January 31, 2014

Near the end of last year, a small publishing company made a big bet: it purchased a a group of 19 regional papers servicing remote areas of Alaska. The purchase included a printing plant, but the plan at Allen Total Media was to transition to a digital-only company as a way to service remote villages near King Salmon.

“We will be working closely [with] local news providers to consolidate news from as many as 50 communities to facilitate ease of access, and to lower advertiser costs to reach larger numbers of people,” read the Allen Total Media announcement on Facebook. (The page is now unavailable.)

“Consolidate” was an interesting word choice.

The man behind Allen Total Media is A William “Bill” Allen, a would-be media mogul who has attracted scorn and ridicule from publishers in Pennsylvania for helping himself to other people’s reporting and and “consolidating” it under seemingly fake bylines on his websites.

Along with his Alaska gambit, Allen operates a website out of Greenville, Pa.: the Mercer County Free Press. He claims it’s the result of a consolidation of five regional papers into one offering.

It’s actually the latest Web address he calls home for his online operation, which inevitably features the same content mix: reprints of press releases from sources (see here/here), news stories lifted in whole from other local media (see here/here), news stories lifted verbatim from major wire services (see here/here), shorter items that appear to be rewritten from elsewhere, with typos added (See: “A Boli [sic] Alert Has Been Issued For Brookfield This Afternoon”), and the occasional joke/meme that makes its way around the Web.

Often, the lifted articles are given new bylines to suggest a staffer wrote them (giving it an added element of plagiarism), or carry the dubious credit “Shared Content.”

Even the name Allen Total Media is unoriginal: Trib Total Media is a major publisher in Pennsylvania.

Screenshot of the Mercer County Free Press, featuring a supposedly fired intern’s byline and a headline typo

Allen’s  efforts came to my attention when Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star, emailed me this week to ask if I knew anything about Allen’s operation. He’d helped himself to a Star story and published it on his Pennsylvania website, MercerCountyFreePress.com.

She reached out to Allen — and he promptly blamed an intern. English also tweeted about it at the time, and today published a column about Allen’s operation.

“While I own the newspaper, I do not materially run it on a day to day basis, I spoke to our editor, and instructed him to issue a written warning to the intern, with no second warning,” Allen wrote English in an email. “Apparently they do not teach copy right law in his curriculum.”

“Copy right” law doesn’t appear to take up much of Allen Total Media’s time, either.

19 papers or 5?

Allen enraged one Pennsylvania media company enough that it went public with its discontent. The Thomas Organization, which publishes the Mercer Weekender and other papers in northwestern Pennsylvania, issued a press release in November:

Over the past two weeks it has come to our attention that content from our staff has been plagiarized and falsely published on the website www.mercercountyfreepress.com as their own content. I had a conversation with the Administrator of this website. He was abrasive and unwilling to respect the boundaries of intellectual property. While my staff and I strongly believe in providing free local news to the masses, I disagree with this enterprise’s complete lack of ethics and integrity.As demonstrated by every article posted on his website today, the Administrator of this website has committed a felony by printing false news, stolen articles, and stolen pictures.  Instead of giving credit where it is due, the gentleman continues to publish the content as his own.  By my count, he is violating the rights of more than ten television stations, six newspapers, and a dozen news websites.

Allen and I spoke by phone and he also sent me a voluminous email about his company’s efforts in Alaska. One thing he sought to correct in the email was his initial claim that the Alaska operation included 19 local papers:

We actually only publish 5 weeklies for local towns in the area, but have 19 communities we do printing work for as part of our existing contracts, I wanted to clarify for you on this issue, when this was written we were under the impression that the 19 communities we did work for were newspapers, however, 5 are news products, other items look more like news letters, and or printed items that get auto addressed then mailed via the post offices new direct mail to all residents in a zip code.

When we got on the phone, he was unable to name the five “news products.”

“You know, I don’t know what they are, I just know that we print for like five different people,” he told me.

He further backtracked, saying that his acquisition really only involves the printing facility and the name, Alaska Daily News. What’s the name of the printing company?

“It doesn’t, it’s just Allen Total Media — it’s not, like, open to the public,” he said. “It’s just a person who had printing presses and that kind of thing. I’m not even sure when they started that business that they even paid taxes on it, to be honest with you.”

Allen told me he bought it from “a couple of guys who are, I dunno, American Indians or something.”

In fact, there are no papers, nor is there a printing plant, according to a public media journalist in the area, and a publisher of the main paper for the region.

“I recently heard some complaints about this organization related to them using content produced by the Alaska Public Radio Network,” emailed Mike Mason, who works at KDLG, the public radio station operating in the same region. “Before that I had never heard of the organization nor ever seen the website. I’ve never seen any papers out of the King Salmon area. The only paper in the area is the Bristol Bay Times and it’s not published locally.”

At the Bristol Bay Times, president and publisher Jason Evans replied by email to say, “There is not a printing press where they claim as far as I know and we in the industry don’t know anything about them.”

Screenshot of Allen’s Alaska Daily News.

No papers, no plant, no reporters, it seems. Just Bill Allen, what appear to be fake bylines, other people’s reporting, and what he calls a “disruptive” business model.

A ‘disruptive’ model

“News is not owned by any particular individual just because they originate the story,” he said.

I explained I’d seen a raft of wire and local media stories on his site, word-for-word with no attribution. I could send examples.

“I don’t really give a shit what you send me,” he said, and kept talking.

Eventually he began to soften and even admit mistakes.

“Those articles are not word for word,” he initially said, but continued, “There may have been some originally but we’ve changed that.”

That was a theme in our discussion: one statement followed by something baldly contradictory.

“We have a good thing going here,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to screw around with lawyers.”

And then: “… so, if they take me to court, I can keep ’em busy for a long time, just wallpapering ’em with crap and motions and whatever and they’re going to spend $100,000 on a lawyer, or $50,000 on a lawyer when the total of this company that I own doesn’t generate crap for revenue at this point.”

But there was seemingly some good news: Allen told me that in part due to the reaction from the Star he in the past two weeks deleted roughly 600 articles from his site(s) that came from elsewhere; he added widgets to the Pennsylvania site that offer the kind of world and national news coverage he used to offer by cutting and pasting.

Allen also very recently started adding in links back to the original source when he takes content form other sites. (Many of these articles are still word-for-word and may be too long to be covered by fair use.)

That’s why he now believes there’s no reason for any lawyers to get involved — though of course he’s happy to inundate them with “crap” if they do. (“I used to be a bill collector,” he said, I assume as a way to indicate he knows how to drive people crazy.)

Allen told me that he has one staff writer in Pennsylvania, Talia Winner. Her byline is on a number of articles on the site.

I told him I couldn’t find anyone by that name in the area. I asked him directly if she really exists and after a brief pause he said, “Yes, she exists…. I dunno if she doesn’t list her name because someone might call her on the phone and yell at her,” adding that it often happens to him.

Allen had told English he has a male editor who runs the Pennsylvania paper on a daily basis. But that person never came up when I asked Allen how many people he has on staff, or at any other time during our discussion.

AP and others investigating

It didn’t take long for English and me to turn up evidence of Allen’s serial infringement, or to find publishers that know of Allen and his unique perspective on consolidation and copyright.

The Associated Press confirmed to me that Allen’s company is not a client, even though he often features AP copy published verbatim under varying bylines. Allen told me and English he has many interns who work for free, many of whom come from Craigslist and a local college. Which college? He wouldn’t say.

It’s entirely plausible that interns are working with him, but neither English nor I could turn up evidence to back up his assertion that others are involved in the content operation — and that they’re the ones to blame for the manifold infringement.

Along with finding AP copy on his Pennsylvania site, I quickly turned up a Reuters article with the same byline that graced stolen AP and Toronto Star stories: Mike Hill. This is the intern Allen said he fired after English pointed out the theft of the Star article.

Yet, “Hill” wrote and published another story this week after Allen supposedly fired him. (The original version of that article can be found on an Ohio TV station’s website.)

“In a telephone interview this week, [Allen] again blamed the fired intern ‘Mike Hill’ for plagiarizing the Star’s work,” English writes. “He told me he could not recall details about this intern’s background or provide a phone number for him …..”

It seems Allen can’t even be bothered to rotate his almost certainly fake bylines after being busted.

(He told me he’d given Hill something of a second chance, by letting him write things but only publishing them after Allen could look them over. Again, what happened to the site editor he’d told English about?)

At the Mercer Weekender, a publication in Allen’s area, a reporter has been tracking the ongoing thievery in a Word document that is currently four pages long. He shared it with English. Over at the Sharon Herald, a daily, they provided English with a file of clippings about Allen’s previous websites and businesses.

“There are people like at the Sharon Herald — these guys have hated me for 10 years,” Allen told me.

The word has apparently been out on Allen for a while now in the local media community.

Four area news executives told me Allen’s websites have published their content without permission,” English wrote in her Star column. “… Both The Associated Press and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are looking further into Allen’s operation.”

Allen is by no means the first person to throw up websites, grab whatever content he can find, and try to earn some money with display ads and affiliate links. He laid out the monetization strategy for me in one of his emails.

“The idea is not to be a news publisher, but rather to attract high amounts of traffic to the site, where they will see affiliate advertising which we earn a percentage of the sale when a reader clicks on the site, buys a product, has it shipped to their location, and we earn a commission,” he wrote. “As opposed to the normal journalistic model where papers try to sell news, content, and ads to sponsor the news.”

Large operations like AP and Reuters can only track down and issue takedown notices to so many of these people. Even local media seem unable to squash the efforts of a committed plagiarist and copyright scofflaw.

The best we can do is apply pressure and raise awareness so he reforms his ways — as he now claims he has.

“I understand how people feel about us and I don’t care that they’re angry because we’re trying to accomplish something here,” he said. “Along the way we’re making a lot of mistakes, probably, doing it the way we’re doing it but we’re trying to rectify that situation.”

It also helps to put the word out so that articles like this one and English’s column rank high in search results when people go looking for the Mercer County Free Press, Alaska Daily News, or Allen Total Media.

Of course, it would be easy for Allen to replace those names with new ones, and launch new websites promising readers his current tag line: “Always Free To Read, No Limit On Stories, No Subscription Charge’s” [sic].

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
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