What’s a News Brief Worth?

The Journal Inquirer, of Manchester, Conn., which over the summer forced its larger rival, the Hartford Courant, to admit to plagiarizing some of the JI’s local news coverage, took its dispute a step further yesterday, suing the Courant for copyright infringement and seeking unspecified money damages.

The JI has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to taking on the Courant, so the hardball approach can been seen as part of a long-running David-and-Goliath competitive saga.

And, to be sure, the sight of one newspaper suing another doesn’t exactly make journalists want to throw hats in the air. Newspapers have enough problems without dragging each other into court.

But there is something heartening about a new organization aggressively defending its rights to its work product, no matter how pedestrian and unglamorous that work product might be. In this case, the copy in dispute consists of local news briefs—the short items that most readers skim over without a thought to where they came from.

The JI’s lawsuit (PDF) provides a partial inventory of items it says were plagiarized. These stories are not exactly Watergate:

JI: “Bolton Lakes Sewer Project Denied Funding for Next Phase of Work,” July 31.

“Sewer Project Funding pulled by USDA,” Aug. 4.

“Construction of Regional Emergency Center Gets Grant,” Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 1-2.

“Emergency Center Gets Grant for Equipment,” Aug. 6.

Greenway Trail Plan Gets Green Light from East Windsor Selectmen,” Aug. 5

“Grant Would Fix Bridge, Help Fund Greenway,” August 7.

The stories all had bylines of reporters at the respective papers. The fact that the Courant took the facts from the JI stories and wrote its own version, without attribution, made it plagiarism, as the Courant itself admitted last summer.

But the JI’s main point, as expressed in lawsuits and columns, is that it’s not fair for one paper to have to pay to send reporters to gather news for meat-and-potatoes stories only to have the salient facts lifted by another, even with attribution.

It’s another wrinkle to the larger question of whether one publication is doing another one a favor by using its content with attribution, a link, or whatever. The answer is that it depends on the context, but the answer certainly is not an automatic yes.

In this case, the JI says the borrowing was a simple cost-saving ploy by its rival:

The Courant is accused of using its competitor’s work to make up for the work formerly done by the Courant’s own reporting staff, which was cut in half in the last two years as the economy weakened and the Courant’s parent company, national media corporation Tribune, fell into reorganizational bankruptcy.

(As an aside, I enjoyed the Jackie Chiles-esque language of the suit:

The Courant’s theft of the JI’s stories was, the suit says, “immoral, oppressive, unethical, and unscrupulous” and “caused substantial injury to readers, competitors, and advertisers.”

A Courant spokeswoman had no immediate comment this morning.)

The Courant, to its credit, has runs stories on the suit. A Courant spokeswoman declined to comment to me.

If the question is what local news briefs are worth, the JI’s answer is clear: they’re worth suing over.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.