Weymouth: Gawker case suggests ‘the law was not written for the Internet age’

Part 6: Poynter President Karen Dunlap interviews Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth
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Nora Paul (Director, Institute for New Media Studies, University of Minnesota): Beyond the training of the next generation of journalists, that hopefully the university is providing as a service, what kind of things would you like to see in the industry as collaborative work with universities, that have not only the teaching of the next generation but also the ability to hopefully do the research that could answer some of the big questions.

Katharine Weymouth: That’s a good question. I guess it’s sort of a question we’re all grappling with, which is: how is the next generation gonna consume media? How do they want to consume it? And I think it’s a hard question to research because it’s changing so quickly. It’s changing for all of us.

I know we in the industry talk a lot about young people, the ever-elusive young people, and how they only want to consume on the Internet and online and whatever. I find that it’s true for — I think our biggest competition is the BlackBerry.

What do people do when they’re at a restaurant? They used to sit there and read a paper when they’re waiting for a friend. Now, they’re e-mailing. We’re all so ADD. I’m so ADD that I sit at a red light and think, ‘I’m bored, I better pull out my BlackBerry.’ It’s ridiculous.

So I think it’s, for the schools I think it’s training, it’s journalism. That has not changed. It’s storytelling and we need people with the passion for it and the skills to understand, how do you write a great and compelling story. And then I don’t care where you read it. So, I would think that has not changed.

And from the research standpoint, we all need to figure out how people want to consume their news. …

Marty Petty (CEO, Creative Loafing): I think many of us got in this got in this business because we believed that we were institutions of democracy, and the work that we do is critical to that purpose. So why, from your vantage point, why are we letting everybody else tell our story? Because our competitors have tried to shape our story of our demise and all the other things in between. And how do we ultimately help our constituents understand why it’s important for us to thrive?

Weymouth: To your first point, I think it’s us. We write the story all day long. ‘Print is dead, print is dead.’ And I actually asked one of our journalists once, I said, ‘Why are you always writing about newspapers?’ And he said, ‘Because I’m not interested in the other media. I work at a newspaper.’

But you don’t see Katie Couric doing a segment on ‘Nightly News’ about the decline of ‘Nightly News,’ right? So we don’t do ourselves any favors. We still have more readers than we have ever had. It’s just on different platforms. …

We have got to think about our readers. And we have got to give them compelling content. And sometimes it’s a little sugar with your medicine.

What’s great about papers in my mind, and we know from research in our readers’, they come to us sometimes for our coverage of Afghanistan, but sometimes it’s for the crossword puzzle. And that’s OK. Because maybe they come to read the sport section and they stumble upon something. That’s the beauty of newspapers, the serendipity, the thing you didn’t anticipate that you wanted to read.

So, I’m cautious of this sense of ‘we are these voices and they ought to educate themselves.’ That’s not gonna work. You cannot have a business that says, ‘Really, you ought to read this really long article.’ It’s up to us to give them a reason. I tell our reporters all the time, ‘We’ve got to think of our front page like the storefront,’ right? We’ve gotta look at that every day and hope that there’s something on there that says to somebody, ‘Wow, God, I want to read that.’

Some of the things we’ve gotten away from and we’re working on a lot now is, how do you write a headline? Once we had a headline in the paper, I don’t remember exactly what it was but it was really boring. And then on the Web, the same story was ‘Little Blue Pills.’ And it was among the most — and I clicked on it, and it was a story about how the CIA was giving Afghan rebel leaders Viagra instead of cash because that’s what they wanted to please all their wives. And I was like, ‘Now that is a great title.’ And I called Liz Spayd and I said, ‘Why didn’t we have that title in the paper?’

It can’t be medicine or we won’t have people reading it. I think we as an industry have to get back there.

Karen Dunlap: How do you consume news?

Weymouth: The old-fashioned way. I always start with the paper because that’s my habit and preference, but I also find that I read a shocking amount now on my iPhone. Because it is really easy and it’s portable, and you’re sitting waiting for somebody or you’re on a bus or you’re on the plane and it is very user-friendly. So I consume in lots of different ways.

Dunlap: And the paper, do you start front to back?

Weymouth: Yeah, I do. My daughter starts with the back of the style section, KidsPost.

Jane E. Kirtley, Silha professor of media ethics and law, School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota: You’re a lawyer by training. You were at Williams & Connolly for several years, a firm with a long tradition of doing First Amendment litigation. And many of the First Amendment cases since 1980 were brought by papers like The Washington Post. Are you worried at all that those kind of cases that have protected and expanded protections of the First Amendment are going to cease to happen as news organizations just don’t have the money to bring those cases?

Weymouth: Good question. I can really only speak for us. It hasn’t stopped us. When we want to get documents we still retain Williams & Connolly and other law firms to help us get them. So I think you’re right. It probably will be the organizations with the resources to fight to get stuff.

What I worry about a little bit more and I think is something we all need to figure out — I don’t have the answers — is: for those of us who generate the content, it is expensive to generate it. And there are a lot of entities out there who are being very smart but are not investing the resources and they’re aggregating the content.

And linking is great because that sends the traffic back to us. And people know what the content is. But sometimes they’re just repurposing it. You don’t even know it’s from The Washington Post, and/or they’re selling ads around three paragraphs. So I think that’s the kind of thing we have to watch because it is expensive to generate this content. If everybody else can benefit from this content without the cost of generating it, the organizations who are putting money into getting documents and evidence are — it’s going to be harder.

Dunlap: What do you expect to happen in that case?

Weymouth: I think all of us are trying to figure it out. It’s this balance of, we want the traffic, we want people to link to us and to use our stories. But I think we do have to watch that we’re not being taken advantage of. And I think there is a line. And the law has not caught up with it yet. The law was not written for the Internet age.

One of our reporters [Ian Shapira] did a story, and he’s a young journalist, and [after] not much longer an Internet media company, I won’t mention the name –

Huffington Post.

Weymouth: No, actually it wasn’t, it was Gawker. They just basically rewrote the story, slapped it up online, maybe in very, very tiny print at the bottom it said ‘Washington Post.’ And Ian called the guy up and said, ‘I worked on this story for several weeks. How long did it take you to rewrite it?’ The guy was like, ‘I don’t know, 20 minutes.’

We’re not gonna be out there suing people. We do want our content out there. But we have to also not go too far.

As I recall, when I visited your office, steam was coming out of your ears about that case. It’s an important case.

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