Doug Pibel, Yes!’s managing editor, says that Reader lifted at least 11 pieces—including the “Purple America” cover art and feature—from multiple issues of Yes! and its online content. He notes that all Yes! branding was stripped and replaced by the Reader equivalent— “a Yes! magazine take on what Americans want” became “a Reader Magazine take on what Americans want.” There were minor differences: in editing an introduction to Yes!’s interview with Richard Wilkinson, Reader misspelled the researcher’s last name; it also changed the title of Yes!’s feature, “Tools for a popular uprising,” to the less bellicose, “Tools for a more perfect union.”
Pibel learned of “this amazing product” when he received an email and link from an “alert subscriber who picked up on the fact that this was an unlikely spot for our material to appear and asked ‘Did you actually give permission to this magazine to reproduce this?’”
Following his tipster’s link, Pibel discovered that Reader not only looked and read a lot like Yes!, but that four of his contributors—executive editor Sarah van Gelder and a chairman of the board among them—had been added to Reader’s masthead. Pibel was further surprised to learn that his magazine had entered into a “special collaboration” with Reader.
Per Theodore, in the issue’s Publisher’s Note:
We’ve chosen the theme of this Reader Magazine to be Purple America, to remind us of the common hopes and ideals we share as a nation. We first heard the term “Purple America” in Yes!, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Because we believe many of the ideas espoused by Yes! deserve to be heard in the broader marketplace of ideas, we’ve given our voice to republish some ideas through a special collaboration.
Except, says Yes!’s Pibel, “this is a collaboration that did not involve any communication with Yes! magazine. There was no collaboration—‘special’ or otherwise.” (Even so, this one-sided collaboration appears to be the only instance in which Reader’s founder, Theodore, has sort of credited a source publication.)
“It’s particularly egregious for us because it’s really a placement that is contrary to our brand,” says Pibel. “We’re all about sustainability, economic justice and ramping down consumerism. And being used in support of shopping coupons is not usually where we prefer to show up.”
Pibel has found an attorney to represent the magazine pro bono and draw up a cease and desist letter. “We want people to reprint our stuff, we just want to have credit for it and maybe a link to our website when they do,” he says.
But more than anything, Pibel was stunned by the “chutzpah” involved in Reader’s stunt. “In today’s Internet world, I think people are getting real confused about what’s appropriate use and what’s not,” he says. “But I think it goes far beyond that to take an interview and substitute your name as interviewer. The level of audacity involved there—I don’t even know how you would even think of doing that.”
Chris Theodore, founder and publisher of Reader, wasn’t up for explaining. When contacted by CJR, Theodore refused to grant a phone interview or respond to e-mailed questions, and instead sent an e-mail threatening a lawsuit if we pursued the story. He also accused of this reporter of conspiring in a “smear campaign” with an individual “who seeks to speciously discredit our much loved publication, and is using your institution for this purpose.”
Despite the perils that the Internet would seem to present for plagiarizers of our time—it can take but a simple Google search to undress the Emperor these days—Theodore does not shy away from promoting Reader on its many platforms, and perhaps even offers a clue for us about his editorial practices at his Tumblr and Facebook pages, in a post titled, “Massive Collaboration Changes Everything,” where he hints at the substance of a new social network, Wikitny, he is building and which he imagines will become the “place to add your mark to the destiny of the world.”