My neighbor across the street, who not long ago bought one of those near-million-dollar S.F. condos that are popular nowadays, has a business plan for getting even richer. He wants to start a Web site chock-full of "user-generated content," a popular buzz phrase that means getting people to write for free.
Last week at a bar I met a man who told me he's sending his daughters to a private grade school where tuition costs almost as much as an elite college. He writes algorithms for Digg.com, a Web site that gets readers to contribute and suggest news stories without pay, and is read every month by 12 million unique U.S. visitors, according to the rating service Quantcast.
Liberal Pied Piper Arianna Huffington seems to be raking it in, too, as visitors flock to read the work of 1,800 unpaid bloggers at www.huffingtonpost.com. The Web site will never, ever pay its writers because "that's not in our financial model," USA Today quoted site co-founder Ken Lerer as saying.
Horrifyingly for paid hacks such as myself, newspapers are also attempting to pave their way to Easy Street with free labor. For example, www.examiner.com, the Web site for billionaire Philip Anschutz' experiment in free dailies, features 40 blogs with titles such as "Around San Francisco" by Sharon Gray. "Photographer, author, poet, award-winning artist, designer, and socialite Sharon Gray reports on San Francisco savvy lifestyles, the social set, neighborhoods, top getaways, sports, whales, environmental issues," Gray's online bio reads in reference to her unpaid, online Examiner columns.
"They're blogs. They don't get edited," explained Examiner executive editor Jim Pimentel. "We don't give any direction to people on what to write in their blogs. And that's standard operating procedure."
The Examiner does, however, reserve the right to remove blogs that include libel or plagiarism. And as of last Thursday, most of the "Around San Francisco" columns disappeared from the paper's site after I asked Gray by phone about what appeared to be work from other news sources, pasted verbatim and without attribution, into her column. By Friday, after I asked Pimentel about the plagiarism, "Around San Francisco" was no longer in the list of www.examiner.com's blogs.
That's apparently because Gray created the appearance of being an unusually industrious investigative reporter, writer, and photographer, when in fact much of her work consisted of material taken from elsewhere on the Internet. This cut-and-paste technique allowed her to post 19 stories in November alone, many of them consisting of news essays of more than 1,000 words with quotes from multiple interviews, and illustrated with numerous photographs taken from around California.
Rather than attributing these stories to their actual sources, Gray's Examiner page stated: "Note that most of © photos and text on this site are from Sharon's upcoming books, Sharon Gray's Around San Francisco, San Francisco Bay Area Gardens, and Sharon Gray's Around Marin County."
Gray hoped to get publicity for books she planned to write. The Examiner, in return, got to offer a more substantial Web site, while placing profit-making ads next to the blogs. And it apparently didn't use money on costly editing time to ensure her stories met journalistic standards.
But rather than being a profits panacea for the Examiner, Gray's unsupervised, unpaid efforts may actually provide a glimmer of hope to us paid news hacks by showing that free isn't always a bargain.
Gray, by way of explanation, suggested that the Examiner blogs were subject to a different standard than print newspaper stories. "I'm not doing this for pay," she said. "I think it would be different if I were."
Pimentel was unaware of this attribution situation when I spoke with him Friday, but he told me the Examiner has a less-strict standard for accuracy and attribution in stories that appear on the Web. That's because online stories can be changed as journalistic problems emerge, while printed stories require publishing corrections, he said.
"There are obvious different standards," he said. "Content in the [printed] Examiner runs through different editors, so there's a level of accountability that I have to the newspaper. But as we've seen on the Internet, that accountability isn't always there."
Though I'm unaware of scandalous plagiarism at www.sfweekly.com, our newspaper is only moderately better than the Examiner regarding paying its bloggers. SF Weekly blog contributors are paid less than staff writers. A trusted few post their entries directly online, where an editor dedicated to Web content reviews their work as time permits.
I see no reason a newspaper's Web content should be inferior, as a matter of company policy, from what appears in print.
Robert Gunnison, director of school affairs at the U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, likewise says newspapers should observe the same journalism standards online as they do in print. "Blogging is merely software," he said. "What matters is the actual content. Nobody has cornered the market on honesty."
I'd first run across Gray's apparent plagiarism while searching for information on a secretive nonprofit foundation that pays for Governor Schwarzenegger to fly on junkets around the world. It turned out Gray had pasted most of a Sacramento Bee story on the nonprofit into what seemed to be her own work.
"I knew not to put that up there," she said. "I knew I shouldn't. I obviously did something not professional. I was not trying to do anything wrong.
"I was just passionately trying to draw attention to something that was obviously bad for the people of California," she added, in reference to the secretive funding of Schwarzenegger's trips.
The Bee's Shane Goldmacher, who wrote the original junket story, said, "The Bee has a strict policy for attributing information, and we hope other newspapers would do the same."
Gray didn't just borrow unattributed from the Bee. In her blog's pre-Thursday incarnation, she had constructed pieces about Larry Ellison's yacht team, the San Francisco Bay bird rescue and cleanup, and other topical issues by pasting together paragraphs from other sources.
However, I don't believe she should be burned at the stake for this apparent misstep. A little bit of training and editing assistance for Gray, a self-described elderly woman who says she's hoping to relaunch a writing career, could have gone a long way.
She seems to have failed to distinguish between the common and legitimate blogging tactic of aggregating, citing, summarizing, and linking to news stories, and the illegitimate practice of pasting together news stories from various sources and posting them under her own name. And I doubt she'll do this again.
Rather than becoming a pariah among journalists, I think Gray should be held up as a bit of a hero for potentially rattling the nerves of newspapers, Web startups, and other aspiring online media feudal lords. By betting their bottom line on getting people to work unsupervised for free, companies might get no better than what they paid for.