Joanna Yeates
On 28 December, David Holt of Solent News and Photo Agency offered the nation's news editors a major scoop. His team of of four reporters had been in constant contact with the family of Jo Yeates, the murdered landscape architect, during the Christmas holidays. Finally, they had secured an interview with David Yeates, Jo's father.

The BBC and Sky News, among others, immediately did deals with Solent to use the resulting story.

At Press Association's newsroom, the approach was different. Because Solent doesn't sell stories to PA, the news service only learned about the exclusive secondhand. According to Holt, Beverley Rouse, a news editor at PA, subsequently explained in a telephone conversation: "We saw it on Sky and we went looking for it. We found it on the Southern Daily Echo website and we put it out."

The Southern Daily Echo – a 35,000 circulation local newspaper in Southampton owned by Newsquest – had paid Solent News for its story. But the PA hadn't.

Solent has its reasons for not selling to PA. Doing so wouldn't have made economic sense. As David Holt puts it: "Their customers are broadly the same as ours." The PA would have bought the story and then passed it on to hundreds of subscribing newspapers and broadcasters. The result would have been vastly diminished return on the time and expertise that Solent had invested in its exclusive.

As the day wore on, the PA's version of Solent's 237-word story started cropping up at the Daily Mirror and on sites "from Lancashire to Belfast", as Holt puts it. These versions of the story were 241 words long, courtesy of a four-word phrase attributing publication to the Southern Daily Echo, which appears to have been inserted into the copied story by PA.

"They lifted the entire interview," says Holt, "with the same first par and the same last par. And the same quotes in the middle." According to Holt: "Our lawyers wrote to PA last week and we are still awaiting a reply."

What should we make of this spat about scoops, attribution and payment? Jon Slattery, the media blogger, has worked for a local news agency in the past: he worries about the effects of plagiarism on journalism. On 5 January, Slattery posted an analysis with a poignant title: "What stories will there be left to lift when all the news gathering reporters are gone?" 

The answer, of course, is none. Yet paradoxically, from the whitetops down to the flimsiest freesheets, editors remain reluctant to credit external sources – and keen to convince readers that their news-gathering prowess hasn't been diminished by declining headcount. When it comes to credit and copyright, British newspapers remain stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Perhaps PA did act – in the words of its editor Jonathan Grun – with "good faith" in its reporting of the story. Yet on the face of it, and without further input from PA, it's hard to square this suggestion with David Holt's argument that his agency's output was simply "lifted".

At this point, an obvious question presents itself: did PA even know that the story was the property of a competitor (Solent) rather than a customer (Southern Daily News)? Knowing the source might have made a difference to PA's approach. Significantly, however, the story that the PA lifted from the Echo's site makes no mention of Solent. What if the Echo's online copy had mentioned the story's origin?

What if the Echo, beneath its headline, had run an automated link to a pop-up window that told the world that this particular story was copyrighted to Solent News and Photo Agency?

The technology required to do this at the Echo (and every other news outlet in the land) already exists. One option involves tagging content with an HTML-compatible microformat called hNews, endorsed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, developed by the Media Standards Trust and financed by two US foundations – the Knight Foundation and the Macarthur Foundation – that have started to take a serious interest in the future of journalism.

There are other ways of achieving similar results with metadata: RDFa is an existing, and far more ambitious, set of standards for linking data across the web. Likewise, Google has also become interested in metadata that illuminates the credentials of stories.

At the very least, labelling stories in this way would help all news editors to work in what Jonathan Grun describes as "good faith".

Taking the idea a step further, buying content would become a less fraught if news editors could access a national web-based clearinghouse of breaking stories – all of them equipped with metadata that clearly highlighted their source and licensing terms.

The technology exists to do this. In the US, this spring, Associated Press is expected to launch a rights clearinghouse that will exploit the potential of hNews, which had been adopted by nearly 600 US news sites by last October. AP's clearinghouse has been described by US publishing consultant Martin Langeveld as "a rapid, realtime means of negotiating rights for content sharing [between publishers], resulting in a large increase in the potential market for any particular piece of content". 

"It matters that all of this metadata about stories is machine-readable," says Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust, who has collaborated with AP in the US.

"Then you can build an industry-wide platform for trading content in real-time. It will take a lot of friction out of the business of syndicating news stories. A PA editor looking at any one running story might have the option of buying story A at a high cost, or story B, which might not have so much detail, at the slightly lower cost." Say goodbye to plagiarism, and hello to a world of stories that can be traded just like pork bellies in Chicago or shares on Wall Street. The effects could be far-reaching.

Moore suggests that automated syndication might offer an alternative to the drive toward paywalls. "We have publishers bemoaning how their content is being used and consumed all around the web," he says. "The negative reaction is: 'How do we constrain that?' But what if a clearinghouse allows you to learn much more about how people across the web are consuming your content?" Google, he points out, owes much of its dominance to good analytics. "Arguably, it's the one thing that Google did better than anyone else," says Moore. 

But automated story trading may also disrupt established business models. Moore suggests that AP is "hoping that better analytics will show that its content is inherently impressive". But he points out that AP is also ready to talk with customers who discover that some of AP's content is "less impressive" than they assumed.

What is PA's view? Sadly, the nation's best-known newswire has gone incommunicado post-Solent. In an email to, Chris Condron, PA's head of digital strategy, says he has "some knowledge" of the AP's project and "would have loved to talk through the tech potential to address copyright issues". But "given the current circumstances", he declined to talk with us.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, David Holt of Solent News emerges as a fan of metadata and the AP's clearinghouse:

"For the first time in many years, ownership of news has become a live issue. Is your exclusive work still yours once you have published it? Of course it is. But it's an uphill struggle: many people in the British media are convinced they can use anything they like from the internet because it's 'in the public domain.' They're wrong.
"Using metadata wouldn't change the way British newspapers work. But it would make proof of ownership easy and ensure the right person got paid."

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