Plagiarism in east Texas

Plagiarism, that slowly dying concept that writers who make money off their words cling to, has reared its ugly head in Montgomery County, Texas, according to Jody Rosen, a music critic for Slate.

In an article published yesterday, Rosen tells of how he discovered that the Bulletin, a small, weekly alternative newspaper, had clipped paragraphs from an article on Jimmy Buffet he’d written for Slate. One of the Bulletin’s writers reworked Rosen’s words into a preview for an upcoming Buffet concert in Texas.

After an unsatisfying phone call with the Bulletin’s editor — whose number was hard to find since the online version of the paper didn’t have a masthead — Rosen began digging deeper into the Bulletin’s archives. Rosen suggests that what he discovered there could statistically be “the greatest plagiarism scandal in the annals of American journalism.”

Rosen found that for years the paper has stitched most of its articles (as well as its letters to the editor and its quotations) together out of already published material, all without a line of attribution.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, as he e-mailed his findings to the editor of the paper, Rosen found that the Bulletin’s online archives were shrinking as the plagiarized articles were removed. Now, the Bulletin’s entire Web site is down.

I applaud investigative journalism like this that leads to a real world result, but is the Bulletin dead? I doubt it. Maybe there will even be a printed version this week, full of stolen articles sewed together like Frankenstein’s monster. If they persist, though, the Bulletin’s staff may find they have something in common with the good Dr. Frankenstein: their abominations will hunt them to the ends of the earth too (or the Web, as the case may be).

Update: At TechDirt, Mike Masnick thinks the whole plagiarism thing is blown a little out of proportion. He writes that the Bulletin is “the mashup or mixtape of newspapers.” While he thinks what the little paper did was sleazy and poorly put together, he gives its staff some fair words: “perhaps all this really tells us is that there’s a market for taking good content from all over the place, and “mashing” it all up together in a useful manner — which is exactly what some aggregator sites already do.”


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