Getting linked from a high-profile website is almost always a huge compliment, well-received by any blogger. But Monday morning, I saw two friends taken by surprise when they were featured on the front page of AllThingsD, the Dow Jones-owned news site edited by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg from the Wall Street Journal. I talked to Kara, as well as several other writers and bloggers, to understand why.
After Del.icio.us founder Joshua Schachter's article about URL shorteners was posted on AllThingsD, he asked on Twitter, "What the hell is this?" Danny Sullivan replied, "It's a compliment. AllThingsD liked your shortener article enough to feature you on their home page." Joshua responded, "It's just very unclear to me where that came from, who wrote it, why they are showing ads on it, etc."
Metafilter creator Matt Haughey's response was similar, after his article on social media was featured shortly afterwards. "This is weird, apparently the Wall Street Journal's All Things D does a reblogging thing," he wrote on his sideblog. "I sure wish they asked me first though. That's a hell of a lot of ads on my 'excerpt.'" Matt also pointed out the existence of comments makes things problematic. "If they're just trying to drive traffic to articles, why have comments on excerpts? That makes no sense to me."
These are three online veterans, so how could they be confused by something as simple as a link? By email, I asked Merlin to articulate his complaints. He wrote:
The format, author photos, and bylines make it look like these articles were written for this publication; their presentation is indistinguishable from the convention for any group blog running original content. That's weak and, in my opinion, appears to be deliberately confusing and deceptive. Also, where the source of the article is acknowledged, there's no corresponding link to the page/URI to which it refers (something I'd regard as a convention that's at least a decade old now). Plus, the one puny link back to the source article that I could find is disguised as a "read more" jump link (again a convention that any blogger knows means something else — that the article is continued "inside" the current site). Of course, the combination of republishing the articles in this format without permission and wrapping them in ads makes this even shiftier. I haven't looked at the licenses for everything they've republished, but I'd be surprised if at least one of them didn't include a "Non-Commercial" attribute. Note also that all the social bookmarking links on the Voices posts point to the AllThingsD article; not the original "borrowed" post. Sure, sites like Digg and Reddit do something similar to aggregate content, but there's zero confusion about whether it was Digg or Reddit who commissioned the article; the link is right there at the top of their post. Not so here. Also note that, on the Yahoo! Buzz page, the author is listed as "All Things Digital" (not Matt, Joshua, etc). Finally, although they're grabbing other people's stuff without prior permission, they throw up all this officious text about "We do not publish unsolicited or over-the-transom submissions" and "We reserve the right to edit the posts we publish in Voices, but all legal responsibility for their content rests solely with their authors."
Indeed, if you look at the articles, the presentation makes it very hard to distinguish between original contributions, Dow-owned properties, and excerpts from unaffiliated third-parties. Can you tell the difference? (Click for full size.)
Kara Swisher, Interviewed
I emailed AllThingsD, and within minutes, Kara Swisher replied and agreed to an interview. Mildly shocking, since news sites are often the slowest to respond to my emails. "We always respond," she said. "We're not your grandfather's Wall Street Journal!"
Kara confirmed that the Voices section is a mix of original content, third-party linking, and syndicated material from other Dow-owned properties. The Voices section is hand-picked daily by the editorial staff selecting "four or five items every day that we think are terrific, that we want readers to read."
Kara explained they try to use just enough material to be understandable. "We usually have a sentence, possibly two, just so it's understandable. We try to keep it a short as possible, but it doesn't always work because people don't get to the point quickly," she said. "We don't have their entire story in our archive, by any stretch of the imagination."
During our discussion, Kara reviewed several of the recent articles and edited the excerpts. She acknowledged that some were far too long, and corrected them immediately. Below is an example of Joshua's post, before and after Kara's changes (click to enlarge):
I pointed Kara to an example last week from a Wall Street Journal article that excerpted five out of seven total paragraphs, and she said that they have free rein over Dow-owned properties, including Barron's and Marketwatch. Upon review, she edited the excerpt because she felt it was still too long. (If you dig through the archives, it's easy to find long excerpts from third parties, like this 375-word excerpt from the New Republic.)
Kara made it clear that nobody's ever complained and, in fact, people often ask her to link to them. "I haven't gotten anyone asking us to take it down yet," she said. "If anyone complained, we'd take it down in four seconds."
She felt it was presented fairly. "We're trying not to show that it's ours, because we're saying what they are and where they're writing from and then we link directly to them... I think it's really clear."
I pointed out that the byline formatting and author photograph makes the article pages indistinguishable from other All Things Digital columnists, and Kara acknowledged they could add a disclaimer to reduce confusion. "At the very bottom, we should explain that Voices is not our work. We want to be as clear as possible that this isn't ours."
Overall, Kara was very gracious and seemed genuinely interested in trying to avoid confusion. Since we spoke, I've noticed they've cracked down on excerpts, never citing more than a single paragraph from each author, though the presentation remains the same.
The Writer's View
I reached out to several other writers that have recently been featured in Voices to see how they felt.
John Gruber of Daring Fireball is featured often on AllThingsD, so I asked him what he thought of it. "I don't like it. The look and feel of the Voices pages suggests that I'm somehow affiliated with AllThingsD, but I am not," he wrote. He continued, "I obviously don't have any problem with AllThingsD, or anyone else, linking to and quoting portions from my articles at Daring Fireball, but the presentation on their Voices pages seems to imply something else."
John Timmer, Science Editor at Ars Technica, had a different view. "We count on people finding us through things like AllThingsD (and Digg, and Slashdot, etc.), so the exposure is good," he wrote by email. "In the grand scheme of things, getting full credit and having them avoid reprinting more than the first couple of paragraphs is far better than most of the behavior I've seen."
I also talked by email with Eric Savitz of Tech Trader Daily, a popular blog on the Dow-owned Barron's site. He wrote, "I think it's helpful in driving some additional traffic to my blog; it also gets me some higher visibility with a valuable audience. I have no complaints at all."
Ultimately, if authors are happy, there's no problem. But it seems like there's a divide between two types of writers online: unaffiliated independent bloggers running their own sites and bloggers employed by larger online magazines.
For indies like John Gruber, Matt Haughey, or Merlin Mann, they're more concerned about the appearance of being affiliated with a publication without their consent. Merlin wrote, "It reflects a basic disconnect about what we're really 'selling' when we self-publish. Obviously, I'm not selling paper or plastic discs or even words. I'm selling me."
Employees of larger news organizations don't seem to have the same concern over the distribution and presentation of their work, leaving that to their employer's legal department.
By all accounts, All Things Digital is a clueful news organization that's very concerned about ethics and transparency. Unlike feed scrapers, AllThingsD is only running excerpts and clearly intends to drive traffic to the articles they like. But for some independent authors, there's still room for improvement.
Update: In a well-written response, Anil Dash contrasts the authors in this story to the litigious approach taken by the Associated Press this week.
April 10: Yesterday, Jason Kottke discussed a trend that he felt was worse than misattribution — the tendency for popular blogs to extensively summarize and quote articles.
April 20: In response to this article, Kara Swisher announced changes to the Voices section. Links on their homepage now go directly to the original article, rather than a version on AllThingsD. On Voices entries, they've removed comments and "Share" links, rephrased the "Read the rest of this post" link, and added a long disclaimer to the sidebar. The bio photo, byline, and article design remained the same. Compare then and now. Also, authors without bio photos use generic icons instead of the AllThingsD logo.