On the subject of newspapers chewing their own legs off, the Hartford Courant, is in the process of doing just that these days, first having stumbled into a plagiarism scandal, now by issuing opaque statements while disciplining employees for poorly executing a policy that was bad to begin with.
Connecticut news circles have been in a tizzy the last couple weeks after the Journal Inquirer, the Courant’s archrival, published accusations that the Tribune Company’s Hartford outlet was lifting local coverage of the JI and other Connecticut papers without their permission.
The Courant first blamed the problem on bugs in a new “aggregation policy.”
Then, late last week, Richard Graziano, the Courant’s publisher and chief executive, issued a letter to readers saying that an “extensive internal review” had found the paper had indeed plagiarized competitors’ local news.
This was not our intent, but it is in fact what happened. We are taking corrective action to prevent it from happening again. We have also disciplined the individuals involved.
The issue here isn’t that some staffers committed plagiarism by failing to attribute information to competitors. The real problem is that, after cutting the paper’s news staff in half and pulling out of local news coverage, Courant managers decided as a matter of policy to rewrite the copy of the paper’s competitors—for free, with credit to the originator but without their permission—and print it in the Courant and on its Web site as a substitute for doing the work itself.
The Courant simply rewrote all salient facts in these (short) stories, treating competitors as though they were some kind of free Associated Press. The fact that some staffers may have left off the “Journal Inquirer reported” makes it worse, but the issue is taking something that’s not yours in the first place. This is the issue the Courant chooses not to address.
Local and regional newspapers are in a financial crisis—this we know. But while many aspects of the crisis are not in news executives’ control, how they respond to it is.
Do they soldier on, providing the best possible report given shrinking resources, adapting to new media as best they can, while upholding time-honored standards of journalism quality and integrity? Or, do they resort to shortcuts and gimmicks papered over by corporate humbug?
We’re all for innovation here at CJR. We give newspapers the benefit of the doubt as they careen around in search of answers, bringing in radio and TV executives, experimenting with blogs, video, social media, what have you. And we’re under no illusions that newspapers were so great before the current financial storm hit in earnest a couple years ago.
But if in these turbulent times, news organizations go the gimmick route and lose faith in journalism itself—courageous reporting, great writing—they’re not going to make it and they won’t deserve to.
Last week, we read that Gannett Co.’s Westchester franchise forced journalists and advertising employees to “reapply” for jobs they already held in a cost-saving/productivity move couched as an attempt to embrace the digital age. I don’t know what will eventually work, but I suspect that humiliating your staff is not the way to go.
The Courant and its parent, Sam Zell’s bankrupt Tribune Co., have been making their own choices. In the spring, TribCo merged its Hartford TV and print operations, installing TV executives to run the American’s oldest continuously published newspaper. That’s not necessarily a bad choice, but it certainly is a choice. Then last month, Courant forced out a consumer columnist who now loudly accuses the paper of kowtowing to advertisers. That’s another one.
Now comes Aggra-gate.
It started, back in July when an internal memo, leaked to Web site of ex Courant staffers, announced staff changes that included a new position:
Aggregation Editor: TBD (this person aggregates/collects/rewrites content from around the state, acting almost as an AP bureau for the Courant to broaden the news we offer readers online and in print).
Chris Powell, the JI’s managing editor, tells me his staff started to notice that same month their stories from small towns showing up in the Courant’s news pages and online. The lifted stories were mostly run-of-the-mill coverage—a synagogue merger in Manchester, a building-permit-fee increase in Hebron—and not the kind of unusual or breaking news of wide interest that the Courant might have wanted but was unable to match. It was just the grunt work, the kind for which customers might subscribe to a local paper.