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Navigating new waters: Journalism in the digital age

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BY BILL GRAHAM
I am pushing a 14-foot flat-bottom boat with faded green paint off from shore and into a gentle river current, still in view but moving slowly away. That’s what I feel like penning my final column for Outdoors Unlimited as an OWAA president. Serving America’s oldest, largest and finest organization of outdoor communicators is a great honor. Thank you for the opportunity.
The green boat of my boyhood sits in my driveway now, passed down through the family, and I hope to get it into the water more often in the months ahead. I am grateful to have served an organization that has done so much for the waters, woods and fields during the past almost nine decades.
OWAA is the “Voice of the Outdoors” and we may feel optimistic this spring for our organization’s future. Mark Freeman and Lisa Densmore will follow into the presidential post and they’re excellent. Talent and dedication abound among the board of directors. Dynamic young communicators are moving into this field alongside those of us who time has swiftly made “veterans.”
Executive director Tom Sadler and our headquarters staff are doing a fine job guiding us forward in these choppy journalism waters in the digital age.
However, issues affecting our field and our members do concern me.
We are professional communicators and deserve to be fairly compensated for any and all efforts. This is under attack in the digital age.
The issue of “patch writing” was recently brought to my attention. I heard about someone — not an OWAA member — who lifted information and quotes, basically an entire story, from another publication. It ran online with his byline. The difference between blatant plagiarism and patch writing is supposedly that the patch writer cites the original publication in passing within the story containing the new byline.
This case prompted the Ethics Committee to review the issue and suggest changes to the OWAA Code of Ethics. The OWAA Board of Directors in February used the recommendations to strengthen our ethics policy regarding unauthorized use of materials. You can see that proposed change on page 27.
But in this cut-and-paste era of aggregated websites, instant blogs and mobile publishing, we’re going to need some help to protect our work and income. The patch writing cases I’ve looked at since this issue first came to my attention involve work originating in major media outlets. I believe major media companies and corporations must begin wielding a big sword in courtrooms to protect their copyrights. They’ve got the financial resources for court action. Media companies have a stake in this, and they have far more resources than the reporters, freelancers, photographers and videographers at the bottom of publishing’s financial food chain.
Those who think it is OK to cut-and-paste quotes and a story without permission, and yet collect a byline and a paycheck, need to wind up paying penalties from their pocketbooks under court order.
If you think the “everything’s free” horse is already out of the Internet barn and content cannot be protected, look at television. The TV of my boyhood was free. You got an extra channel if you adjusted the rabbit ears, the antenna on top the set. Who would ever pay for what came over the airwaves for free?
But now, I send a check every month to the company that provides programming to my satellite dish. I know of people who think nothing of spending $200 on a monthly cable bill, in addition to our other entertainment costs like Wi-Fi and smart phones.
We must protect pay that enables professional skills and products.
On the other hand, bloggers who generate original material have a place in our new journalism world. They offer one hope for another issue that concerns me for the future — independent voices.
I once observed a fun and fairly innocent talk radio program focused on rural living vanish from the nationally-syndicated airways. Later I happened to meet the show’s originator. He said agri-business advertisers didn’t like the fact that pros and cons were brought up on the air. Very little chatter was negative, but those who wrote the checks would not tolerate anything but cheerleading. His show was whacked.
My hope is that outdoor magazine, Web and newspaper editors, along with program managers, always allow their communicators and media consumers the freedom to talk facts and issues. OWAA is a big tent organization that welcomes diverse viewpoints. As a board officer I’ve reached almost weekly for the OWAA directory looking for help or guidance. In doing so, I’ve sometimes found myself reading through the member listings. I’m inspired and amazed by the variety and accomplishment of members and supporters who communicate about the outdoors.
Many members (like me) are paid by agencies or businesses to support certain viewpoints. But I hope the outdoor field always contains many communicators and media outlets free to discuss all sides of issues. The entire outdoor industry has a stake in facts that support progress.
We link the mountains, rivers, fields, forests and all creatures and processes in nature with a public that shares our wonder at beauty and mystery. Long may our voices echo, and I’ll see you out on the river. ♦
— OWAA President Bill Graham, plattefalls@centurylink.net
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