Journal Inquirer Accuses Hartford Courant of Plagiarism

‘At best plagiarism, at worst outright theft,’ one newspaper publisher says; Courant covers towns with other papers’ reporting
By Christine McCluskey
Journal Inquirer

Newspaper editors and reporters across the state are noticing a new trend: Their local coverage is being copied daily by the Hartford Courant.

In most cases the Courant has been attributing the reporting to the newspapers being copied, which include the Journal Inquirer, Bristol Press, New Britain Herald, Torrington Register-Citizen, and Waterbury Republican-American.

In some cases the Courant appears to have lifted information from the other papers in its entirety without any attribution.

But either way, editors say, the Courant is using for free and making money from a product other papers pay to produce, and they want it to stop.

Papers notice a change

Bristol Press and New Britain Herald Publisher Michael E. Schroeder says he has not yet fully analyzed how much the Courant has copied the work of his newspapers, but “we know that it’s happening.”

Reporting from the Bristol and New Britain papers has been lifted with “minimal or no attribution” by the Courant, Schroeder says. He says one of his reporters first noticed the copying a few weeks ago.

Schroeder says he’s still deciding how to handle the situation. But, he adds, “we do expect to enforce our rights to the letter of the law. The newspaper that produces copy pays to get it produced. We serve our market very intensely. Any wholesale lifting of the product of our work is at best plagiarism, at worst outright theft.”

Waterbury Republican-American Executive Editor Jonathan Kellogg says he too is still analyzing the Courant’s use of his paper’s reporting, but it is clear to him that “many of their bylined stories are including information from the Republican-American.”

The stories in the Courant taken from the Republican-American have been attributed, Kellogg says. The question for his paper, Kellogg says, is whether the Courant has been using the Republican-American’s work to flesh out its own Internet site.

“There certainly is an extraordinary amount” of Republican-American reporting on the Courant’s Internet site, Kellogg says.

He says the Republican-American does occasionally publish and attribute to the Courant information “that we think our readers need to know about, and we presume they do the same thing.”

But when Kellogg’s reporters and editors see information reported by another paper that they think the Republican-American needs to have, “their first instruction is to match it, not to pick it up, unless the information is of such extraordinary importance” that it must be posted on the Internet right away or there’s an agreement with the other paper, Kellogg said.

“In this day of electronic journalism, it’s pretty hard not to see some of this stuff show up. The thing that we still have to get our heads around is what’s reasonable, and everybody is trying to define that standard,” Kellogg said.

‘Misappropriating’ stories

In a letter sent last week to Courant Publisher Richard J. Graziano, JI Managing Editor Chris Powell said the Courant’s print and Internet editions have been “misappropriating on a wholesale basis local stories published in the Journal Inquirer” since July 27.

Many of the stories were attributed but some were not and therefore amounted to plagiarism, Powell wrote.

“While attribution to the JI of the occasional big story we have broken may be welcome, the Courant’s frequent use of the JI’s work to report ordinary events in the towns in which our circulation overlaps is not welcome – it’s theft of copyrighted material and costly to us,” Powell wrote.

In one case, the Courant ended up getting the national credit for the JI’s work.

Last Saturday the Courant picked up a JI story from the previous day about a bathing-suit-clad burglar in East Hartford, attributing it to the JI. A few hours later, when the Associated Press transmitted a shorter report on the incident, attributing it to the JI, the Courant picked up that shorter version, keeping the attribution.

On Monday, however, when USA Today published a brief report on the same arrest, the story was attributed to the Courant.

When asked about the Courant’s frequent use of the JI’s work, Courant spokeswoman Andrea Savastra e-mailed a response. She said the Courant’s publisher would not be available for comment.

“We are respectful of others’ intellectual property just as we expect them to be of ours,” the Courant statement said. “We take these claims very seriously and are looking into the matter. The Hartford Courant never would intentionally use material from another news source without proper attribution.”

Severe staff cuts

The Courant has shed almost half its news department staff since last year. In June 2008 the Courant cut 60 positions from the news department and eliminated 25 percent of its news pages. The paper’s owner, Tribune Co., filed for bankruptcy in December. In February, 30 of the 100 jobs eliminated in a new round of staff cuts came from the news department, leaving about 135 on the news staff.

The Courant’s greatly increased reliance on other papers’ reporting to cover local news coincides with a memo written by the paper’s interim editor, Naedine Hazell, that was posted July 7 on an Internet site operated by former Courant reporters at http://www.courantalumni.org.

The memo outlined assignment changes in the Courant’s news department, including some positions that still had to be filled. One position was that of “aggregation editor.”

“This person aggregates/collects/rewrites content from around the state, acting almost as an Associated Press bureau for the Courant to broaden the news we offer readers online and in print,” Hazell wrote.

A search of the Courant’s Internet site for “Journal Inquirer reported” showed 44 results, all since July 27. “New Haven Register reported” appeared 26 times; “New Britain Herald reported” appeared 21 times; “Bristol Press reported” appeared 11 times; and “Register-Citizen reported” appeared nine times, all since late July.

The Courant also has an archive section of its Internet site that does not appear to include every story that has been presented on the site. A search of this section was done to illustrate the spike in the use of other newspapers’ reporting.

The searches of the archive section of the Courant’s Internet site showed the phrase “Journal Inquirer reported” three times for 2009, all since July 28.

“New Haven Register reported” appeared seven times in the Courant’s Internet archives for this year – once in February and six times since July 23. “New Britain Herald reported” appeared six times this year, the most recent four since July 22.

Some stories plagiarized

JI editors and reporters say there also have been cases in the past month in which reporting appeared to have been lifted from the JI without attribution or with attribution one day and without it the next.

For example, the JI reported last Tuesday on the Hazardville Water Co.’s proposed rate increase. The next day Courant followed that with an Internet story on the proposal that used information attributed to the JI. But last Thursday the online story was repeated almost word for word in the Courant’s print edition without the attribution to the JI.

A July 31 JI story about a new political action committee in East Hartford began this way: “November’s municipal election just got more competitive. On Thursday, two Republican-endorsed candidates joined with two others rejected by the Republican Town Committee in forming the East Hartford Tea Party ‘09 Political Action Committee.”

Five days later a Courant story with no attribution to the JI started: “Two Republican-endorsed candidates joined with two others rejected by the Republican town committee last week to form the Tea Party ‘09 Political Action Committee.”

The story continued with several other passages similar to passages in the JI story.

Bristol Press and New Britain Herald Executive Editor James H. Smith wrote in a column last Sunday that sometimes “our coverage will appear virtually word for word, but in a shorter version with no credit” in the Courant.

No change, columnist says

In a blog post Sunday on the Courant’s Internet site, columnist Rick Green scoffed at Smith’s complaint and at the idea that there had been any change in reporting practices at the Courant.

“Please. Jim knows as well as anyone that TV, radio, small and big papers, and the AP have been doing this for years,” Green wrote. “It’s obnoxious and you should attribute what you use, but to pretend that the Courant has all of a sudden started on a plagiarism binge is pretty silly.”

But newspapers pay to be part of the Associated Press for the explicit purpose of sharing stories.

And while newspapers know that television and radio stations often use their reporting as fodder, the standards for attribution between newspapers have long been higher.

The JI does not copy the reports of other local media outlets without clear attribution, and, particularly for local stories, responds to stories published by other news organizations by seeking to confirm and add information through its own reporting. Until recently, the Courant appeared to follow the same standard.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says he has received no complaints on the issue and that copyright claims are typically outside his jurisdiction.

“I would certainly investigate any facts indicating illegality, and certainly will be aware and mindful of the issue,” the attorney general added.

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5 Responses

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  2. [...] Journal Inquirer Accuses Hartford Courant of Plagiarism [...]

  3. [...] JI has checked in on the issue of whether the Courant is within its rights to “aggregate” content from [...]

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