United States Project

San Francisco Chronicle suspends reporter for press release copy-and-paste

October 13, 2015

The San Francisco Chronicle has suspended its Golden State Warriors beat reporter after he wrote an article Monday that was nearly a word-for-word copy of a team press release.

Rusty Simmons wrote the piece after the Warriors issued a press release announcing their purchase of land from the tech company Salesforce in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood, where the team plans to build a new arena. The piece was posted to SFGate, the Chronicle’s website, on Monday morning, and stayed there until 5:45pm, when it was replaced by a much shorter version of the story. The new story had no byline and an editor’s note that read: “A previous version of this story was a lightly edited press release issued by the Golden State Warriors. The story is now written by a Chronicle staffer.”

On Tuesday, Audrey Cooper, the Chronicle’s editor-in-chief, told CJR that Simmons had been suspended without pay pending an investigation of his entire body of work with the paper. Simmons has been a sportswriter with the Chronicle since 2002. In a statement emailed to CJR, Cooper said she was “extremely disappointed.”

“Integrity is one of our company’s top values and we will not employ journalists who do not adhere to the strictest ethical protocols,” she wrote.

In a subsequent phone interview, Cooper said she would be “very surprised” if the review of Simmons’ work reveals that copying press releases is a “chronic practice.”

Simmons told CJR via email that he has no comment.

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The headline for the original Chronicle story and the Warriors’ press release on NBA.com were the same: “Warriors formally purchase Mission Bay site.” The initial story was identical to the release, except that the team referred to itself as the “NBA Champion Golden State Warriors” in its lede, and the Chronicle story left out the “champion” superlative. The only other change was a semicolon in the press release that became two sentences in the Chronicle story.

“The writer copy-and-pasted the press release into a premade story folder and tried to edit out what he saw as overly effusive language,” Cooper said. “In his haste, he didn’t put enough critical thinking into whether this was the right procedure. He now realizes that it was not.”

The story was edited before it was posted, Cooper said. The editor had not seen the Warriors’ press release.

Cooper said the problem with Simmons’ story wasn’t brought to her attention until late in the afternoon, when the story had been live for hours. Sam Singer, a renowned publicist in San Francisco and a paid spokesman for the arena’s organized opposition, Mission Bay Alliance, spotted the duplication and sent an email to many of his contacts in San Francisco, but not to anyone at the Chronicle, Cooper said. Singer sent a separate email to CJR on Monday evening.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, took Singer’s tip late Monday and tweeted screen shots of the press release and the Chronicle story.

It is, of course, always unacceptable for a reporter to put his name at the top of a press release and for a newspaper to publish that story as its own work. The Chronicle’s screw-up is especially unfortunate on a story like this one, about a live political controversy——the Mission Bay project has much more political support than the Warriors’ previous attempt at finding an arena site, but there is still a very vocal opposition group, the Singer-affiliated Mission Bay Alliance. Singer is a smart operator and a frequent adversary of the Chronicle, and it is probably inevitable that he would find the copy-and-paste job and flag it widely.

“As distasteful as it is to take ethical instructions from Sam Singer, unfortunately, he was right,” Cooper said.

Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.