Thursday, January 27, 2011

Disservice journalism? (Warning: Long rant ahead.)

Gawker's relevation that superstar editor and face-of-the-brand Dave Zinczenko has been "plagiarizing" material from other Men's Health writers and then presenting it as his own is really no great revelation at all. Eons ago in SHAM, I wrote generally about Rodale's fondness for "repurposing," as it's known throughout the self-help realm (and, in fairness, many other contemporary realms as well). I've explained in detail my problem with repurposing, which in essence (and often in pointed fact) allows publishers of both books and magazines to sell to (naive? unsuspecting? gullible? forgetful? desperate?) buyers the same material under different titles and/or bylines over and over again.

There are other consumer settings where that might be called fraud.

This news, of course, comes on the heels of the revelation that Men's Health recycles its cover treatments and cover lines, sometimes almost verbatim. (Is Men's Health running out of ideas? Are there no new ideas in so-called "men's journalism"? Hardly. I could provide many such new ideas; that is in fact what I explicitly offered to do, and assumed I'd been hired to do, back in 2000. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I'd still be willing to do that same job—find and develop truly original, meaningful ideas, provided I was left alone to do my thing—and I've said as much to Zinczenko and/or his minions more than once. Needless to say, they're not interested. I don't really blame them. I'm an effin pain in the ass, and I don't see things the way most other people do.)

More troubling to me at the moment, however, is Rodale's Clintonesque defense of its practices. Here's the key line from that statement:

"The byline doesn't take credit for the work, but serves as an overarching tag."
First of all—how shall we put this?GAG ME. An "overarching tag"? I'm sorry, but a byline is not an overarching tag. It is a byline. If you want an overarching tag, say something like "From the Editors of Men's Health." Because when you write "by David Zinczenko," a reasonable consumer would infer (and has a right to infer) that the content was conceived and, well, written by one David Zinczenko. I could be wrong, but I think that's what the by in byline means.

But beyond that, I'm deeply troubled by what Rodale's answer says about writing, and authorship, and the ongoing denaturing and devaluation of same. Rodale makes clear through its answer that the company is indeed trying to change what the by in byline means.

We do need a disclaimer here: Understand that this isn't a matter of legality, at least insofar as Rodale's (mis)use of authors' names. Copyright law is settled and unambiguous: When a writer works for a company and produces content as part of that employment, that content becomes a work-for-hire and its ownership resides solely and totally with the entity paying the tab—in this case, Rodale. But Jesus H. Christ, this isn't an internal brochure by Waste Management we're talking about! This isn't even some third-rate trade or fraternal publication. Men's Health is a major, category-leading consumer magazine. Major consumer magazines, in the tradition of Harper's and The New Yorker and even much-maligned Playboy, are supposed to value writers and the uniqueness of their writing. It's not just one huge editorial smorgasbord where all the words and bylines, and the wisdom and life-savvy represented therein, are freely interchangeable! Last year, on the occasion of being nominated for another National Magazine Award, Zinczenko wrote in a staff-wide email, in part, "Creating excellence across all channels is something only a great team ... can accomplish." Well then, create the excellence, dammit. And keep creating it anew. Don't just appropriate it from someone else and take the credit!

There is, or used to be, an implied covenant between writers and editors, and it said, in effect:
These aren't just your words on the page. They are your heart and mind and soul. They are the fruits of everything that has brought you to this point in time.
Respect, my ass. For reasons having to do principally with the disparity between (a) the vast number of people who want to call themselves writers, and (b) the relatively small number of decent jobs available, publishers today hold all the cards. Especially as the print industry continues to consolidate and contract. So if they like what you wrote so much that they want to slap their name on your words, tough noogies, pal.
You do what they tell you to do or they find someone else.

It shouldn't be like that. Not even if the nominal subject matter is abs or the comparative nutrients found in different food groups. Style counts for something. Hell, experience counts for something: If I spent 20 years studying the subtleties of nutrition, why should you, Dave Zinczenko, or anyone else be allowed to pass off my expertise as your own?

The saddest part is that I've discussed this today with four other writers, and three of them took Rodale's side (or at least rationalized Rodale's attitude) based on pragmatism: Editors and publishers are in the position of power, we need them more than they need us, blah blah blah.

See, we've allowed ourselves to become like slaves in the old pre-Harper's Ferry South. We unhesitatingly, enthusiastically nod and bow and curtsy and shout "Yesss, Mass'uh!"as we take it in the shorts time and again.

* I still say that it's improper and legally murky to repeatedly sell people things they've already bought.


Mike Cane said...

I agree with you completely.

RevRon's Rants said...

Rat bastards, the lot of them!

I guess we're fortunate that "disappearing into the act" is an essential element in what we do. So long as our names are on the checks...

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: You're being somewhat jocular, but in fact if I were ghosting stories--as I frequently do in my life as a corporate PR guy--I wouldn't half-mind. You know the nature of the game going in, and it's (generally) a different type of writing--though I will confess that I once did a corporate history that I would LOVE to be able to cite on my resume, if my client would only allow it.

But in "real-world" writing, especially in better magazines, you spend so much time slaving over every damn line, making sure the metaphors scan and the argument in paragraph 2 doesn't mildly contradict what you say later in paragraph 19, that you want the credit, dammit, and you resent it when someone else steals your thunder. What's more, lots of time you pitched the piece to begin with--did the spadework, made sure the background materials were in place. What's right is right.

RevRon's Rants said...

I don't disagree with anything you say, Steve, with the possible exception of the "real-world" writing implication. We've ghosted articles for clients which were published in "real-world" magazines and newspapers, and my only real concern has been that I get the CASH. Screw the credit! But to each his (or her) own.

At some point, I might actually finish a book of my own that's been simmering for years on my computer, and I'm not even certain that it would matter to me whether I published it in my own name or under a pseudonym. I wouldn't want the messenger to be a distraction from the message.

Cosmic Connie said...

"'Overarching tag'"?!?

Steve, while I too raised my eyebrows at your use of the term "'real-world' writing" (in your response to Ron), I agree that the sort of "re-purposing" perpetrated by Zinczenko and probably countless others is unethical on so many levels.

For editors who insist on "re-purposing" in this way, the ethical way to do so would be to present the article(s) as kind of a "best of the best" piece. What's so difficult about stating -- either at the very beginning or at the end -- that the piece is a composite of material previously published in "Men's Health" (or wherever?). And then the proper thing to do would be to list the original contributors by name, even if one doesn't want to take the time or space to specify who contributed what. An example would be, "John Smith, Linda Jones, and Steve Salerno also contributed to this article." Piece of cake.

Of course it all comes back down to the issue we've discussed here before, and recently at that. Writing is no longer valued the way it used to be. Composing eloquent, thought-provoking pieces has become almost irrelevant in the "real world"; instead, the task at hand, more often than not, is to "provide content," and plenty of it. The world keeps turning, the content keeps churning.

I suppose there are still little segments in the publishing world where good writing is still appreciated for its own sake, but those segments are shrinking, and they're not where the money is.

And, to address a point you made to me on a previous thread, Steve, I realize that those of us who put time and effort into writing our freebie blogs are contributing, in our own way, to the devaluation of writing. Sometimes I honestly don't know why I do it. But I will say that one reason I haven't been blogging as often lately is that I have been busy churning out content for other sites.

Off to churn some more...

Steve Salerno said...

Connie: I didn't mean "real-world writing" the way it came across. I need to be careful in my offhand usage of that term; used to piss off my college peers, too, when I used such terminology to distinguish what I'd done from what they were usually doing in academic journals and the like.

Dimension Skipper said...

Not sure that this really belongs here, but I think it goes better here than under any more recent posts as far as I can tell so here's where I'll stick it...

Just wanted to point out this item:

Journalists angry over the commission of journalism
By Glenn Greenwald for Salon (Feb 14, 2011)

For me the most striking element was the one-paragraph clarification update at the very end which specifically states what Steve has said here on more than one occasion...

"UPDATE: To be clear—in response to a few comments and emails: the important point is not whether something is labeled a "lie"—whether that word is used (although it should be when appropriate and clear); what matters is that factually false statements are clearly designated and documented as such, not treated as merely "one side of the story" deserving neutral and respectful airing on equal footing with the truth."

Steve Salerno said...

DimSkip, I'd already read Greenwald's column and was struck by it. It seems that after many years in which journalism gravitated increasingly to punditry and outright theater, we're perhaps seeing the beginnings of a backlash that will result in more responsible reporting of news. I've often said that journalists (i.e. real journalists in high-visibility positions, like Cooper, not people like myself when we're acting in a blogging capacity) shouldn't take sides on ANYTHING. Because eventually, even the simplest and most seemingly unassailable position--"It's bad to kill small children"--lends itself to a political platform (in that case a very obvious one: abortion rights).