You can’t follow incidents of college plagiarism without keeping one eye on IvyGate, a blog that chronicles weirdness and excesses at some of the nation’s most selective universities.
IvyGate may not share the same name recognition as the schools it covers, but Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Nick Summers, who co-founded the site with Slate columnist Christopher Beam in 2006, says the site has nonetheless “sort of proved this weirdly effective pipeline into New York and D.C. media jobs.” Some of the site’s editorial alums include Maureen O’Connor, Adam Clark Estes, Dan D’Addario and Jim Newell.
In a comment pitching himself to Summers and Beam as editor, J.K. Trotter described the site as “less a gossip sheet and more a running tally on the class antagonisms evident in all of higher education but concentrated especially in at least four of Ivy League’s member schools.” He also referred to a plagiarism scandal that struck IvyGate itself.
“IMMEDIATELY EMAIL ME,” Summers replied.
Trotter, who goes by Keenan offline, began as a contributor in January and became editor in February. Peter Jacobs, a senior at Cornell, came on as co-editor the next month, when they had their first brush with reporting on plagiarism. Trotter received a tip that Jake Shuster, a candidate for president of the University of Pennsylvania’s Undergraduate Assembly, had plagiarized campaign materials from an incumbent. Trotter compiled the similarities, then emailed the candidate, who promptly changed his website, telling Trotter his platform was “constantly evolving.” Shuster later lost to another candidate by 14 votes.
Since then the site has busted a Columbia Spectator writer for plagiarizing from The New York Times and found that Liane Membis drew what IvyGate called an “unusually lengthy correction” on one of her pieces for the Yale Daily News before she was caught fabricating quotes at The Wall Street Journal. Trotter also dug up some of Jonah Lehrer’s student poetry, spotlighting one poem in which he declared “I am lying and I am a liar.”
IvyGate trawls the Ivy waters for more than intellectual theft — last week featured a post about a Yale student appearing on a game show as well as two pieces about Jacobs’ discovery that a young woman had been filming pornographic videos in a Cornell library.
IvyGate as a college Gawker
Trotter, 23, didn’t attend an Ivy League school. He graduated from St. John’s College in Maryland this past May and lives in a sublet in Palm Beach, Fla., where he does freelance design work. He says he’s terrifically inspired by Gawker’s early days, when its first editor, Elizabeth Spiers, wrote about what Trotter calls “the excesses of Manhattan culture that were clearer to her as an outsider.”
Trotter’s vision of the site, similarly, was based on “the editorial sensibility of being an insider and an outsider, and I thought I could bring a hopefully more anthropological viewpoint. I know that sounds high-minded for a gossip website that blogs about porn.”
Summers says he “was thrilled” about Trotter’s non-Ivy background. “That’s never been a requirement for writing the site, and I was glad there was finally somebody who wasn’t an Ivy League student. It can be done by anyone.”
They met for drinks in New York — “I just wanted to meet him once in person before giving him the keys to a lawsuit magnet,” Summers says.
Trotter’s “probably the smartest editor the site has had just in terms of pure brains,” he says. “He’s tireless in kind of a crazy way. I’ve been really surprised that TPM or Mother Jones or Gawker hasn’t snapped Keenan up yet; I think he would plug in well to one of those places.”
Trotter thinks the perfect IvyGate post “reveals the tension between the meritocratic connotations of the Ivy League and the plutocratic connotations of the Ivy League.” Both people who’ve been more or less bred to land in Ivies and students who’ve gotten there by hard work are haunted by fears of inauthenticity, he believes. Why any of those people plagiarize, he says, is an utter mystery.
“To get into the Ivy League you essentially have to take a long, long series of very careful steps in your life,” Trotter says. “For these people to get there and make this step that seems easily avoidable … it’s not like they’re donating a kidney. They’re writing an article. It’s something that doesn’t need to exist in the world in the first place.”
Jacobs thinks plagiarism is often a result of misbalanced priorities. “People see working at a school newspaper as an extracurricular,” he says. If student journalists get busy with schoolwork, he theorizes, “the work at the paper suffers and it becomes a situation where they feel like if they need to sacrifice the quality of one, it might become the extracurricular.”
Those hardworking students feed IvyGate, too. Trotter says the site is dependent on tipsters; Jacobs is trying to boost its regular freelancing corps with students around the Ivies who can keep an eye out for stories. “Peter is writing about seven schools he’s never attended, and I’m writing about eight schools I’ve never attended,” Trotter says.
Trotter reports his stories between paying gigs. He says he was paid “$400, like, four months ago” by the site’s business manager. (“All the money the site makes, which is very little, goes to whoever is writing it at the time,” Summers says.) Trotter likes talking to sources on the phone — in fact, he was once a 911 operator, a job he says taught him “how to not interrogate but to prod people for information.” But mostly they use email, or extensive searches through online records, which is how Trotter found Jonah Lehrer’s poetry.
Likewise, Jacobs stumbled on the story of Cornell students who gave fake names to a New York Times reporter by noticing fellow students snickering about the coup on social media; he then looked up every name in the article in a Cornell database and contacted Trotter when he found out three people didn’t exist.
As with several IvyGate posts about Ivy mayhem, that piece was picked up by outlets like The Huffington Post, USA Today and Poynter. The newspapers at Ivies sometimes follow, too, though Jacobs says he thought it was “a little bizarre” that The Cornell Daily Sun didn’t credit IvyGate when it wrote about the porn video the blog unearthed. (Jacobs still writes an arts column for The Sun.)
Summers says he and Beam operate the site as “purely an amusement” and devote between several hours and several days per year to running it. He expects Trotter will get snapped up by another outlet soon, he says, giving the blog “its annual shove to a life or death moment.”
Sidebar: 10 ways to prevent plagiarism, fabrication at college newspapers (and in any newsroom)