What is legitimate "newsgathering" and what is "piracy"?

Zunguzungu's got an excellent, nuanced piece on the creation and attribution of value in newsgathering and reporting. Zz reminds us that the current arrangement is perfect arbitrary and contingent: no underlying universal principle reifies certain news-related activities (writing the story), ascribes no ownership stake to other activities (sources quoted and unquoted, tipoffs, references); and damns yet another set of activities (curating, aggregating and commenting upon the news).

I'm interested in the way that "old media" people resort to ad hominem and obfuscation when challenged on commercial matters — a few nominal news-pros recently wrote that Boing Boing wasn't entitled to comment on the viability of paywalls unless we did so while hiding from bombs in Libya (nevermind that these gentlemen were writing from the comfort of their own safe American living rooms). There's certainly a lot of do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do in the current round of future-of-news handwringing: this is the narrative that allows a "newspaper" whose news is ninety percent curated picks from the newswires, run verbatim without comment or context, to be full of democratic virtue; while websites that examine, criticize and contextualize those same stories are parasites who contribute nothing.

The more you talk about piracy, it seems to me, the more you bump into the uncomfortable fact that journalism is only distinguishable from word-piracy because, and to the extent that, we arbitrarily decide that it is. We have social conventions that determine what is and isn't okay to say and steal, and how to do so — institutional rules defining the difference between socially useful activities and socially un-useful activities — but while those conventions are under particular stress right now (file this under "the internet") they were also never quite as stable as we might have liked to think they were. This is not to say that they aren't necessary, useful, and worth retaining, of course. They just aren't written in stone, nor were they received from on high; they are a contingent function of what it is that we expect "the press" to do as part of the social function they fulfill. Which is why, ultimately, the kind of society that we believe "good journalism" will serve will be the determinant of what standards we use in defining what is good in journalism.

That line of thinking, however, would take the conversation in a different direction than either Keller or Huffington want it to go. This is because they are not, a such, interested in the social function of "the press" — for which, see Jay Rosen's manifesto — but rather, in the business of profiting from their activities. This should not surprise us, but neither should it escape our notice: their job is to make information commodities, to secure ownership of them, and then find some way to sell them. "Real Journalism" talk, in that context, is just market fetishizing, a way of mystifying the work of social production that makes "news" possible, so that it can appear to be the original creation of whoever is selling it to you. Never mind all the different people whose unpaid contributions made the production of the story possible (the original tipoff, unquoted sources, quoted subjects, the reference works consulted, etc); they will not be paid or credited for intellectual labor, because of the magic thing that happens when the story has been published: having become news, it will subsequently be considered the sole production of the New York Times or whoever. And if Arianna Huffington steals it, now, she becomes indistinguishable from a Somali pirate. Once we have decided where ownership of information begins — whose intellectual labor counts and whose does not — then we can proceed to sell it.

Why Arianna Huffington is Bill Keller's Somali Pirate

(via Making Light)

(Image: Piracy, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from toobydoo's photostream)