There's a joke in the journalism industry: It's not news until the New York Times says it is. This is because the Times often reports stories that other outlets already have without any acknowledgment that they’re doing so.
Angry journalists regularly tweet (and sometimes write) about the bizarre practice, which comes up all the time. For instance, the Times recently wrote about how Kickstarter is unionizing. This was an important piece about an important topic; the main problem with it was that Slate’s April Glaser wrote an in-depth investigation breaking news about the exact same topic a month earlier, to which the Times didn't bother linking until after Glaser publicly criticized them for not doing so.
This week it was Slate (and BuzzFeed); at other times it's been the Guardian and Gawker; several times, it's been VICE. It goes on and on, with the Times running stories that other people already have and not acknowledging them for seemingly no better reason than the paper’s institutional belief that a thing does not exist until the paper has deemed it noteworthy.
Probably not that many people in the real world care about how the Times’s linking and crediting practices affect the reputations and careers of journalists whose work is scooped up, without credit, by America’s most prestigious news operation. Those practices affect readers of the most important journalistic outlet in the U.S., though, for reasons perhaps best explained in a memo written by the paper’s standards editor, Phil Corbett, and shared with the newsroom in January. The memo, which was obtained by Motherboard from three Times employees and has seemingly been ignored all year, explains why the company's journalists should always link and credit.
“Linking is the ultimate win-win-win situation. If a reader is interested in the topic of your story, it’s just common sense that she would value a signpost to others’ reporting on the same subject. (Don’t worry about sending readers elsewhere; if we’re consistently providing value, they’ll come back.),” Corbett wrote in the memo, which is still live on one of the company's internal websites, according to sources at the Times.
“In most cases, though, it’s not a question of ethics or obligation—it’s just good journalism to link. If you’re asking whether we’re obligated to provide a link or other reference in a given story, you’re probably asking the wrong question. Linking should be the default,” he added. “It’s free and easy. Readers like it. It deepens our journalism and may increase our audience. Our journalistic colleagues appreciate it. Why wouldn’t we do it?”
(“I think that memo you mentioned pretty much covers my thoughts on this,” Corbett told Motherboard when asked for comment on this topic.)
"I wish you great luck,” a current Times employee said, “in shaming people out of this policy."
As early as 2014, linking was considered a "work in progress" at the Times by then-public editor Margaret Sullivan, who noted several high-profile instances in which the publication didn't link. For that article, Corbett told Sullivan that "a broader point that we’ve been emphasizing more and more with reporters is the importance and value of linking." The Times has since eliminated the public editor position.
To be clear, the problem isn’t that the New York Times literally never links; it's that it somehow manages to continually mess this up. This frustrates a lot of people who work for the paper, according to several current reporters and editors at the Times who spoke to Motherboard. (These people were granted anonymity to discuss newsroom practices.)
"I think that a big problem is that there are still editors who like...do not get the online etiquette of linking," one employee said. "They didn't come up in a world where it's both incredibly easy and just considered the right and normal thing to do to credit early and often. But in my opinion the more insidious thing is the idea that it's not a story until the Times does it. Not everyone thinks this but from my vantage that still emanates from higher-ups at this place."
“It’s a disservice to readers to not credit work that other outlets have done,” said another Times employee.
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Corbett's memo apparently didn't make too much of a splash—some employees had a vague memory of it, and one said that it was in their email inbox as "read," but that they didn't remember it. Nonetheless, getting constantly dragged on Twitter by competitors for not linking is a common source of stress for many reporters, especially those who came from other publications—and so is taking heat for decisions you had nothing to do with.
“There’s no such thing as the New York Times” is a pretty common response to criticism from inside the newsroom, and if that’s a bit defensive, it’s also true; the paper is not a monolith. Just as the paper runs Astead Herndon’s incredibly astute reports from the trail alongside the very Cletus safaris to which they’re a necessary corrective, some Times journalists and desks are fastidious about linking and crediting, and some aren’t. Some reporters and editors at the paper say that individual instances of not properly crediting are attributable not to a policy of not linking to rival news outlets, but just to harried journalists not getting around to doing so, green reporters not knowing to do so, and editors not being aware of previous reporting and not doing the research needed to add links. Others just throw their hands up.
"Social media is full of complaints by fellow journalists who claim we refused to acknowledge their work, or worse yet, pilfered their idea."
What everyone seems to agree on is that the wildly differing standards across what is less a single newsroom than dozens of them make it impossible for a policy of generous, reader-serving crediting to be enforced.
All of this doesn’t just disserve readers, but journalists at the company, who say that they feel like their work is devalued because competitors are so often dragging them on Twitter for not doing what most every other news outlet does: give credit when someone else has broken a story. This is a key point of Corbett's memo:
"Linking routinely to the work of others can erase the perception—often exaggerated but not altogether wrong—that The Times can be aloof, self-obsessed, and ungenerous in acknowledging the work of others. That perception feeds on itself with each oversight or missed opportunity. Social media is full of complaints by fellow journalists who claim we refused to acknowledge their work, or worse yet, pilfered their idea."
"Failing to link might suggest, to some suspicious minds, that we are concealing our reliance on others," he added.
A Times spokesperson, for their part, offered this explanation of all of this to Motherboard: “Our policy, as described in Phil’s memo, is to credit and link to other outlets on stories they break. The Times publishes around 250 stories a day, many on deadline. Sometimes we make mistakes such as not properly crediting other outlets. When that happens, our staff tries to correct the oversight as soon as they become aware of the issue.”
“Tries” is doing a lot of work here. VICE has had multiple experiences with the Times running stories that we've broken without acknowledging us, and mixed experiences with getting them to do so. For example, a Times reporter tweeted that he had published the "*definitive* account of the In-N-Out burger that appeared on a random street in Queens. You're all very welcome for this act of public service." But a day earlier, VICE's Munchies cracked the mystery in a report that went viral.
In that case, the Times added a link after we asked. In others, its staff is much more combative.
Several months after we published an investigation about Facebook's content moderation practices, the Times published its own article about the same topic, running some of the same internal Facebook documents we had already published, without acknowledging we had done so.
Digging in ground others have is fine—it's how the internet and journalism work. Glaser's Kickstarter story built on earlier articles by The Verge, Gizmodo, and others. Our Facebook story followed previous investigations by The Guardian. By not linking to Slate or the Verge or VICE or BuzzFeed or The Guardian, the Times makes it seem like its own reporting has emerged fully formed from the institution’s forehead. But of course it hasn’t done so, and the Times is essentially lying to readers by pretending it has—a terrible thing for the most important news operation in the U.S. to be doing.
One of the biggest bad-faith criticisms of the Times—and thus journalism as a whole—is that it's nothing but an ivory tower that doesn't understand how the world really works. This isn't true in practice, but at a time when the powerful people of the world have more avenues to attack journalism than ever, the Times's insistence that the world isn't real until the Times says so is a legitimately destructive force within the journalism industry—not least because no one within the Times seems to be able to do anything about it, even if they’re willing to acknowledge the problem.
Max Fisher, the reporter who wrote the Times's Facebook article, told us in a DM at the time that he "definitely saw [our] story, which was great, no reason you should care about this but we plugged it pretty prominently in our bullshit email newsletter [...] I read your story very carefully and learned a ton from it and was really careful to cover different ground in it, which I think I did."
"I do know that the Times has a well-earned terrible reputation for this kind of thing," he said, while declining to link to our story. "I've only been here 2.5 years and prior to that was on the wrong side of it many, many times."
After that conversation, we asked the editor of that article for a link to our previous work, after the author of the article acknowledged that he had read our piece while researching his. We were told by the editor in an email that "it’s going to [take] a while to read 9,000 words," referring to the length of our earlier investigation.
The next day, he said, "We are looking at a way to link. Noting Motherboard explicitly—and I understand why [sic] would want this—is more complicated, however. Are we then obliged to note that The Guardian had some of the documents, too? If half a dozen other publications got a piece of the Facebook material, as well—for 'internal' documents, they do seem to get around—would we need note them, too? Where does it end?" The Times never added a link.
Seemingly everyone in journalism has stories like this; as far as anyone can tell, the only thing that does get the Times to link is a good public shaming. After Glaser's tweet about not getting credited by the Times went viral in journalism circles, it added a link to her story, and links to other journalists in several others.
"Well, the good news is that after my sincere kvetching more reporters got cited proper. Didn’t intend for anything to blow up, but sincerity all the way," Glaser tweeted. This may not be how the system should work, but it’s how it does, and it’s not just people outside the paper who have noticed.
"I wish you great luck,” a current Times employee said, “in shaming people out of this policy.”
Anna Merlan and Joseph Cox contributed reporting.