The Walrus, "Fair Dealing" & the Culture of Journalism

Last month, in its November/December issue, The Walrus magazine had an excellent piece by Gil Shochat on government, transparency and access to information entitled The Dark Country. (notice the hyperlink…) If you haven’t read the piece, go read it now. It is devastating in its analysis and absolutely dead on. We need radical reform around how we access government information – something we have been trying to begin to pioneer here in Vancouver – and this piece taps into the roots of that need. (The part on Abousfian Abdelrazikwhom Canadian public servants openly talked about as at risk of being assassinated by Sudanese Intelligence operatives – is particularly dark.)

I first heard about the piece when friends emailed and called me to say they enjoyed my quote. It was (and is!) great news to get. Great, because from the sounds of the quote it seemed like something I might write, was in context, and it is nice to be noticed by others for one’s thinking and advocacy.

It turns out that the quote is from a relatively long and quite popular blog post I wrote a few months back titled Open Data – USA vs. Canada in which I outline some theories regarding why open data and government transparency has gained more traction in the US than Canada. Specifically, about halfway through the piece I wrote:

The [Canadian] government’s data isn’t your, mine, or “our” data. It’s hers [the Queen’s]. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared.

Which brings me back to The Walrus. I’m thrilled that they included the above quote in their piece. I’ve been working hard to advocate for government transparency and open data, and so a quotation is both a nice acknowledgment of that work and a great way to reach a wider audience. However, why not link to my piece in the online edition? Or mention that it was published on eaves.ca in the print edition like Andrew Potter did in his Macleans column? (although no online link…)

There could be an argument – under copyright law – that to quote my piece under Fair Dealing (Fair Use for Americans), The Walrus should attribute the source (in this case, my blog). But even without a reference to Fair Dealing, there is something deeper, something about the culture of journalism, that would lead you to believe they would want to link.

One of the hallmarks of journalism has been its collaborative nature. Frequently, stories build on previous works. Discovering a scandal is often not the work of a single reporter, but the culmination of many peoples’ work. This is why I’ve always admired journalists’ willingness to attribute. Long before the Internet, there existed a “link economy” in the press, where reporters cited the work of those who came before them who had helped them break or uncover a story. Sometimes this was done grudgingly, but it was done irregardless.

The internet, and especially the blogosphere, has a similar phenomenon, often referred to as the aforementioned “link economy.” Bloggers and writers link to what others sites, knowing that may mean people click away from our website – but secure in the knowledge that if we send them somewhere interesting, they’ll be back for more. Remember the most viewed website in the world is dedicated to sending people to other sites; it’s called Google.

So let’s be clear, when The Walrus doesn’t link to others, it is a policy decision. They believe in the myth that they need to keep people on their website – which means they also believe in keeping their readers away from the very material that makes their stories interesting. This makes their website less interesting (and is why I don’t visit it – I visit websites with external links, ’cause I like to explore ideas — in both the literal and internet surfing sense).

So what richness did readers miss out on in this case? Well of course, none of The Walrus‘s readers even know that I wrote a piece that they could read with the click of a mouse. But beyond my own self-interest, there’s much more that could have been included:

  • The Globe piece containing a quote about detainees can be found here.
  • The Access to Information Act is referenced (and is central to the piece); it might be interesting to link to it.
  • James Travers, whose Hill Times piece entitled Conservative Prime Minister Harper’s highly-touted federal Accountability Act a recipe for more broken rules (phew!) also goes unmentioned and unlinked.
  • Reporter Stephen Maher does have his piece mentioned (“Ottawa Is Sending Me into a Black Rage”), along with its publication (Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald). However, one can’t fault The Walrus for not linking to them since… It doesn’t appear that the Chronicle-Herald keeps anything online after 2 weeks, and their library, which offers to help you find articles, has this for a webpage.
  • Also of interest is the report by the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Newspaper Association that shows we are behind Mexico, Pakistan and India in access to government information – no link again, although it can be found here. (And this was hard to find in Google/Internet terms.)
  • There’s more, but you get the point…

The point being, that if you don’t link to others, you are making it harder for your readers to delve deeper, and therefore to care more deeply about the subjects you’re writing about. In an online world, you are effectively acting as though all knowledge about the issue resides on your page. This is absurd. As a result, not linking to others feels not only like a violation of good journalism standards, and of the most basic codes of conduct on the internet, it’s a poor business decision.

This is because when you don’t link, others won’t link to you either. Consequently, you sit outside the conversation. As Taylor Owen and I wrote in Missing The Link (which we offered to The Walrus as the basis for a piece – though they declined):

The staff writers of The New York Times, while certainly talented, are not the beginning and end of news. Pretending that they are is laughable, and their customers know it. Consequently, simply recreating newspapers online won’t work. Americans may be interested in living in gated communities, but they don’t want to surf within them. Web pages that interlink with others are more likely to be visited because readers will know that in addition to the base content or analysis, they will also be pointed to interesting material, both within the site and outside. Isolated news pages will invariably remain just that—cut off.

And that sums up The Walrus‘s site – cut off. Which is sad, because Gil Shochat’s piece is completely brilliant.

Update 11:31am: Jeremy Keehn – senior editor at The Walrus (as well as very smart man, and someone I consider a friend) responds in this thoughtful post. Going to reflect on his comments – hope to have some intelligent to add in a bit.

7 thoughts on “The Walrus, "Fair Dealing" & the Culture of Journalism

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