others.

Of course, there is a difference that in my opinion can make aggregation – like I do on this site – OK. New media old heads like Jeff Jarvis talk about the link economy, something I buy into. That’s the concept that a link – and the requisite traffic – can pay for swiping a quote or a graf.

I think we’ll come to clearer rules about how much is too much, but my personal governance leaves me to try to always include the publication or source name, in addition to key words in the link, though I often also will use [Source] for a pull quote.

Let me give you an example from a recent post of mine.

As I wrote in an essay for the Columbia Journalism Review last month:

As long as the current generation is here to pass the search of justice onto its successor, the rest is just details we’ll sweat over for the next few years. [Source]

My initial link included the CJR name, though I also made it clear afterward. That’s a good link, though CJR doesn’t really need me for SEO. The ethical point is made, though. Blogs that just grab and don’t link or even the many whom I don’t think link adequately or swipe too much are unethical.

Keeley broke a ton of rules, though. He took way too much. He didn’t link out, or in old media, stand-up parlance, he didn’t attribute. I’m not even sure a casual reference to the Inqy would have been a good enough link for all that he took.

There are a host of sites collecting free content, repackaging it and making a profit without any monetary compensation for the content creators, like the Huffington Post and others.

All this doesn’t mean attribution is dead, though.

We’ll have to come to some more established rules in this game, but it’s about ruling with an understanding.

Over at TechnicallyPhilly.com – a blog covering the city’s tech scene that me and two colleagues launched in February – as we flesh out our own sources and schedules, we have occasionally leaned on the Inqy and the Philadelphia Business Journal. But, we make it a point to link out with key words. In the rare occasion that we haven’t added our own value or packaged a number of sources together but rather relied on a single publication, we are sure to be bold about giving its name in the link. See here and here.

So, if you think you’re a good guy, act like it.

In the link economy, you do what you do best and link out to the rest. That’s attribution, and it’s effective, so long as the link’s a good one and the attribution is fair.

I hope Steve Keeley can learn something.

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