It’s not just Mamamia and The Daily Mail – almost everyone lifts stories

This week's furore over The Daily Mail and Mamamia lifting a freelance journalist's story represents the unfortunate new norm in digital publishing, argues Mumbrella's Tim Burrowes, as he shares three recent first hand examples

This Christmas, I put my hand up to be the journo who kept the Mumbrella newsdesk ticking over between Christmas and New Year.

(Don’t feel too sorry for me – I’m taking the next couple of weeks off instead to follow the E Street Band round Australia.)

In the ultimate quiet news week, it was a great opportunity to see first hand what happens when you dig out a story.

It’s a tough time to find new stuff – not much is happening, and you’ve got to look fairly hard to find what’s out there.

So I turned to an old standby – the Advertising Standard Bureau’s case investigations archive.

There were around 30 PDFs on each of the complaints they’d investigated in December. It took about half a day, but I reviewed every one.

And buried away in report 0510/16, I struck unlikely gold.

Deep in what seemed a relatively dull investigation into a complaint about a local radio ad in WA was a new precedent. The ASB board had decided that husbands can no longer be vilified as a group in ads. The ASB had ruled against the ad.

Which was (in my nerdy world) fascinating. And as a hater of lazy ad copy, rather pleasing too.

I couldn’t find the actual radio ad, but after a lot of looking, I found an old TV ad from the company on the same theme that had been up on YouTube for nearly a decade.

It also provided a great – and rather distinctive image – of a notepad with the word “husband” circled. While it wasn’t the same ad in the ruling, at least it was the same campaign, which felt fair enough – and I pointed out in the article that this was the ten-year-old version, not the radio ad being ruled on.

It made a decent story, particularly on a quiet day.

Feeling pleased with myself at having found something, I wrote and posted it as “Adland told by regulator: You can no longer vilify husbands in ads“.


How I reported the ASB husbands ruling

By the next morning, The ABC’s news website had picked it up. They ran an article bylined to Edwina Seselja and headlined “Advertising Standards Board rules Allpest commercial ‘vilifies’ husbands”.

Guess what they ran with the story?


The ABC’s take on the Allpest yarn

There was no mention of Mumbrella as the source. It looked to me like the journo hadn’t actually bothered to go to the original ASB case report. And, in the rush to publish, inaccurately suggested that the old TV had been banned, not the current radio ad. And the quotes from the lengthy report all seemed to match those I had used in my original story.

Another thing that made me suspect Mumbrella was the uncredited source, was the reference to the ad having been running for the last ten years, which wasn’t part of the ASB report.

Next cab off the rank the following day was The New Daily with the unbylined “Ten year old pest control ad vilified husbands, advertising body find“.

Guess what they ran with it?


And the same day a website owned by News Corp called Heat Street (which I’d never previously heard of) got in on the action with an article bylined to Jillian Kay Melchior. The headine? (And it might be starting to seem a bit familiar) “Aussie Ad Bureau: Comparing Husbands to Pests is ‘Degrading and Vilifying’”. Again, there was no mention of Mumbrella although the story structure and quotes did look rather familiar.


That word “vilifying” sure is popular in headlines isn’t it?

It even made it into AdNews a week later.


You can probably guess what TV ad from a decade before they used with it…


And funny thing is, this is all now so completely normal, I thought nothing of it all at the time.

It’s just how it is: If you spend a long time digging out a one-fact story, then other publishers will be able to easily – and quickly – follow it up. And they do. It’s just the nature of the web.

Sometimes they add to it. In the ABC’s case, they got a quote from an academic, for instance.

But it happens all the time.

There’s a second example from that week.

My adventures in the ASB archive uncovered more gold. Actually, three nuggets of gold, from three separate reports that I put together on a similar theme – rulings on the use of language.

The ASB looked at three separate complaints, one involving a poster for an SBS Viceland TV show, a Facebook joke page “CU in the NT” and a BCF ad. They were dotted around the archive, but had language as the common factor so I decided to bring them together.

I headlined the article “SBS’s ‘F*ck, That’s Delicious’ and ‘CU in the NT’ banned by ad watchdog; ‘BCF-ing’ fun is okay

Soon the same story was doing the rounds. The SMH and TV Tonight were both generous in prominently crediting and linking back to us as their source.

The Daily Mail was not, pretty much reproducing the story in its entirety – albeit completely rewriting which avoids any copyright issues.

The one that most surprised me though – because I thought they were classier than that – was The Guardian which also went big on the story without crediting us for it.

The linking and credit is important, by the way, because not only might it send you traffic, but it builds a site’s credibility with Google.

And there’s a third small but meaningful example from the last few days.

Insurer Allianz launched a new ad during that Christmas week.

Oddly, there was no agency in the credits, signalling that there may have been a change in the roster.

A long-standing contact gave me a pointer on who that new agency on the roster might be. A few days later the previous agency put out a press release saying it was off the roster.

We began a lengthy process of checking official and unofficial sources to confirm the new agency, which went on for the next fortnight. When my colleague Zoe got back, she took up the chase, pursuing production companies, the agencies involved, media agencies and of course various people within the brand team.

Finally, after dozens of calls, nagging texts and pushy emails across those two weeks, she got the right person on the phone, got official confirmation and posted the story.


In the scheme of things, the yarn was no big deal, but illustrates the level of journalism that can go into checking a simple fact we’d been 99% sure of from the beginning anyway.

And for Zoe, who’d been chasing it doggedly for that fortnight, it was a mini triumph.

Yet it took just 93 minutes for industry blog Campaign Brief to repost the story, with no citation of the source, just the obscure phrase “it has now been revealed”.


Campaign Brief: Took 93 minutes to repurpose the story


And of course, this is where we come to business models. We employ seven or eight journos (depending if you count me and our Mumbrella Asia editor in Singapore). Campaign Brief has, I think, one.

The problem is, there’s not much point in getting cross with any of this.

Everything I describe above is perfectly legal. The story’s are all rewritten enough that they don’t infringe copyright. (Although there are times the Daily Mail sails pretty close to the wind on that, in my view.)

And we’re in the fortunate position that it doesn’t really hurt us. We’re writing for a niche, and if we’re robbed of traffic, it’s usually from a mainstream audience that our advertisers wouldn’t necessarily want to waste their CPMs on reaching.

But for someone like Ginger Gorman – who called out The Daily Mail and Mamamia this week – it’s a different matter.


Gorman: Lifting stories makes it more tougher for freelances

For starters, she’s a freelancer. If it takes weeks of work to write a story and then competitors can lift it in minutes, then why bother to commission it?

And as a journalist, how can you persuade subjects of sensitive stories to tell you their story if you can’t guarantee it will be told delicately on other sites?

The same principles apply to the big players too though. Why would Fairfax bother to employ the likes of Kate McClymont if every time she breaks an investigative story, everybody will quickly rip it off?

That becomes an issue of detriment to society, rather than the moaning of a B2B hack.

I’d love to claim there’s an obvious answer.

I don’t think it will be around journalistic ethics. How would the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance be able to come up with something workable when its own members are likely to be among the practitioners?

Ditto for the Australian Press Council.

Everybody’s at it to some extent. Much of what the likes of Junkee and Pedestrian write about starts life in a mainstream publication. But it doesn’t feel so egregious when they do it because they’re practiced at creating something which has a new value by adding a take that’s specific for their youth audience.

And it goes without saying we’d write about something broken by another publication if we felt we could add new context to it.

That’s the problem with one fact stories – they’re now impossible to keep to yourself. You’d be naive to complain about that – and as a publisher you’d also be naive not to try to quickly confirm and post your own version of a good one fact story from a competitor.

But I suspect the main reason fingers get pointed at The Daily Mail so often is that they’re so damn good at it.

Once you read Gawker’s expose, you realise how efficient an operation Martin Clarke has built.

The production process was simple. During a day shift—8 a.m. to about 6 p.m—four news editors stationed together near Clarke’s desk assigned stories to reporters from a continually updated list of other publications’ articles, to which I did not have access. Throughout the day, they would monitor the website’s traffic to determine what was getting clicked on and what to remove from the homepage.

When a writer was free to write a story, he or she simply would shout “I’m free” and an editor would assign a link to an article on the list. In many cases, it would be accompanied by a sensationalized headline—one that may or may not have been accurate—for the writer to use.

During a typical 10-hour shift, I would catch four to seven articles this way. Unlike at other publications for which I’ve worked, writers weren’t tasked with finding their own stories or calling sources. We were simply given stories written by other publications and essentially told to rewrite them. And unlike at other publications where aggregation writers are encouraged to find a unique angle or to add some information missing from an original report, the way to make a story your own at the Mail is to pass off someone else’s work as your own.

And that perhaps is why people get worked up about the likes of Daily Mail and Mamamia. One begins to get the impression that their operations may be primarily dedicated to repurposing the work of others, with some original journalism being done on the side – not the other way round.

And by the way, for all my pontificating about the vilified husbands story, I wasn’t actually first to report the ruling. When I Googled it, I discovered that Dominic Powell of Private Media’s site Smart Company got there four days before me, although I hadn’t seen it. The angle was on the specific ruling rather than the precedent, but all the fact were there.

I’m sure there will be more of the Daily Mail style repurposing factories though.

If anything, it feels like the copyright laws in Australia may get looser. That certainly seemed to be the direction of travel in the Productivity Commission’s report into intellectual property which was published late last year.

The most negative possibility I can offer is that the market will correct it in a different way. If your business model is based mainly on the output of others, then once you’ve put them out of business, you’ll have no content.

At which point perhaps a new model for quality original content will reemerge.

It’s going to be a grubby time until then though.


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