A small Texas weekly newspaper shut down in August 2008 after plagiarizing dozens of stories from publications such as online magazine Slate and USA Today.
Slate music critic Jody Rosen catalogued numerous instances of plagiarism by the Montgomery County (Texas) Bulletin in his Aug. 6, 2008 column after a reader notified him that the Bulletin had printed more than 10 paragraphs of his Jan. 9, 2007 profile of musician Jimmy Buffett without attribution.
Using the Internet search engine Google, Rosen identified other plagiarized material in the Bulletin from publications like the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone, which ran under the byline of the Bulletin’s only reporter, Mark Williams.
Rosen concluded that Williams’ methods of plagiarism varied: in some cases pulling stories from other sources verbatim, in others using material from other publications interspersed with original writing, and sometimes using material from other sources after slightly reworking the language or changing punctuation.
Rosen reported that the plagiarism was so widespread that he asked in his column whether, “In purely statistical terms,” the plagiarized articles in the Bulletin amounted to “the greatest plagiarism scandal in the annals of American journalism[.]”
Rosen said he contacted the Bulletin several times before publishing his August 6 story on Slate. After verifying that the Bulletin had printed large segments of his Buffett profile without attribution, Rosen called Bulletin Publisher Mike Ladyman, who said he would investigate and speak to Williams.
After making his initial call to Ladyman, Rosen said he conducted further research online and confirmed that the Bulletin frequently used material without attribution from a number of sources. Realizing that “I might not have been Williams’ only plagiarism victim,” Rosen said he called the Bulletin’s publisher again. Ladyman asked Rosen to send him the articles and the results of his research and promised he would look into it. After the second phone call, Rosen said Ladyman never contacted him, and the Bulletin publisher did not return subsequent phone calls.
According to an August 8 post on the Houston Press’ online news blog, Ladyman said he received between 30 and 50 e-mails daily after Rosen’s story was published on Slate, telling him he was a “scum bag” and he “should go to hell.” Following what Ladyman called a “witch hunt,” he said he no longer had the heart to run the Bulletin, according to an August 22 Houston Chronicle story. “It’s dead right now. I’m not bringing out another issue. I’ll just close it up,” Ladyman told the Houston Press.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Ladyman bought the Bulletin in 1998, when it was a weekly advertising supplement. Under his leadership, the paper covered local controversies from a liberal perspective and featured editorials, music reviews, and listings of local events. According to the Houston Chronicle, the weekly paper had a circulation of 20,000.
Rosen said that he was not the first to publish allegations about the Bulletin’s plagiarism. In May 2007, a post on the Houston-area blog Nation of Mice said that a story in the Bulletin had been originally published on online magazine Salon.com, according to Rosen’s Slate story.
Ladyman contended that Rosen acted unprofessionally with respect to the Bulletin, saying that Rosen did not tell him about the numerous examples of plagiarism that he documented in his August 6 article, apart from three stories that he referenced on the phone, according to the Houston Press. Ladyman said he told Williams about Rosen’s allegations, and Williams said he had used material in his stories from press releases that had been sent to the Bulletin.
Ladyman acknowledged that “[writers] do tend to maybe use too much of the PR that’s fed them,” but he said he thought he was paying for original content from Williams, who was employed as a stringer and independent contractor, and had worked for the Bulletin for six years, the Houston Press reported.
Williams commented on Rosen’s Slate story in a statement entitled an “Open Letter to Jody Rosen” published on the Houston Press’ August 8 post. Although he apologized to Rosen, Williams mocked his “seasoned investigative know-how” and invited him to enjoy the spotlight with his “manufactured scandal.” Williams said he used material from press releases, including Rosen’s Buffett profile, thinking that it was “cleared for such use,” according to his “open letter.”
Williams’ letter concluded, “It is easy to make fun of our little rag … but, despite your grievances with our publication, I feel that we have done some good in our corner of the world.” Williams cited stories in the Bulletin regarding a local library controversy and a story about illegal aliens in the Montgomery County area as examples of injustices exposed by the Bulletin.
Rosen’s August 6 story initiated debate in a variety of media over the ethical implications of the Bulletin’s conduct, including the New York Observer, Web site Pop & Politics, and National Public Radio.
Rosen queried in his story whether the Bulletin was ahead of its time as news aggregation – the practice of providing links to stories from news outlines with no original content – gains popularity. “Mike Ladyman and company may simply be bringing guerilla-style 21st-century content aggregation to 20th-century print media: publishing the Napster of newspapers,” Rosen wrote in his August 6 Slate story.
Although Rosen admitted in an August 8 segment on National Public Radio show “On the Media” that he “was being a little cheeky” when he compared the Bulletin’s plagiarism to other content aggregation practices, other journalists drew a clear distinction between news aggregation and the Bulletin.
Bill Boyarsky, former City Editor for the Los Angeles Times and columnist for Truth Dig, an online news and opinion magazine, said “What [Rosen] wrote about is out and out plagiarism,” according to an August 12 Pop & Politics blog post. Boyarsky says that news aggregation is not plagiarism because of the operation of the “fair use” doctrine.
“Fair use” refers to the rule that copyrighted materials can be used for certain purposes, depending on the nature of the use, the amount of the work used, and the economic impact of the use. Limited use of copyrighted works by academics and journalists, for example, is fair use.
Choire Sicha, a New York Observer columnist, told Pop & Politics for its August 12 story that “There’s a huge, and obvious, difference between fair use – blockquoting some text and giving a link and a name credit – and unethical reprinting.”
– Amba Datta
Silha Research Assistant