Are news agencies damaging local journalism’s ability to survive?

It’s a story which will be all too familiar to many local journalists .- their hard work on building relationships for a story results in copy and pictures being lifted from websites and sold on with little or no additional work by those making the money from the sale.

For Geraldine Scott, health correspondent at the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News, a recent example was so extreme that she took to Twitter to talk about it — and was surprised by just how many people got in touch to say they’d experienced the same.

Here, Geraldine explains what happened, the upset it caused her contacts … and how the selling of stories like this is damaging to local newsrooms … and risky for those buying the stories too:

When you work in local journalism it’s not unusual to see your story turn up in the print edition or on the website of a national — after all, local journalism is often the best journalism, in my opinion.

Sometimes, and traditionally, it is because a national reporter has spotted it as a good story, then followed it up.

They’ve put in the leg work, called the sources, freshened up the quotes, maybe sent their own photographer.

But more and more we’re seeing the wholesale copy and pasting of quotes — and lifting of photos — to get those stories, and that’s what happened to me this week.

On Monday, I spoke to the Meanwell family from Lincolnshire whose son Simon stopped breathing when he was 90 minutes old.

But thanks to an interesting technique at our county’s flagship hospital, where the body temperature is brought down by four degrees, he was saved from further seizures, brain damage, and potentially death.

The family live off our patch so we were unable to send a staff photographer but they were happy to send me photos of them and their little pride and joy, and my newsdesk deemed the story strong enough to splash on for one of our dailies, the Norwich Evening News.

So far, so good, and I was pleased the family’s fundraising bid to help the specialists would get some good exposure.

But when I sent the Meanwells the link to the story the next day, they were — quite rightly — annoyed to have seen it also appear on the MailOnline, and they reasonably assumed I had sold it to them.

I can’t say I was surprised, it happens a lot, but when I clicked on the MailOnline story I realised this wasn’t a follow up — it was a copy and paste job. And that’s when I noticed the photo captions — the photos were credited to an agency.

My first port of call was to find out if we had syndicated the story, but we hadn’t, and then I grew suspicious.

The Meanwells hadn’t spoken to anyone else, they had wanted the story to stay in the local press.

It had been rewritten in some places but the quotes were those given to me. And lots of the information used couldn’t have been found anywhere but my story.

Right down to saying Mr Meanwell worked at a “company which imports quad bikes” without naming the firm was taken over.

I know when I first started as a cub reporter I thought this was a good thing, when a national picked up my stories, that it meant it was a strong one. And I know from my training there is no copyright in news.

But it soon transpired that what had happened here was it hadn’t been picked up and developed, and no one had paid my employer, Archant, to syndicate the story.

Instead, one agency had taken my copy and sold it to the national press (it also later appear on the Mirror online and various other publications), who I’m sure were acting in good faith and buying what they assumed was original agency copy.

A different agency had sold them the photographs, the copyright of which belonged to the Meanwells who had only sent the photographs to me.

Of course I know this lifting happens all the time, and it’s obviously not the first time it’s happened to me either, but what particularly got to me this time was the brazen nature of somebody selling the story I had put my skill, labour and judgement in to.

I felt pretty powerless so I tweeted screenshots of the story and a link to my original and soon local reporters from across the country, and my own newsroom, were getting in touch and saying the same thing had happened to them.

In one of the tweets in my thread I said: “This happens all the time and on the one hand, it’s something you learn to accept, but on the other when it’s so brazen — no link back, pretending it’s their copy — it really gets irritating. #supportlocalnews

Since, we’ve been in touch with those involved to let them know what’s happened, but what I’d really like to see is the money made from selling that story donated to the family’s fundraising bid.

On a wider scale this is such a problem, with local reporters working hard on their patch to get stories, just for them to be ripped and distributed without regard, without links, without payment.

But it’s also dangerous for the publications buying this copy — they don’t know it’s correct, they can’t get to the source, and it makes you question other copy from those streams.

It really isn’t fair to the reporter or to those we interview, and although in this internet age it’s hard to control, I think it’s an important stand to take if and when we can.

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