Copy Pasta Is a Spicy Meatball

This is part of a series on how to Be a Better Journo. It’s intended to shame my colleagues in the blogosphere, solicit ideas from my peers on how we can all improve, and help guide noobs and youngsters into creating better digital journalism. [tweetmeme source=”jolieodell” only_single=false]

How sad it is that being a journalist these days doesn’t necessarily mean you’re also a writer.

Between press releases, Wikipedia and other people’s blog posts, I’d estimate that a huge swath of the schlock we see on “news” sites — including some tech blogs, and I’m not naming any names — is copied and pasted, ripped wholesale from its rightful home and shoved into the pathetic throng of literary orphans you call a post.

You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re a word-snatcher, not a journalist.

And for you end readers, you’d be absolutely shocked down to the pills on your comfiest socks to know how often this happens and how little original content you read in a given day. Even among professional bloggers, copy/pasting is rampant and largely unaddressed by our supervisors.

I’ve done my share of copying and pasting, of course, especially when under duress or on deadline. Or when I’ve been assigned a story and I have no familiarity whatsoever with the issue I’m supposed to be writing about. But I do try (and mostly succeed) in editing the copy so that it’s MY copy. I pull out the facts, rewrite them, and make them part of the larger story I’m trying to tell.

Here are a few reasons not to copy and paste content, especially from press releases:

You can write it better. Press releases — and you know I love PR people, so don’t take this the wrong way — press releases are nothing short of crimes against their readership. They’re packed with an unreadable goulash of jargon. The sentence structure is baroque bordering on incoherent. They’re not objective, they’re self-aggrandizing, and most of the quotations inserted therein… I mean, have you tried actually saying any of that shit out loud? No one talks like that. It makes absolutely no sense. So why would you want to contaminate your clear, pithy, concise, Inverted Pyramid writing with that kind of manureish wordsmithery?

Second, it’s mighty embarrassing when you read the same words you “wrote” in someone else’s blog post on the same subject. It’s like getting caught cheating from someone who had the answers wrong in the first place. Everybody loses.

Third, when you copy and paste from multiple sources, you end up with a mighty incoherent story. Your job, dear journo, is to engineer the train of thought. What you do as a copy-pasta sous chef is disingenuously smash together a cassoulet of other folks’ leftovers. The end result is confusion, not clarity. No one wins a Pulitzer for that kind of story-telling. Sure, you might get your story out first, but even if that’s your goal, I encourage you to revisit your post and rewrite it into some kind of narrative. Something with a lede, a pyramid, and a kicker. Take some pride in your work as a teller of tales.

Finally, when you copy and paste other people’s suppositions, speculations, and opinions, you do yourself the worst service of all. This is admitting to the world that you’re either too lazy or too stupid to draw your own conclusions beyond the barest facts, that you’re too careless to devote any thought or analysis to the task at hand. That you’re simply a walking mimeograph. I know we’re all in a hurry here, but take just five minutes when you’re finished writing out the facts of your news post to think about the implications of those facts. Get imaginative. Get creative. Think about the long-term, the fringe cases, the other forces in the market. And make up your own damn analysis.

So, for those of you who regularly copy/paste: We all can tell, and your “writing” sucks big ones. And for those of you who don’t, keep up the good work; you do us all proud. If you’re dancing along the fine line between plagiarism and online journalism, consider this your warning; you’re better than that, and you can and should write better than that.

If you want to be a better journo, don’t copy/paste.

6 thoughts on “Copy Pasta Is a Spicy Meatball

  1. Nice article Jolie – and great advice for PR pros as well. On the PR side we often have clients who expect releases to be written in a certain way, and hold us to that, but frankly that model blows. The counsel I give my team (and the pushback I give my clients): Releases don’t have to conform to a broken model, and the more interesting – and REAL – we can make ‘em, the better job we’re doing for our clients, and for our own reputation.

    • Hiya, Mike! Glad you stopped by. =)

      And excellent point. You can give your clients pushback straight from me: We, the journalists, don’t want to read marketing-speak from the clients. We want you, the PR dude, to give us a realistic, concise, passionate version of the story. =)

  2. When writing news, I make it a rule to read sources first — sometimes even several times — and then write what I have learned from memory. It familiarizes me with the information better and, because i have a terrible memory, makes it impossible for me to plagiarize.

  3. I think there’s a vast chasm between ‘journo’ and what most of us are: bloggers.

    Plagiarism, it goes without saying, is worse than even the most nasty Unforgivable Curses. But… well… the amount of original news generated by we bloggers is minuscule. Mostly we re-news things that catch our eye and — if we’re feeling fancy — slap on a bit of opinionated hyperbole. When you’re re-newsing, does it really matter if you ‘go through the movements’ and reword the title, reword the opening paragraph, and then tack on some home-brew analysis?

    I don’t know. I think journos need to actually BREAK news. They need to RESEARCH. Again, it goes without saying that plagiarism is utterly untenable, but let’s not hold the blogger to a standard that’s above his or her station!

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