Plagiarism Follies at the Courant

TribCo unit fumbles a scandal

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.

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.)

Second, if you going to apologize for something, it is important to be forthright and properly characterize the problem. This is the first rule of corrections. The real issue—certainly, in the JI’s view—is not about attribution, aka, plagiarism. It is about taking the information at all. If the Courant believes it has the right to do this, it should say so.

Third, readers should be on the lookout for the misuse of new media terms—e.g. aggregation—to accomplish retrograde ends, like taking others’ work or laying off older journalists.

Fourth, news executives waving the flag of “strict journalistic ethics” and “sacred” credibility should remember that these values don’t come cheap.

CORRECTION: An earlier version mistakenly referred to a specific news brief, about a school appointment, that was in fact not plagiarized. I regret the error. Talk about follies!

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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.