Blast From the Past: News Organizations and Online Plagiarism | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Blast From the Past: News Organizations and Online Plagiarism


Published January 6, 2010 at 1:12 p.m.

I got an email yesterday from a woman writing a textbook about the principles of journalism. She wanted to interview me about an incident back in the spring of 2006, when I caught a blogger who worked for the Boston Globe's "Explore New England" website plagiarizing content from Seven Days. I talked with her this morning.

I had trouble remembering all the details at first — probably because it occurred shortly after my son was born, and I was so sleep deprived that I've forgotten whole chunks of 2006 and 2007.

Basically what happened is that I had been keeping a list of Vermont blogs. A friend sent me a link to the "Explore New England" site, which employed a stable of local, freelance, non-journalist bloggers. Each of them was tasked with creating original content that would presumably draw readers to the Globe's site. There was a guy blogging from Vermont, so I listed his blog in my Vermont blogroll, and checked in on it from time to time.

One day, when I clicked over, I noticed a post that reprinted, verbatim, one of the 100+-word, bylined calendar spotlights from Seven Days, complete with the photo. There was no mention on the site that the content came from Seven Days.

I contacted the blogger via email, then I contacted his editor over at the Boston Globe, basically to say, wtf? When I got the editor on the phone, he promptly apologized and told me they'd let the guy go. The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies took note of this episode, and Jim Romenesko linked to it on his Poynter site.

I repost this now because after I talked with the textbook writer, I went back to re-read the blog post I wrote about it, which I probably should have done before I talked with this woman. When I re-read the post, I was surprised anew by the comments it generated. I had totally forgotten how pissed off people were that I had actually contacted the guy's boss at the Boston Globe.

To me, in retrospect, his offense still seems pretty clear cut — especially since his boss told me that he had found other evidence of plagiarism on the blog. I think, back then, the web was still so new that news organizations — and readers — were trying to figure out the rules of this space. Maybe there was a perception of, "Well, it's only online. How bad is this, really?" or "It's only a little bit of text. What's wrong with copying a blurb?"

But I suspect that, over the years, people's attitudes have shifted. It seems like there's a strong resistance to this type of behavior, and a strong tendency to give credit where credit is due. Credit is currency, right? When you deprive a creator of credit, you're stealing that currency. As a creator, I want to give credit, because I want other people to credit me. I think people understand this equation better now. And I think people expect more today of news organizations on the web.

But maybe I'm deluding myself. What do you think? Have people's attitudes changed over the last four years?

If you were a writer for a news organization, and you caught a writer for a larger, competing news organization stealing your content, word for word, online, how would you respond?

I also told this woman that I thought it was less likely that this kind of plagiarism would happen now, because there are more people reading on the web. True? False? What say you?