Kouwe didn’t need anti-plagiarism software, just intellectual honesty
If you’re not familiar with the Zachary Kouwe story, you can read the Times‘ Clark Hoyt’s recap here. Basically, Kouwe, a reporter for the New York Times‘ Business section and DealBook blog, stole copy from wire service reports, press releases, and in a few cases, original reporting from the Wall Street Journal, which is how he was busted– the Journal’s editor, Robert Thomson, complained to the Times’ Bill Keller.
Some, including Craig Silverman make the case (or at least supply the facts for others to make) that plagiarism detection software might be a good thing for newsrooms to invest in, to scan their own reporters’ stories for potential sourcing problems. I have to completely disagree. But not because I’m worried about newsrooms turning all Big Brother on their own reporters. No, I think, as evidenced by Kouwe’s lame excuses, both to the media, and to the bloggers from which he stole, he knew what he was doing, and chose to continue doing it, due either to pressure he put on himself, or the newspaper’s editors put on him, productivity-wise. The problem is not one of software detection algorithms, but of human decision making.
Putting myself in Kouwe’s shoes for a second, he says he was filing upwards of 7,000 words a week, of hard-fact copy, for DealBook, the Andrew Ross Sorkin-founded business blog that’s in some ways become the flagship of the Times’ online business reporting. Now, honestly, for the type of bold-faced, big name stories the paper covers, any experienced business editor has to realize that one reporter can’t possibly turn in that much originally reported hard news, consistently, week after week. There aren’t enough hours in the day. Kouwe naturally scanned the wires, blogs, press releases, etc., to stay on top of breaking news; he also read what others had the time to report and posted relevant stories to DealBook. All of that is kosher; that’s how a blog works. But copying and pasting paragraphs of text into your editing software, without including the URL, or a note to yourself of the source, is not being lazy or sloppy; it’s the first step of willful omission of the sourcing, whether it happens in your Word document or WordPress backend.
What’s also not OK is that Kouwe, in his note to Teri Buhl (linked above, which Felix Salmon reported) tried to argue his way out of giving proper sourcing to Buhl’s story, months before his episode with the Journal. I have to assume this is because Kouwe felt the pressure from the newspaper’s editors to provide a certain amount of original reporting in his stories. So he justified copy/pasting excerpts of other people’s work by convincing himself that sourcing wasn’t necessary because he had thrown some of his own reporting on top of the original story. Kouwe had logged several years as a newspaper journalist. He knows that’s not how it works. But there is that pressure. Editors of certain stripe do get annoyed/upset when you attribute reporting to a competitor, especially if they’re of the opinion that you could report the same details yourself if you’d quit being so lazy and pick up the damn phone. But, would Kouwe have called the sources for the story Teri Buhl writes about, if Buhl hadn’t wrote the story in the first place? Almost certainly not. Therefore, Buhl deserved credit for the scoop, even if Kouwe did new reporting on top of it. As did the Journal.
I would bet, with no inside knowledge, that the fiercely competitive Times, especially its Business section, especially DealBook, is loath to credit competitors, because it looks weak. So editors push for original-sounding reporting, and Kouwe massaged wire copy and blog posts to meet deadlines and word counts. Look, there’s only so many ways to report the figures of a deal. If Reuters or Bloomberg already wrote the perfect two sentence graf, why not quote it, attribute it, and be done with it? What’s the point of having a highly paid Times staff writer pull up EDGAR, get the 10-Q, do the math on the numbers, and write his own sentence? Surely he’s got other work to do, 6,990 other words to file?
I’m not absolving Kouwe. I’m just saying plagiarism detection software doesn’t get at the problem of asking a financial reporter to file 7,000 original words per week, on a dozen or more different stories, given the length of typical blog posts. Nor does it get to the problem of why Kouwe felt uncomfortable crediting blogs and newspapers for their reporting.
At The Big Money I was a regular writer of Today’s Business Press; a first-read 700 word summary of the major dailies’ business sections, which is still being written every weekday by my successors. We make no bones about what we do; we read articles, summarize or pull quote them, and direct our readers to the newspapers that wrote the originals, sometimes teasing additional facts or bits of interest that are present in the original story. We cite every publication, use ample quotes, and avoid rewriting the stories as much as possible. If we have observations or new reporting to add, we add it, but we make it clear where we’re getting our information from.
Kouwe, in filing so much copy for DealBook, was clearly being asked to do much of the same thing, in addition to any original reporting he undertook. Except somebody, either Kouwe, Sorkin, or editors at the newspaper, couldn’t stomach the idea of doling out so much credit to other outlets, whereas we at TBM write Today’s Business Press specifically to dole out credit to other outlets. It’s really not so bad, giving credit. It doesn’t cut into your brand equity or make you less trustworthy, especially when you confirm facts and add new ones. Links to bloggers or other media outlets aren’t just nice; they make the world go ’round. If DealBook is going to insist on covering the financial world with the breadth of a great business blog, it should staff up accordingly or accept the idea of being part of an ecosystem of scoops it reports, and attributions to other outlets whose scoops it wants to pick up. If DealBook is going to demand 7,000 words a week from Kouwe’s replacement, they should be prepared to see quite a lot of links, or hire a few more reporters to share some of that load.