Let me share a little story. It was probably 2004 or so and I was the Sports Editor for a small newspaper in Southeastern Illinois. We probably had a circulation of 2,000 or so in our county — population a little shy of 7,000. You wouldn’t think a county with a population that small could support two newspapers and ultimately you’d be right, but in the early 2000’s, another paper battled us for news and scoops in our cozy little county. Sometimes we even had employees that went from one to the other. The woman I’ll reference here as “Helen” was one such employee. She was with our paper when I first came to the area and left after about a year and went to the competition for a couple years.
Being that we were both weekly papers in the same county that covered the same news, there was always a certain amount of similarity in our content. It was unavoidable. But we never stooped to copying. That was wrong and we all knew it. Even Helen…I thought. She was never my favorite, but plagiarism (especially from newspapers just 10 miles apart) was unthinkable in my mind.
Then it happened.
I wrote up an article about a baseball camp that was going to be happening a few weeks off. A former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher was going to be coming, so it was a BIG DEAL to our little county. There were a lot of details and moving parts to the deal, so by the time I finished writing up the article, it did read a bit like a press release, but I had quotes included from the organizer, a man who is a friend of mine. It wasn’t just a PR piece like what the local hospital or bank sent us. This was actual journalism. To be fair, it wasn’t amazing work by any stretch, but I spent time and effort to get it done, so I’ll count it as such.
We printed our story in the paper. Job done.
The next week, the competition ran their story. Two things stood out — first, it was MY STORY. She moved a few words around, but the quotes were there, the content was the same, the structure was intact. It probably 98 percent of what I had done, and any changes lessened the quality of the original story. The second thing, and the thing that was the cherry on top — she put HER NAME on it.
HER NAME. On MY STORY.
I wanted to be ill. I…I didn’t know what to do. I really didn’t have a lot of options. It was two newspapers that maybe a couple hundred people read each week. I think my boss lodged a complaint, but nothing was going to happen. I wasn’t going to sue them and they weren’t going to retract anything.
But it didn’t change how I felt. I had something that I had done. A piece of my creativity — however small — was stolen from me and someone else’s name had been slapped over the top. Whatever respect I had left for Helen was gone. Instantly.
Again, being the smalltown newspaper, I understood that we often essentially shared news. Since I had written the article almost as a press release, I probably would have even accepted it had it been published anonymously. But the fact that Helen claimed it as her own. That she put her freakin’ name as the byline was what really ticked me off.
Nowadays I’m a high school teacher and I see this struggle every year. Students want to take the easy way out and claim others’ work as their own. I get it, but there isn’t any recognition of the person on the other side. What about the person who wrote the essay, the article, the randomly Googled piece in the first place? They put forth work and effort into it — work that student is now sloughing off by taking the easy way out.
So as someone who has been on that side of it — don’t plagiarize. It really sucks.