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Transcript

Friday, August 08, 2008

KERRY NOLAN:
A year and a half ago, Jody Rosen, music critic for Slate.com, wrote a profile of Jimmy Buffett. It was a mildly snarky look at everyone's favorite songwriter of alcohol‑themed beach sing-alongs, and the piece was posted to Slate's website, and that was that ‑ until a few weeks ago, when Rosen received an email.
JODY ROSEN:
The email said, I thought you should know that your piece on Jimmy Buffett was published, again, under someone else's byline, virtually word for word. The reader sent along a link to the website of a newspaper called The Bulletin, which is an alternative weekly published in Montgomery County, Texas, in the suburbs north of Houston.

And so I clicked on the link, and basically my entire piece was repurposed there. It was very slightly changed ‑ the grammar was tweaked a bit ‑ under the byline "Mark Williams."
KERRY NOLAN:
So what happens then? You click through, you see that your article has been co‑opted.
JODY ROSEN:
I suppose I should say that I was indignant about this, but I was more bewildered and kind of amused, just because of the audacity of it. You know, I thought about it for a second. I said, this guy's clearly some rogue writer. You know, the collegial thing to do is to inform his editor.

So I tracked down the name of the publisher, who I later found out was the publisher and editor, a guy named Mike Ladyman, and I called Mike Ladyman and said, hey, you know, I think you should know that this writer of yours has been plagiarizing. And he said, oh, wow, thanks for telling me. I'll look into that. And that was that.
KERRY NOLAN:
Now you eventually realized that you weren't the only writer being co‑opted by this Mark Williams.
JODY ROSEN:
That's right. After I got off the phone with Ladyman for the first time, I felt like, you know, that was sort of a strange conversation. So I started clicking around the website. This alternative weekly sort of has two types of content. It's generally pop music reviews, criticism, profiles, what have you, and left‑leaning political punditry.

I looked at this profile of Willie Nelson and it seemed suspiciously well‑written to me, and I googled a couple of phrases, and, sure enough, right away I came up with a hit. And, in fact, much of the piece had been taken from an article in The Guardian, the London‑based newspaper ‑ at which point I was off to the races. I just started doing it on every article I turned up.
KERRY NOLAN:
So what did you find?
JODY ROSEN:
I discovered that Mark Williams, who, incidentally, was the only writer for the last several years in The Bulletin who actually is bylined in the paper, all [LAUGHS] of his music pieces for the last several years, since at least 2005, were plagiarized in some fashion.

Many of them were cobbled together from multiple sources — articles that were taken from USA Today and The Boston Globe and The Dallas Observer, which is an alt weekly out of Dallas. There was another piece of mine that was lifted.

And then I found that the political Op‑Eds, which are un‑bylined, for a period of years were mostly taken from the website Salon.com and a disproportionate number of them were the work of Joe Conason, the left‑leaning pundit.
KERRY NOLAN:
Obviously this Montgomery County Bulletin is a small paper, and this is not going to make huge waves across the journalistic community. But do you think this means that if a paper is small enough and nobody's really paying that much attention to it, that it can get away with virtually anything?
JODY ROSEN:
Virtually anything, I don't know, but I think it can get away with a lot. I don't think this is practiced all that often. My feeling is that most journalists have integrity about these issues, and I think this is, you know, kind of a rogue newspaper.

But that said, I have gotten a number of emails from journalists who said, oh, yeah, this happened to me. This happens a lot more often than you think. And, you know, interestingly, in the case of The Bulletin, it is, as I say, a free alternative weekly whose revenues come from paid advertising in the print edition. So it didn't really need to have a website.

And, unfortunately for them, that's what wound up kind of biting them in the tail because they might have gotten away with this very easily had the newspaper not opened itself up to Google searches.
KERRY NOLAN:
Well, in your piece describing this whole episode, you wonder whether The Bulletin is just the natural extension of the age of news aggregation. Those are websites that don't create any original content and instead just link stories from major news outlets. And they also generate huge traffic.

They become big names, but still those sites don't replace bylines, and they always send [LAUGHS] the reader to the original source with a link. Isn't this something completely different?
JODY ROSEN:
You know, it is, and I was being a little cheeky when I said that. And it's funny - I've gotten a lot of angry emails. I wasn't trying to liken the plagiarism of The Montgomery County Bulletin to the legitimate linking practices of news aggregators like The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post and RealClearPolitics.

What I was saying, though, is that in its way, The Montgomery County Bulletin is an aggregator. Its aggregation practices are highly unethical [LAUGHS] and wrong. However, what it is doing is gathering journalism from a variety of sources.

The Bulletin is just about the most endangered journalistic species, right? It's a tiny regional alternative weekly. It certainly is not long for this world, and I think many papers that fit that description aren't, in the age of 21st‑century Internet news. But what struck me is that it was kind of applying 21st‑century guerilla style aggregation to this endangered 20th‑century medium. I don't think they succeeded.
KERRY NOLAN:
Jody Rosen, thanks so much for being with us.
JODY ROSEN:
Thanks.
KERRY NOLAN:
Jody Rosen is the music critic for Slate.
BOB GARFIELD:
We spoke with Mike Ladyman, publisher of the paper, who didn't deny the charges that Mark Williams plagiarized. He did send us some articles by Williams that do check out, as far as we can tell.

Williams also spoke with us and read a statement that attempted to explain it all as an isolated error. An Open Letter to Jody Rosen, it never acknowledged the charges of systematic plagiarism but instead lashed out at the accuser.
MARK WILLIAMS:
It's easy to make fun of our little rag, Mr. Rosen, to call attention to the gaffes and human foibles of a couple of faceless rubes a half a nation away. But despite your grievances with our publication, I feel that we have done some good in our corner of the world.

Through our output of articles through the years, we kept a hateful rogue element of the local Republican Party from taking control of our county library system and ripping the Constitution to shreds. We have reported unblinkingly on the troubled plight of illegal aliens living in our area. In short, we have called attention to a number of injustices in our crappy little town, both great and small.

So there it is, Mr. Rosen. Congratulations on breaking an already fragile soul. Best regards to Jimmy Buffet. Mark Williams, The Bulletin, Conroe, Texas.
BOB GARFIELD:
Mark Williams resigned from The Montgomery County Bulletin this week.