Saturday, January 07, 2006

Small Town Newspaper Blues

This past week, veteran newspaper columnist Michael Olesker resigned from the Baltimore Sun due to plagarism allegations. A few comments.

First, the Sun's story can be found here. The AP's report, as carried by the Sun, can be found here. Both reports will disappear behind "for fee" firewall on or about the 18th.

Second, the precise instances of plagarism seem to me to be minor. By way of illustration, the following quote from the NYT:
But the disparity in incomes between the rich and poor grew after having fallen in 2002. Pay did not keep pace with inflation in the South, already the nation's poorest region, in cities, or among immigrants. And the wage gap between men and women widened for the first time in four years.
was tranformed into this in an Olesker column:
The disparity in incomes widened between the rich and the poor. Pay did not keep pace with inflation in the cities, among immigrants, or in the South, already the nation's poorest region. And the wage gap between men and women widened.
This is not exactly a case of a reporter stealing another reporter's scoop. In this case, and, I think, in all of the cases cited, Olesker only had to preface his comments with, "As [name of original reporter] in [name of original publication] has pointed out," to avoid a plagarism charge. I do that all of the time in this blog. However, I operate without two constraints that are imposed on columnists such as Olesker.

The first is that, for all practical purposes, I have no space limitations. My postings can be a long or short as I deem fit. There are no practical limitations imposed by financial considerations, since the marginal cost of each blog posting is zero. However, the size of a newspaper column is narrowly defined. It cannot be either too long or too short. I suspect that these limitations cause attribution to be omitted in some cases. (In fact, I don't even have to set forth the attribution of a quote or a fact in the text of a blog comment. A simple link to the original source is sufficient.)

The second is that newspapers and weblogs take a different approach to the lifting of quotes, etc. Newspapers view all of their work as proprietary. They are, after all, selling their work for a fee. If there is too much direct quotation, even with attribution, readership may decline. It is for this reason that the NYT has put all of its columnists behind a fee wall and virtually all newspapers put a fee wall in place some period of time after an article is initially published.

Bloggers, on the other hand, relish being picked up by other blogs. In general, after all, we're into this for the glory not the money. The benefits of blogs to their authors are directly proportional to the number of readers they have. Quotation of remarks or other sorts of attribution (e.g., Hat Tips) by other blogs tends to increase readership.

Third, the story was apparently initially triggered by the Baltimore City Paper, an "alternative" (read "free, but only weekly") newspaper. While I think that in this case the penalty was disproportinate to the journalistic infraction, I am glad that there was an alternative journalistic source that saw fit to investigate the issue. As local coverage via either print or traditional broadcast media (that is, TV and radio) declines, small markets in particular, such as Baltimore, will feel the loss. Local political and business interests will be able to take virtually any action, short of overt and obvious criminal action, without fearing public scrutiny. This is a very bad development.

Fourth, this is a Baltimore tragedy. Olesker has been a columnist in local papers for almost 30 years. He has a distinct "Baltimore" voice, having attended one of the city's premier public high schools (Baltimore City College), working on, what was then, a nationally-ranked school newspaper, The Collegian, then going on to the University of Maryland and working on its daily paper, The Diamondback. His columns more often than not focused on the people and institutions that make Baltimore, a small town masquerading as a city, unique. True local newspapers are disappearing. As they do, voices such as those of Olesker are disappearing with them. Olesker's resignation accelerates this unfortunate process.


allan said...

Sounds like he is already half way to blogger.

Perhaps someone should let him know.

That way Baltimore could keep him.

Anonymous said...

No doubt. Your not a plagiarist. It would take an infinite number of monkeys with high speed word processors to re-create this stuff. And who would pay for it?