Some national media outlets have an attribution problem.
Attribution is simple. When a reporter at one outlet finds and publishes a story and then another outlet uses that information in their own reporting, professional courtesy dictates a shout out and link to the original reporting.
Readers here see it often with credit given to sites like the Tampa Bay Times, Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald, among others.
We don’t see it as a slight to our own reporters’ fine work, rather as giving credit where credit is due when a competitor gets a good scoop. It’s the right thing to do.
But larger and more widely read publications often overlook that courtesy in favor of, whether intentionally or not, passing the story off as its own.
That happened this weekend when The Washington Post tweeted one of its stories about a 6-year-old girl who went from school to the police to a mental institution — all without her mother’s consent — because of Florida’s Baker Act, which allows for the involuntary institutionalization of a person for examination.
The problem is, the Post was rewriting a story that had already been told. Florida Times-Union Education Reporter Emily Bloch, the journalist who originally broke that story and followed-ups, took exception.
“Thanks for the re-write, @washingtonpost! Y’all know linkbacks are free, right?” Bloch tweeted in response.
Her brave social media call-out garnered 1,700 likes, nearly half the number of followers she has on Twitter, which means Twitter users took notice.
Bloch’s retweet and comment led to a respectful back-and-forth on Twitter between Bloch and the Post about national publications giving credit to local newsrooms for stories originally broken by local outlets. The Post apologized and shared a screenshot to their updated story giving her publication credit. In that apology, they claimed it was an oversight, that tracking local stories back to their origin once it’s become national news can be challenging.
“I appreciate the apology & the attribution add. But this should’ve happened from the beginning. National news becomes national because of the local reporting it spurs off of. I’m confused how a story that took place in Jax would be “hard to trace” to the city’s only daily paper,” she wrote.
The Post reporter again apologized and went so far as to take blame in a brief conversation that showed camaraderie among professionals.
If this were a one-off, it wouldn’t be worth noting, but it’s not. Just last week The Hill reported on a St. Pete Polls survey of Florida voters that put, for the first time, Mike Bloomberg ahead of Joe Biden. The outlet didn’t mention Florida Politics or its reporter, Ryan Nicol. It didn’t link to the original story. Worse, Florida Politics commissioned the study for which a national publication benefited, with no benefit of its own from the national exposure.
Further, the lack of attributions is salt in the wound of any small, local publication that struggles to stay afloat even as national outlets thrive, according to Axios (see what I did there?)
Just this week, McClatchy announced it was entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The publisher runs dozens of local publications including the Miami Herald. The Tampa Bay Times has undergone numerous layoffs in recent years and continues to face mounting financial challenges.
Local outlets face dwindling advertising revenue, which has led to ever-shrinking newsrooms and an overall injustice to the communities they serve.
National outlets face similar challengers, but with a broader audience from which to draw, they have been able to stay financially sound, even grow, by shifting to subscription models not as widely available to local publications.
The New York Times, for example, announced last month it had surpassed $800 million in annual digital revenue from more than 5 million online subscribers. The Wall Street Journal this month had 2 million digital subscriptions while the Washington Post, under Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, continues to add positions to its thriving newsroom.
It’s because of that imbalance of power that attribution is more important than ever. If the New York Times includes links to original local reporting, that translates to new page views from outside audiences that likely would have never come otherwise. Those clicks translate to ad revenue, the lifeblood of local journalism.
And as Bloch so neatly pointed out, it costs the big guys nothing. Their readers are still going to be their readers.
What’s more is this: National publications have, or should, have a vested interest in local journalism. Many of the national stories they pursue start with a little girl in Jacksonville and a reporter who took the time to chase down the story.