Reader is a mailed advertiser—its website boasts it “now has a larger circulation than the paid circulation of nearly every newspaper in California”—that was founded on the principle “keep the price as low as possible, and the quality as high as possible.” Its website is clearly geared towards its advertisers. That’s fitting: the Reader’s advertisers do not sustain its journalism; its “journalism” is a strategy to sustain its advertisers. Plagiarism is its bold, bald business model—and it has been this way since at least 2008.
Besides a smattering of local content, a quick sampling of the last three years’ of issues would suggest all other content is taken from somewhere else. The Reader has drawn its content from many varied sources—some fair, most not—and failed to credit nearly all of them, including Newsweek, National Geographic Adventure, the 9/11 Report, Huffington Post, the Diet Channel, author Guy Kawasaki’s blog, RT, Mumbai-based CNBC TV 18, Guideposts, and Jonathan Calloway, a recent college graduate and winner of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Essay Contest (Calloway was given a byline). The Reader does not limit itself to the text of other publications; it also recycles art and photos.
CJR contacted a number of these outlets, and in each case was told by the original author or publication that they had been unaware of the republication of their work, and often times that Reader had gotten basic things wrong. Samantha Carlin, of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, for example, said that not only had Reader not requested or received permission to run their contest’s prize-winning essay, it had “misrepresented the prize in its table of contents” by getting the name wrong.
A June 2010 Newsweek story, “Healthy at any Age,” by Mary Carmichael, was published as Reader’s July/August/September 2010 cover story.
Carmichael, now a higher education reporter with The Boston Globe, was dismayed to discover Reader’s treatment of her article, which included some stylistic edits (using ellipses for dramatic effect, for example) and drastic abridgement. She was relieved only that they had neglected to run her byline. “They edited it in a way that makes it sound airheaded,” she said.
But the bigger problem according to Carmichael was that what Reader published was merely the introduction she had written to a much larger package, and it didn’t make any sense on its own. “You just kind of wonder did they even read the thing that they copied and edited?”
Carmichael, who has seen her work reprinted without permission before, was surprised by the audacity involved in this case and, though not personally hurt by it, was bothered by the fact that Reader “may be making money on something that they should not have.”
“It seems like something you should A: never do, and B: never do in the age of the Internet,” says Carmichael. “I don’t often see my work or other peoples’ work presented wholly in the guise of being someone else’s the way this happened. I would be horrified if that’s the new normal.”
Yet far more egregious than these instances in which Reader lifted a single article, is its latest issue in which it borrowed almost all of its content from the Seattle-based Yes! magazine.
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.