In August, Hollis Thomases wrote some silly link-bait with the headline “11 Reasons a 23-Year-Old Shouldn’t Run Your Social Media“. Designed to rile up millennials, it got a lot of attention online. Its share numbers–how many people have shared it on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and so forth–exceed all of the current ‘Most Viewed’ stories on Inc.com. While the article is highly dubious, Ms. Thomases (I keep having to remind myself that she’s not actually three guys named Tom) and the Inc. editors are paid to generate page views. They were successful in doing so.
The Globe & Mail published an article last week by Shelley White. Its headline was “Why a 22-year-old shouldn’t be handling your social media“–very similar to the Inc.com story. Despite the Globe’s recent Wentegate controversy, there’s no whiff of plagiarism in the body of the article. White’s article is substantively better than Thomases’, in that Ms. White did actual reporting and research.
But isn’t this a little too cynical?
I emailed Derek DeCloet,
Managing Editor, Report on Business Editor of the Business section at the Globe and Mail, and asked him if he was aware of the Inc. article when they assigned their story. He confirmed that they were, writing that “one of the editors saw the Inc.com article, liked it and decided we should do our own version.”
I also asked whether he felt that the Globe had any professional or ethical obligation to acknowledge the original story. He didn’t think so:
We don’t believe such an obligation exists. Nor do we believe that others are required to give us credit when they write original work that is inspired by something we have done. The free flow of ideas, in journalism and other realms, is constant – a given story may be inspired or influenced by any number of things that writers or editors have read or seen elsewhere. It is in no way unethical to write an article on a subject that someone else has previously written about.
Mr. DeCloet did acknowledge that the Globe’s headline was “too similar” to the Inc.com’s headline. “However, both headlines use a very common construction (Why X should/shouldn’t do Y) that you will find in many English-language publications. We’ve since changed our headline, thanks to your letter.”
The story is now entitled “Social media too important to be handled by an intern”. Which, in fairness, is almost certainly a less effective headline.
In our remix culture, I feel strongly that we ought to, whenever possible, acknowledge our antecedents. It would have been easy for the Globe to recognize and link to Inc. in the text of the article (“In August, Inc. asked the question…”) or in a footer at the end of the article. I know this is antithetical to the newspaper-as-authority model of most journalism. But it’s 2012, and we shouldn’t feel obligated to pretend that we develop our ideas in a vacuum, or that we’re the only source of information on a given topic.
On a related note, I also think that the Globe should note that headline change in their article. For all online articles, whether on a newspaper’s site or one like this, post-publish edits should be transparent.
Note: The Inside PR podcast discusses this topic–it’s worth a listen.