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Don't oversimplify the GateHouse fight


 

According to one school of thought, GateHouse's decision to challenge Boston.com's "Your Town" approach in court merits utter contempt. As a commenter on Universal Hub said: "This is a clear case of a bunch of morons who skipped that "Internet 101" class in business school, and now they're pissed because people aren't going through their website the way THEY want them to."

Actually, it's a bit more complicated than that.

For starters, let's try a little thought experiment, which I first proposed on "Beat the Press" back on December 5.

Imagine that I decide to start a new, web-only newspaper devoted to the city of Boston. Then imagine I fill my new publication--let's call it the "Boston Gazette"--entirely with links to articles from the Boston Globe. Is that journalistically legit? Nope. It's just a lame, transparent attempt to repackage someone else's work as my own.

Now suppose I start the web-only Boston Gazette, fill it with mass quantities of original reporting--and every now and then, toss in a link to a Globe story dealing with some noteworthy subject. Is that legit? I'd say so.

One big problem with Boston.com's "Your Town" sites, I think, is that they exist in an uncomfortable middle ground between these two extremes. Sometimes the vast majority of content is generated by the Globe/Boston.com; sometimes an unseemly amount of stuff seems to comes from GateHouse. What's more, as Dan Kennedy notes, sometimes the titles/heds that Boston.com picks up from GateHouse invite further reading of the GateHouse story in question; sometimes they tell you all you need to know, thus obviating the need for a click-through. 

Also, as we speculate about the implications of this fight for the future of blogging and web-based media in general, let's bear in mind two key questions. First, what do we do with the links we provide online? And second, what we hope to achieve by providing those links?

Universal Hub's Adam Gaffin has stopped linking to GateHouse stories because he's afraid of getting sued. I understand this decision, but I don't think he needs to worry. For one thing, when Gaffin links to a story from GateHouse (or the Globe, or any one of his manifold other sources), he expands on it in some way--almost always with a witty headline, and usually with some pointed commentary in his write-up. On the "Your Town" sites, that's not how Boston.com treats GateHouse's material. Instead, Boston.com just slaps the excerpted GateHouse title/lede up there. In short, there's no intellectual value added. It's appropriation for appropriation's sake.

Then there's the question of intent. I think I can safely say that Gaffin doesn't want to be the web site of record for New England (which is why the Globe would be stupid to give him any sort of legal problems) or the web site of record for any of the towns GateHouse covers (ditto, with "GateHouse" substituted for "the Globe"). But the "Your Town" sites do have such aspirations. Here's how "Your Town Newton" bills itself:

Welcome to your one-stop site for all things Newton: News, sports and recreation, school info, organizations, blogs, discussions, business listings, and more from around the city [emphasis added].

Does this mean "Your Town Newton" wants GateHouse's "Wicked Local Newton" to go out of business? Not necessarily, since this would destroy one of the key sources of "Your Town Newton" editorial content. But I'm pretty sure Bob Kempf & Co. would be happy if no one ever looked at the "Wicked Local Newton" home page again. (Also, don't forget that Kempf used to be GateHouse's VP for interactive media.)

Disclaimer: I worked at Community Newspaper Company when it was owned by the Herald. CNC was subsequently purchased by GateHouse, and I know some current GateHouse employees.

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