Usually, but not always, the Courant would attribute the source, as in (my emphasis):

HARTFORD - A city man accused of trying to rob the same East Hartford gas station three times last summer, twice successfully, pleaded guilty in Hartford Superior Court Monday as part of a plea bargain in which he faces up to 3 ½ years in prison, the Journal Inquirer reported.

Sometimes, the Courant did not attribute the information. Sometimes it even put a byline of one of its own reporters on the stories, as if it has actually covered the event.

On August 19, Powell wrote the Courant’s Graziano a letter, saying the Courant’s print and Internet editions have been “misappropriating on a wholesale basis local stories published in the Journal Inquirer.”

“While attribution to the JI of the occasional big story we have broken may be welcome, the Courant’s frequent use of the JI’s work to report ordinary events in the towns in which our circulation overlaps is not welcome - it’s theft of copyrighted material and costly to us. Please stop this practice.”

On August 29, the JI went public with the dispute with a story headlined:

‘At best plagiarism, at worst outright theft,’ one newspaper publisher says; Courant covers towns with other papers’ reporting

(Note: the links may lead to the JI’s pay wall.)

The story also quoted news executives from the Bristol Press and New Britain Herald, (which share an owner), and the Waterbury Republican-American, saying they suspected the same thing.

The same day, Jeffrey Levine, the Courant’s “content direct” and a senior vice president, published a statement chalking up the problem to “mistakes” in the paper’s new “aggregation policy,” which he said was under review.

The problem is that Levine, who didn’t return my calls, mischaracterized what the Courant had been doing—it wasn’t “aggregation,” as he put it in the apology.

People can disagree about what aggregation is. But Levine goes to the trouble of defining it himself—”synopsizing information from other news sources, most commonly by placing a portion of the information on your web site and linking to the original story.” But the Courant was just lifting stories and rewriting them.

So, that’s a problem. What’s more, Levine’s note focused entirely on whether the taken information was attributed.

Most importantly, we discovered a mistake in our editing process when we take articles from our website to our print newspaper. We found that we inappropriately dropped the attribution or proper credit and in some cases credited ourselves with a byline to a Courant reporter. Once made aware of this mistake, The Courant took immediate steps to correct the process. It is, and has been, the policy of The Hartford Courant to attribute all information to its proper source.

But the problem is taking what doesn’t belong to you. As the JI put it tartly in a headline over a column Powell wrote in response:

Local news is costly, so Courant rips it off

Similarly, Graziano’s statement on Thursday speaks only to plagiarism, not to rewriting others’ coverage.

There is nothing more sacred to a newspaper than its credibility. It is my responsibility to point out our ethical violations and tell you that this newspapers’ staff and I are deeply sorry. We apologize to our readers, competitors and advertisers.

The Courant wants to assure its readers and news staff that we
vigorously subscribe to strict journalistic ethics and to maintaining
and achieving lasting credibility. We know that there is nothing more
important to a newspaper.

Even now, it’s far from clear that the paper will stop using others’ content.

A Courant spokeswoman last week sent me this statement:

Aggregation online is both legitimate, acceptable and a practice that’s been embraced globally. Our mistake was attempting to carry it into print and we have stopped that.

But there’s no difference in principle. if one paper collects the facts, does another paper have the right to use them, even with attribution? Even if you don’t agree with my answer—no—better to address the issue squarely.

For his part, the JI’s Powell says if the Courant keeps it up, the paper will consider legal action.

I don’t know how the legal issues will come down, but here are a few observations:

First, disciplining employees for poorly executing a bad policy is preposterous. It is also revealing.

Put it this way, does anyone think individual reporters have anything to gain from “plagiarizing” a three-paragraph story about some obscure event in some tiny town? (UPDATE: See correction below.)

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.