The Time Gawker Put the Washington Post Out of Business

Spurred on by his editor, a Washington Post reporter complained over the weekend that we "stole" his profile of a ridiculous "generational guru" when we blogged about it on this site. Our question: where's your outrage at your editors?

To summarize this little media controversy: reporter Ian Shapira profiled Anne Loehr, a consultant who gets companies to pay her to explain the mysteries of Gen Y. Our own Hamilton Nolan wrote an item about it in which he reprinted four of Loehr's most laughable quotes and ridiculed them. After initially being pleased that his metro profile got some play on a widely read blog, Shapira changed his mind when he got an email from his editor: "They stole your story. Where's your outrage, man?" This led Shapira, in a piece for the Post's Outlook section, to conclude that his job is doomed. To quote steal, Shapira wrote:

The more I toggled between my editor's e-mail and the eight-paragraph Gawker item, the angrier I got, and the more disenchanted I became with the journalism business. I enjoy reading Gawker and the growing number of news sites like it — the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast and others — but lately they're making me even more nervous about my precarious career as a newspaper reporter who enjoys, at least for the time being, a salary, a 401(k) and health insurance.

Shapira is right. Blogs are killing newspapers. But it's not by mindlessly cutting and pasting from newspaper web sites. Gawker would go out of business if that's all we did.

The bigger threat is that blogs say the things that hidebound newspaper editors are too afraid to let their reporters write.

Rereading Shapira's nearly 1,600-word piece (Hamilton's post runs just over 400), the closest I can come to anything resembling a point of view is a tangled mass of clauses that takes Loehr and her consultant pablum at face value. Again to quote steal:

The collective fretting over Generation Y — also known as the millennials — has turned into an industry for entrepreneurs such as Loehr: The former Kenyan hotel executive, based in Reston, is a "leadership coach" and generational guru, one of several who market themselves to corporations, the military, and federal and local governments as anthropologists interpreting today's 70 million to 80 million 20-somethings or early 30-somethings — those who came of age with the kiddie dinosaur show "Barney," high-speed wireless Internet and Barack Obama.

Sounds riveting! Hamilton succinctly digested Shapira's piece and gave his post a headline ("'Generational Consultant' Holds America's Fakest Job") and lede ("The fakest job corporate America ever created was 'Branding Consultant' — until now") that probably resembled what Shapira wanted to write but couldn't. It's hard to imagine that in the course of working on his piece — a process that Shapira describes as two hours of sitting in on one of Loehr's courses and what must have been four truly grueling hours of transcribing the session — he didn't have a chuckle or two at lines like, "I want to touch 500,000 lives this year. I am going to touch 500,000 lives this year. I do have spreadsheets that mark how many people I am touching." He suggests as much in his Outlook piece, complaining that Hamilton got to "cherry-pick the funniest quotes." (Emphasis mine.) So why wasn't there an ounce of humor in the profile?

Now confronted with existential threats, newspaper people rarely look at the failings of their own editorial product. After all, it's tough to criticize something when you're arguing it must be saved at all costs. Last week at an event in Dallas, This American Life host Ira Glass gave some gentle suggestions and painted an interesting picture of some future newsroom "where you would have the tone of The Daily Show — talking in normal language, but they would be real reporters."

So, it's unsurprising that Shapira's piece has been used by the newspaper navelgazers to kick around the idiotic notion that their work should enjoy some sort of special super-duper copyright protection. We'll leave that discussion for others, except to note that a more stringent copyright regime would probably be a bigger threat to newsgathering than that of any blog. A less cumbersome way for newspapers to head off the threat of blogs would be to beat us to the punchline.

But if you're going to fixate on blog links as the death knell of the industry, we have a lead for you: The threat is coming from inside the building. Nearly every day — 26 times in July alone — a Washington Post staffer not only sends us links to its expensive reporting but even pulls out the most interesting quotes so as to make it easier to pirate. I have strong feelings about revealing the identity of any Gawker tipster, but in this case it seems the public interest is simply too pressing and we must reveal this threat to journalism:

Maria Cereghino
Manager, Communications
Washington Post Media