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Academics vs. Jounamalists Once Again: Alexis Madrigal Watches the Fareed Zakaria Trainwreck

Alexis Madrigal:

Maybe Fareed Zakaria Should Be Punished With Aggregation Duty: A dose of web journalism could give Zakaria a more rigorous sourcing ethos: Aggregation. It's the bane of old-school journalists who hate that some web kids out there take their hard-won reporting and wise analysis and throw it into content-management systems with a new byline on top. (They particularly hate the word "content," and love to scarequote it.)  And I understand that. If you put in a lot of work, you want people to see it. To the victor, go the spoils, etc….

Being fast, knowing to how to find the good stuff in other people's work, and knowing how to sell a story may be success factors on par with talking up city councilors, chatting up local residents, or calling scientists. It's easy to see the downsides in such a skill set. If you're going fast, you make mistakes (which commenters graciously point out with vim and vigor). You do not independently verify everything…. Scoops are not your holy grail. Plus, because you are fundamentally in the distribution game, you get to know the icky quantified insides of web ecology and psychology a bit too well. But… the best of the aggregators out there are learning some fascinating things about how to be good online and all of them are training themselves into certain habits of thought. Our own Rebecca Greenfield mentioned this to me this morning when she read about Fareed Zakaria's liberal take on sourcing quotes in his book. As told to the Washington Post:

"As I write explicitly [in the book], this is not an academic work where everything has to be acknowledged and footnoted," his said. The book contains "hundreds" of comments and quotes that aren't attributed because doing so, in context, would "interrupt the flow for the reader," he said….

Let's put aside the assertion that people do not attribute quotes they did not hear with their own ears…. "On the web, we're a lot of things, but you would never lift a quote and not provide a link or a source. It's just bizarre," Greenfield said to me. "Maybe it has to do with the idea that you would so obviously be caught, but it's also just how the job works."… [W]e're training our aggregators to recognize the value in other people's work (and brands). We're telling them, "You're as good as the people you link to." 

And that's the opposite of how print editors have traditionally thought…. [R]eferences to other publications are regularly stripped out of text headed to publication whenever possible at every magazine I know of. And man, how many bloggers out there have written a great story only to see the Wall Street Journal (or the Times or Newsweek, etc) rip off the idea and execution without so much as a hat tip?…

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