Readers use curious prepositions these days in describing where they get their news.
Less and less, they say they have read the story "in" something. More and more, the story was "on" something. The old guard of traditional media, and the traditional reader, should view this as very bad news.
To say "in" implies permanence. It means the story that informed, shocked, amused, heartened or saddened the reader belonged somewhere, was adhered to some greater body of newsgathering skill or quite possibly -- fathom this -- a venerable institution. Above all, "in" suggests the story was permanently there.
I would argue that "on" -- perhaps an accidental derivative of "online" -- is more slippery. And more prone to thievery.
Metro Atlanta media devolves at times into a shameless cesspool of piracy. Certainly, as friends in other markets report, the situation is not exclusive to this region. I won't name the primary culprits, partially because that feels cheap, and partially because that's a semi-plug, and they sure as hell haven't been plugging me.
In a column titled "Atlanta media, you're on notice: stop stealing our stories" the editor of Atlanta's longstanding alt-weekly, Creative Loafing, ranted about the "wholesale stealing" of stories first uncovered by his crew. Eric Celeste lambasted the brazen but accepted unscrupulousness of local media practices, and he sounded genuinely shocked. He's a recent import from Dallas.
We all get beat in this business. As a scholar once said, "We are swimming in a sea of stories," and with or without a limited staff, it's frankly impossible to draw beads on all of them.
But the line between shamelessness and gumption is drawn by what happens next. Do you, media member, start from square one and build the information from scratch, or do you manipulate the property of others to make it appear your own?
Let's visit the Basic Crime Story, at its core:
To surface, the story will require many things. Boots on asphalt. A drive to a government building and gasoline. Passing through a metal detector, standing in line behind anxious people having very bad days, then politely waiting to gain access to a stack of public records, many of which are of no interest to you, and thus are not news. It will take decisions: "Does this matter? Is shedding light on this fair? Can I pull this off in two hours?" It will take hassling people for information and filling holes, which means hassling people all over again. It will take a will to inform, by way of -- ideally speaking -- professionalism and patience. Most of all, it will take proactivity.
The more honorable creation of Basic Crime Story does not involve cherry-picking, the masking wonders of grammatical trickery or downright theft. In these modern times, the honorable process is old school and, unfortunately, easily bypassed. It's a question of sweat equity versus copy-and-paste skulduggery.
Ask any daily journalist: What's worse than being beat on a story?
The answer: having to play catch-up, to bat cleanup. Instead of writing with the thrill that is the scoop, the sense is that you're duty-bound to some yawn-worthy reminder. That you are late to the birthday party and forced to eat stale cake.
Unless, that is, you can create the illusion of enterprise, and rush it to the public in reasonably quick fashion.
Consider this comment from a veteran crime reporter at the New York Daily News. He was asked recently for his opinion on the burgeoning culture of online media. He responded that the "aggregation types" are "bad ethos" and not worth his time, yet he acknowledged their ominous impact.
"Everyone's going to be locked into these aggregators until they get bored and realize they don't serve their interest, and they're going to look around for the real newspapers and the real newsmakers, and they're not going to be there anymore," reporter Kerry Burke said. "Then what are we going to do?"
People ask newspaper writers all the time if we think print is dead. I don't think the professionally gathered story will ever die. My fear is that people will forget how to tell the difference.
Josh Green covers cops and courts for the Daily Post. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.