Crikey, Buzzfeed, Paul Barry and us: What is good digital citizenship?

Comments accredited to Media Watch host Paul Barry in The Australian this morning raise red flags around good digital citizenship, argues Mumbrella editor Alex Hayes.

I should be really flattered today. This morning in a national newspaper our pokey little business to business website was compared to Crikey and Buzzfeed by one of Australia’s most respected journalists. The problem is, I think it leaves a few misconceptions hanging out there I’m keen to clear up, with some facts.

alex hayes


For those of you who missed it the quotes came from Media Watch host Paul Barry in an article on Buzzfeed Australia editor Simon Crerar.  Barry is quoted by media editor Sharri Markson as saying in a panel discussion: “A lot of what is produced by websites like Crikey or Mumbrella, BuzzFeed, not everything, but a lot of it is reprocessed, reprocessing raw material that’s already out there. Not all of it, by any means, but a lot of it.”

What this article appears to be driving at, in a roundabout way, is accusing Mumbrella and the other sites of merely rewriting most of our content based on what’s in the newspapers that day.

Obviously I’m not in a position to speak for Crikey, a news outlet I hold in very high regard, or Buzzfeed, which while copping criticism locally has rolled out some impressive news content in the US, and as I understand it does have plans to do the same here.

However, it did cause me to stop and do a quick inventory of the content we’ve put on the site in the past fortnight.

I counted 125 stories in the news section (as of 8am this morning and not including the live blog, more of which in a minute). The breakdown was:

  • 33 stories originating from press releases/new campaigns
  • ten morning TV stories
  • ten morning updates stories aggregating some useful and quirky pieces posted internationally through the night
  • 11 pieces for Mumbrella360/awards/our events
  • 55 pieces which were originally sourced/first run/exclusives
  • six pieces sourced directly from other publications, three of which came from our sister site Mumbrella Asia.

I also had a quick count on how many time Mumbrella pieces have been cited directly as source material on Barry’s show Media Watch this year. That number was six times, including the now infamous Australian Financial Review ‘World is fukt’ front page which we broke, and an excerpt form my video hangout last year with Mail Online global publisher Martin Clarke. That doesn’t include instances where our material has been used as background. Not bad for a site which just rehashes a lot of content from other sources.

Of those pieces which came from press releases many were new campaigns, while most of the rest were interesting people moves and account moves. One of our golden rules is always to check out the  releases before publishing, and add extra relevant facts, background, links, direct quotes and context wherever possible. On the whole with press releases they go to our FYI section where they are clearly labelled as being press releases.

Buzzfeed editor Simon Crerar

Buzzfeed editor Simon Crerar

Of the rewrites, one I counted was sourced from New Matilda on the new editor of that site saving it from closure, one was a follow-up on a story in The Oz about the Woolworths media pitch, and the last was Fairfax being sued by Treasurer Joe Hockey, where we couldn’t get hold of his office immediately for confirmation. Every one of them clearly states the source of the material early in the piece, and links back to that source, even where it is behind a paywall.

Every morning my team gets into the office at 8am, checks what relevant stories have gone into various sites in Australia and around the world, and we discuss each one in a news meeting at 8.45am. It’s only on very rare occasions these days for me to tell my team to do a rewrite on a national story.

None of these figures include the numerous Dr Mumbo and opinion/feature pieces we run, all of which are original (with the caveat of the occasional opinion piece shared from The Conversation).

This got me to questioning why Paul Barry would say we source and rewrite content from other media in such a sweeping way. So, I asked him.

He told me while the quote was mostly accurate, he claims he said “much of the content” rather than “most of the content” which is cited earlier in the piece. He also said the quotes were in the context of a conversation about what would happen if newspapers died, and told me he might have been “hasty” in putting Mumbrella on that list.

Then I came across a piece our content director Tim Burrowes wrote on July 1, 2009, in response to a speech by then News Ltd chief John Hartigan where he named a then six-month-old Mumbrella, who said most of the content was from newswires, or ripped off other news sites. The similarities are striking.

Obviously, as Burrowes argued then, we do write about the media and what’s happening in it, which often includes referencing articles and content. But, after all, that’s our raison d’etre, right?

I think what might cause these misconceptions is a lack of understanding of what constitutes good digital citizenship for publications, something close to my heart.

For us rewritten stories aren’t that exciting, they don’t do much for our brand and generally don’t advance the conversation. Where we do it is to establish placeholders for future stories. On the whole these days the need to do this has been eradicated by the daily live blog, where we do aggregate links to content from our site and interesting pieces from around the media and marketing universe, as well as some of the quirkier events of the day.

As the numbers show we’re more focussed on creating our own original and compelling content. This is where we can create a difference from our competitors and gets more traction with our audience.

Many of these stories will include external links to other news sites, more often than not The Oz or AFR, but occasionally even AdNews and B&T where appropriate. Our readers know these other sites already exist as news sources, so all we’re doing is providing them with the tools to navigate more easily. We’re giving them what they want, and they’re more likely to come back because of it.

That’s more than can be said for most of the mainstream news sites. Indeed, more often than not Dr Mumbo and the rest of Mumbrella find ourselves the victims of unaccredited rip offs from a multitude of sources, both major publishers and independent rivals. It hurts, and we do our best not to cause those issues for others.

And that, really, is the difference here. What we’re looking to do is advance stories, not just rip them off. We get our journalists out of the office as much as possible to events, conferences, meetings and trips. Right now we have one travelling around the top four media agencies in the country on Mumbrella Awards judging, another in Singapore meeting the top agencies there for the same reason, and last week another visited six creative agencies including one in Melbourne and another in New Zealand. We’ve also got two journos going to Cannes next month.

We don’t have the resources of a national newsroom, in fact last Friday I was the only person on our news desk, but we have journos chasing original and important stories every day. We can’t cover everything, but our job is to catch the most important stories of the day for the industries we cover, and do the best job we can of covering them in a fair, balanced way. Sometimes this does include a fully sourced and referenced rewrite.

Maybe it’s time for a code of conduct to dictate the way publishers do business online. The rules are different from print, and there’s a common cry that an exclusive doesn’t stay exclusive for long. But why shouldn’t the journalist or brand which dug up a story get the courtesy, and credit, of a decent link somewhere high up the article, whether that’s us, The Oz, Crikey, the Mail Online or TV Tonight?

After all in the digital age we’re all in the boat, aren’t we?

Alex Hayes is the editor of Mumbrella.


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