A weekly newspaper won reader trust after plagiarism scandal

A California weekly in late October made a stunning disclosure to its readers. The Mad River Union, which covers the town of Arcata and parts of Humboldt County in northwestern California, revealed that its former sports editor, Rick Macey, “plagiarized several articles that made it into print.”

The Union, which has a paper circulation between 3,000 and 4,000 depending on the time of year, hired Macey on June 21 to write better sports coverage and in-depth features, Editor at Large and Publisher Kevin Hoover tells CJR. And for a while, Macey was delivering.

ICYMI: Ouch! Here are some headlines editors probably wish they could take back 

“About a month or two prior to this discovery, things kind of changed a bit,” Hoover says. “The coverage stopped being sparkly and good. It kind of collapsed into the thing we didn’t want, which is play-by-plays.”

On Saturday, October 21, Hoover noticed a photo describing a Humboldt State University game didn’t have a credit. So, he decided to go to the school’s athletics department website to find the image. While he was there, he decided on a whim to see how HSU’s coverage compared to his own publication’s.

“I looked up the story and to my shock, dismay, and horror, it was the same story,” Hoover says. “It would have been okay if we left the original guy’s byline (HSU’s Andrew Goetz), but this was whole-scale copy-paste and putting your own byline. That was a no-no.”

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

ICYMI: Paper publishes shocking teacher investigation

Then, Hoover says, he copied all of Macey’s stories into a Google document he titled “Plagiarism-O-Rama.” He also inserted HSU stories in bold, and sent the document to Editor and Co-Publisher Jack Durham.

“I was pissed off, and then I was embarrassed,” Durham says. “I couldn’t believe it. These press releases are available for us to use, and I just don’t understand why we would be paying someone to plagiarize [articles] we can get for free.”

CJR reached out to Macey by email twice, but he did not respond before the story went live.

ICYMI: Some WSJ staffers are probably unhappy right now

Durham says Macey came by his office one day and introduced himself. At that point, Durham assigned him an article to write. Durham was happy with the article so he continued to assign him articles on a part-time, freelance basis. He didn’t immediately look up Macey’s credentials (his LinkedIn page says he’s been running an outfit called Macey TV that broadcasts high-school sports since 2000). “I’m the first to admit I didn’t properly vet him,” Durham says.

The paper ran an editorial about the incident on October 25 in print and online. Then, the paper discussed its internal audit in stunning detail in a 1,176-word column on Monday:

Of the 41 articles that our former sports editor wrote and that we published, 31 appear to be original content without any plagiarized content, that we can tell. Three articles contain some content that appears to have been lifted from another source, but was altered enough that reasonable people may disagree as to whether attribution was required. That leaves seven articles that were clearly plagiarized, about one-sixth of the total. They include large amounts of content written and signed by someone else but stripped of proper attribution, and rebranded with our sports editor’s name.

The paper went the extra mile, completely owning up to its own role in the controversy:

Though our former writer handed in the plagiarized content written by others with his byline placed on the top, it was we, the editors, who placed the articles on the page, printed up thousands of copies and distributed them to our readers. We’re the supposed gatekeepers who hired the writer and whose dereliction allowed this to go on, however unknowingly.

The publication’s transparency is a great example for other community news outlets dealing with blunders. The paper has received a lot of positive comments on Facebook. One reader said, “As a teacher who deals with plagiarism regularly, this is the way effective accountability looks. Apology accepted.”

“Our readers are too kind to us. They’re being rather supportive and they’re praising our response, but we did really screw up,” Durham says. “It was my fault. I’m the one who hired him, and I was the one who was putting the stories on the pages and editing them.”

The newspaper has since pulled all of Macey’s works online, but they remain in the PDF archives that are available to subscribers online. They also are developing a set of guidelines to make sure such a blatant case of plagiarism never happens again.

ICYMI: NYTimes publishes stunning visual forensic investigation

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

Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.