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What the Jonah Lehrer Debate Means for Content

By James O'Brien June 25th, 2012

For writers and marketers, this is what the Jonah Lehrer scandal comes down to: Will writers get into trouble if they repurpose their work?

What if writers repurpose material across platforms for the same client? What if they take elements from one article and re-use it for several different clients?

The short answer is, all of this is suspect now, given how much attention re-purposing in a post-Lehrer world is getting. Experts say writers would do well to check their clients’ fine print.

The Back Story: Jonah Lehrer and Repurposing for ‘New Yorker’ Blogs

Lehrer, author and staff writer for The New Yorker, found himself in hot water last week with Jim Romenesko’s initial discovery that he was repurposing his writing all over the place.

That is, Lehrer was repurposing his own material from magazines to books, from print to Web, and all of this in various combinations. He was perhaps plagiarizing from other writers, too.

The weightiest element of the journalism-ethics argument, regarding what Lehrer did or did not do, is of course about potential plagiarism. (Not self-plagiarism, as it has been described by some — such a thing cannot exist.) But whether Lehrer took content from others will have to play out over time.

But the other, less-weighty, can of worms of to what degree it might be OK for writers and publishers to reuse their own already published material poses more complicated and perhaps far-reaching implications for media professionals.  As Mark Horowitz, former editor of Wired puts it: Is repurposing magazine articles for books the norm? (Matthew May rounds up his comment in his blog.) Is this an OK thing for a journalist to do?

For content writers and publishers, however, the conversation is different. The material that they produce is of a different sort.

Let’s look at how the Lehrer situation suggests a kind of content–journalism pressure to which we all can pay some fresh attention.

Thanksgiving Turkey: Content is Meant to Be Repurposed (But Not Always)

“The Jonah Lehrer situation is all but irrelevant to content marketing,” suggests Rebecca Lieb, analyst for Altimeter Group. “I regularly exhort marketers to think about how they can repurpose content. Like journalists, they have to feed the beast. Unlike most journalists, they must do so in multiple channels and often with a much narrower, vertical field of information.”

In Lieb’s model of how content-writers can work — and this is confined to the realm of a single-client scenario — the material is something akin to a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. You have the big meal, and then you carve away at what’s left for a dozen other suppers.

“Say an executive speaks at an event, that’s the main content event,” Lieb said. “A content-marketer’s job may be to repurpose that speech into multiple pieces, often in a wide variety of channels: a YouTube video; a SlideShare deck; multiple blog posts; an article; a column; images; info-graphics; newsletter articles, etc.

“This squeezes more value out of the content,” she continued, “and incorporates it into formats and channels more likely to reach specific audience segments.”

But what if the content-writer starts repurposing across clients? That’s what Lehrer did when he grafted his earlier writings into more recent blogs for The New Yorker. Well, for the content-writer, it all depends on details: whatever specifics have been agreed upon for the job.

“Virtually any publication I’ve written for, or run, has a contractual clause specifying that material submitted for publication must be original and not published elsewhere,” Lieb said. “Usually with a statement of how long exclusive rights last.”

“The rule,” she added, referring to both writers and their clients: “Spell it out up front. Don’t rely on ‘expectations’.”

The Derivative Effect: Content and Its Impact Upon Journalism

If content-writers are expected to repurpose their material, but they’re also working for multiple clients — and maybe experiencing the temptation to bring their best bits right along — doesn’t this suggest a repurposing-as-the-norm pressure that they (and also journalists) should concretely address?

“I believe words matter,” said Joe Chernov, vice president of content marketing for Eloqua. “To that end, ‘brand journalism’ is not synonymous with ‘journalism’. The former is a derivative of the latter.

“While tactics like repurposing and remixing copy might be effective on the brand side of content creation,” he continued, “there is a sanctity to true journalism that needs to be upheld, particularly as the sands beneath both worlds shift.”

One way to think about what seems to have been Lehrer’s mindset — at least, his mindset when it comes to the repurposing part of what he did — is to consider that the Internet, and content-writing in particular, may be softening some of journalism’s previously taken-for-granted boundaries.

Pointing this out isn’t to excuse Lehrer’s mistakes. (He has acknowledged that some of what he did was dumb.) But acknowledging that the Web is still for many a faster, looser publishing environment is to remind ourselves that we must be mindful of the specific requirements and demands of each context of how we create and publish content.

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