Can plagiarism be a byproduct of progress?

That's the contradictory question I'm pondering after a conversation with Matt DeRienzo, group editor of Journal Register Company's publications in Connecticut. On Tuesday, that group of papers suffered its second incident of plagiarism in less than three months.

As with the first incident, the company shared details publicly. That's far from the usual course of action for an incident of plagiarism. Back in November, I praised DeRienzo, company editor in chief Jim Brady and CEO John Paton, who all tweeted about it at the time.

"Moments like this shatter our communities' trust in us," tweeted Paton. "We will work our guts out to re-earn it."

When the second incident was revealed this week at the Fairfield Minuteman, DeRienzo wrote a blog post to explain what happened.

"It is particularly troubling that this happened after a colleague was terminated for plagiarism at a sister publication in Connecticut less than three months ago," he wrote. "After that incident, staff was reminded of the sacred responsibility we have in staying true to journalistic ethics and the grave consequences of violating that trust."

Two incidents in less than three months is troubling for any organization. The fact that they occured within a group of papers at the forefront of the massive transition taking place at the Journal Register Company raises a question: Is there a connection between the transition to digital first (the strategy) and Digital First (the company) and these incidents?

I asked DeRienzo that question.

Culture Change

DeRienzo began by offering some background on the transition taking place for editorial staff. Consider this a mini-history of editorial priorities and culture at the Journal Register papers:

We’re a company, which I think you know, that was an acquisition company run by accountants and investment firms that bought up newspapers all over the country. Under that prior leadership there was really no emphasis on journalism coming from the top. Over the years that kind of put a culture in place, though in some individual papers there were great journalists and great editors.

So when John Paton came on board as CEO he was a former journalist, which surprised a lot of us pleasantly. And one of [the] first things he said publicly to our editors was, 'We are not going to let advertisers dictate our content.' That’s something we had never heard from top leadership.

Why is that relevant to plagiarism? Under the old leadership, and culture, there's no way a paper would have publicly shared an incident of plagiarism, according to DeRienzo, who has been with the Journal Register Company since 2004. The offender probably wouldn't have been fired, either.

"I can't think of an example where we would have announced anything publicly like that before," he said. "In fact, an editor might get fired for being public about something like that in the old days because it‘s about protecting the corporate reputation. [Today] we believe the corporate reputation is improved by being transparent in the long run."

That fits with the caveat I put in my 2011 plagiarism/fabrication round-up:

... it’s impossible to know how many incidents of plagiarism and fabrication go unreported every year. That’s the scariest data of all: the ones we don’t know about, the ones that have been successfully hidden from readers and viewers and listeners.

Journal Register is embracing transparency, so we know about these two incidents of theft. That's a good thing. It's also one way that plagiarism -- or, at least the public acknowledgment of it --  is a sign of progress. It's also progress that the company is willing to fire employees for egregious offenses. (This most recent example was basically a completely stolen article, cobbled together from two competing papers.)

But there's still that question of whether there's a connection to the culture change DeRienzo highlighted, beyond transparency. Here's our exchange:

Silverman: The company previously had a reputation for not necessarily being able to attract the best talent, and so I think there's perhaps a sense of, "Are people being pushed too hard under Digital First?" Or there's another take, which is that perhaps there’s some holdover from previous ownership where people really aren’t at the top of their game, to put it nicely.

DeRienzo: We have 120 newsroom people in Connecticut and have some incredible people working hard and who have the utmost ethics. That’s the norm and we owe it to them to not tolerate this among anyone in the room.

This is a natural process as we improve our journalism that we will weed out problems like this. The funny thing about this is that this [plagiarized] story the other day appeared only in print ... In this case it’s not someone who was exactly pushing the digital envelope.

Me... So is this part of the transition or part of cleaning house?

It could be one of those or it could be completely isolated. I’m not ready to say either way. Or it could be a little bit of both ... As we hold people to a really firm high standard this kind of thing will shake out.

Raising the standard means some people will not measure up. Following that logic, the company is better off shedding underperformers and people who can't or won't meet professional standards. Firing them publicly may seem harsh, but that's part of making progress with transparency. In that sense, these incidents of plagiarism in part signal the company's commitment to better journalism.

New Standard

That standard was articulated and reinforced after the first incident when Steve Buttry, the company's director of community engagement and social media, wrote a blog post to outline ethical attribution and the unacceptability of plagiarism. (Disclosure: Buttry and I delivered a paid training session together for Georgetown University, and I've been an unpaid speaker for other classes of his.) DeRienzo circulted that post to his staff after the incident.

DeRienzo also said he has spoken with Buttry about finding other ways to communicate the standards of linking and attribution and "explain the best practices of the link economy."

Buttry added some additional thoughts by email:

Research shows that cheating is so widespread in society that newsrooms cannot be naive about the likelihood that some journalists will cheat. We need to be vigilant in training so that we make sure that our employees will understand our standards. We hope that everyone is honest and will attribute appropriately because of their training and their own ethics. But if anyone is unclear or sees any gray areas (linking, attribution of press releases, etc.), we want to educate them. And if anyone is just dishonest, we want them to understand that we take this seriously, so we will deter them.

After the Kendra Marr plagiarism incident at Politico, the organization implemented an admirable training program for reporters. It sounds as though the Journal Register is looking for ways to offer training and education to help people understand what is and isn't acceptable, and provide guidance on attribution.

That's essential for prevention. I also think company leadership understand that future incidents won't be placed within a context of progress and change. Then it's simply a matter of plagiarism, and all the nastiness that implies.

Correction: This post originally included a misspelling of Matt DeRienzo's name as "DeRenzio," and it incorrectly stated he's been with the Journal Register Company since 1994, rather than 2004.