Recently Times Internet Limited (TIL) updated its music streaming service Gaana, adding features to the Web and mobile apps. TIL put out a press release about this change, and what happened next says everything that is wrong with Internet news today.

As articles started showing up in news feeds, after the second or third one a similarity in the wording of certain passages became evident. A search for more articles revealed that they too were similar. In certain cases entire passages were identical. In nearly all cases they contained the same information and contained the exact same quote from a TIL executive. None of them carried an independent evaluation of the app and its capabilities, although one site actually presented an imagined account of how the app’s functionality, presumably based on the release. At least fifteen sites that report on media and technology, not counting those of the Times group (they probably get a pass),  carried the release with only a few minor alterations.

Without naming and shaming any sites, plugging the text of the Times of India online article into the plagiarism-detection site will reveal how many other sites contain the same language.

So is this a big deal? Why make a fuss about it? Is there any harm to anyone from this? After all, TIL got the word out, which is what it wanted. Several Web sites got page views and presumably some more ad revenue, so they are happy. And the general public was informed of a potentially interesting development.

Yes, this is a big deal, and this kind of reporting most certainly does cause damage: to readers, to companies that release products, to news sites themselves, and to the online news business. 

It harms readers who expect to be informed by independent reviewers of the products that come to market, readers who are instead being given the company line about how great the product is. In this case the product costs no money, just data usage, to download or use. If the product doesn’t live up to the expectations set by the article, the harm is limited mostly to disappointment. However, in other instances a person may end up spending money for the product based on reading about it online. If the product is not as great as reported, then that is a financial harm to the person.

After getting burned enough times, people may become disillusioned, with the news sites, with the releasing company and its products, and with the overall experience. The next time some new app is launched, which may be fantastic, the jaded reader may not even bother. Thus the next company that comes along will suffer. This is a real-life situation. Two weeks after the Gaana release, its competitor Saavn released a new version as well. As with the Gaana release, the Saavn story was also reported by several sites. Again, most of them more or less reproduced the press release verbatim. A reader who found the Gaana stories less than credible may not have bothered with checking out Saavn’s new app.

It would be one matter if the press release were presented as is and also labeled as such. By passing it off as reporting done by the site, readers are being duped by news sites that become corporate shills, whether or not they are paid directly by the company. This compromises their journalistic credibility. Some sites may not care because they just want the traffic. However, a few of them are reputable news organizations, where presumably professional journalists and editors believe in their work. One of the sites even has a research arm that charges heavily for reports that they produce. This practice calls into question the value that any of them are adding.

A journalistic organization that wants to be more than a pin board for corporations seeking publicity ought to use the press release as the starting point for building a news story that then adds value, raises and answers questions, validates claims and so on. People buy newspapers for that added value. Most would not pay for it if they thought that a newspaper was just reprinting press releases, whether by corporations, politicians, athletes or anyone else. 

The proliferation of online sites that commoditize news items without adding value makes it seem as if there is nothing worth paying for. The reason most people will not pay for online news is the feeling that they can get the same information from any of a dozen other non-paid sites. Those sites that practice this kind of sham journalism are contributing to the devaluation of their product. If they lose revenue and become insolvent they have themselves to blame.

On the other hand, news sites that actually add value will find people willing to pay for it. Just ask the New York Times.

Update: This article was also published on The Hoot.

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