Jon Flatland, columnist and former newspaper owner, exposed as serial plagiarist

Jon Flatland, a columnist, a former president of the North Dakota Newspaper Association and one-time newspaper owner, has been exposed as a serial plagiarist.

When confronted with the evidence gathered by humor writer Dave Fox, Flatland abruptly resigned from his position as interim managing editor of the Times in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota and “quickly and quietly left town,” according to the paper’s publisher.

In a profile last month of Jon Flatland and his wife, whom he met online, the Minnesota native said, “Don’t try to be someone you’re not, because if and when you do meet someone through a service like eHarmony, they’re going to find out pretty quickly you weren’t being honest. Just be yourself.”

It’s unclear how many humor columns of Flatland’s included stolen material, but it appears to go back many years and involves work taken from a variety of columnists. Just based on what has already been discovered, Flatland ranks high on the list of the worst newspaper plagiarists ever.

Fox, who lives in Singapore, was readying Globejotting.com, a new site compiling his travel and humor writing he hopes to launch later this month, when he stumbled across Flatland’s byline on his material. “When I found that he had plagiarized my story,” he says by telephone, “I compiled a list of the humor columns he had written.”

Flatland, Fox says, “would change a few details to localize” pieces he copied. Fox estimated that “80 to 90 percent” of Flatland’s humor columns were plagiarized, based on Google search results.

Fox contacted the publisher of the first piece he found, the Benson County Farmers Press in North Dakota, and didn’t get a response.

Fox continued to Google phrases from other Flatland columns and he kept getting hits. He then notified Rick Bussler, publisher of the Times, and shared his findings. When Flatland learned what was going on, he left the paper’s office, emailed his resignation and then left town.

After contacting Bussler, Fox found other humor writers whose work Flatland plagiarized. Fox “went above and beyond,” says Jim Lee of the Carroll County Times in Maryland, whose Feb. 19 column about the cost of a penny reappeared under Flatland’s byline on Feb. 28.

Erik Deckers, who writes a humor column for 10 papers in Indiana, was also alerted to Flatland’s larceny by Fox. “The story that I told took place in Chicago,” Deckers says by phone. “He added his wife’s name to the piece and changed Chicago to Minneapolis. It almost seems like he wasn’t aware you could Google these things.”

Fox, who attended journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says he thinks “any reporter or writer who uncovers such egregious plagiarism really has an ethical responsibility” to contact others affected.

Bussler on Wednesday issued an apology to readers that details some of the outrageous offenses by Flatland:

Upon further investigation, The Times discovered virtually nothing in Flatland’s weekly columns is his own original work. After doing some digging, we discovered Flatland makes a weekly habit of ripping off humor columns from a wide range of other writers-from independent bloggers to columnists at major daily newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News.

This disturbing trend involving Flatland appears to have been going on for many years. Flatland has worked in the newspaper business for 28 years in several states, including Nebraska, North Dakota and Minnesota. The plagiarized columns have appeared in several publications Flatland has worked for in those states.

Reached by telephone, Bussler says, “It’s been an interesting week.” Flatland, he says, came to the paper last November after he placed an ad with the Minnesota Newspaper Association. Bussler, a police officer in Lakeville, Minnesota, heard from Fox last Wednesday morning and planned to take up the matter with Flatland when he got into the office later that afternoon. He characterizes Flatland’s email of resignation as saying something like, Sorry, it’s true, and I’m out of here. Flatland told Bussler he was leaving newspapering.

Bussler says he’s never dealt with anything like this in the two-and-a-half years he’s owned the paper. He plans to use it as a teaching tool, to “keep pounding into people, showing what took place here.” He’s going to pitch his alma mater, Minnesota State University, Mankato, about speaking about the incident. He’s removed all of Flatland’s columns from the Times website, but not his bylined local news stories. Like many of the people Poynter spoke with for this story, he marvels at how brazen Flatland appears to have been. “I don’t know how he ever thought he’d get by with that,” Bussler says.

The National Society of Newspaper Columnists is also aware of Flatland’s offenses. An alert went out to its members today, written by humor writer Charley Memminger, one of the people whose work was stolen by Flatland. Memminger has reached out to the papers where Flatland worked, and also contacted the new owner of the two North Dakota papers once owned by Flatland. That led to a surprising exchange with none other than Flatland’s daughter:

Interestingly, the editor of the Steele County Press is Flatland’s daughter Lindsie. She was upset to learn of Flatland’s plagiarism and said she would conduct her own investigation of his past columns. In a note to me saying she intended to investigate this matter and write about it in her paper, she also said: Oh and please do not continue to call him my dad. As I said before, I would like to keep business and personal separate.”

Flatland has not responded to any of the people currently trying to reach him for comment and and explanation.

Poynter has obtained a copy of Flatland’s resume, which lists stints at newspapers in Missouri, Minnesota and North Dakota going back to 1985 and numerous awards, including the 2009 North Dakota Newspaper Association Appreciation Award for Best Humor Columnist, the 1998 North Dakota Education Association Media Courage Award, and the 1987 Red Falls, Minn., Jaycee of the Year. In the resume, Flatland says he was educated at Bemidji State University and Thief River Falls Technical Institute in Minnesota.

In his post about Flatland’s plagiarism, Fox provides this biographical sketch of the 47-year-old:

He also served as president of the North Dakota Newspaper Association…and had served on the board of the Minnesota Newspaper Foundation, according to Bussler. In 2011, Flatland accepted an award from the NDNA for a humor column that was in fact written by Jason Offutt, a writer in Missouri. The NDNA has been helpful in investigating Flatland’s activities.

Correction: Fox’s blog post, as originally quoted in this story, said that Flatland served as president of the NDNA for several years; he was president for one year. Also, Dave Fox’s website is named Globejotting.com, not Globejotter.

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  • http://twitter.com/CharlieQuimby Charlie Quimby

    While Flatland stole 97% of the pennies column, he revised a couple sentences slightly, changed the paragraphing and even fixed a misplaced comma in the original.

    If he were in business, shareholders would reward him for his low cost of manufacturing.