How Google Caught a Plagiarizing Newspaper Editor and Ended His Career

I’m baffled at the fact that, when we live in a day and age where you can find anything — anything! — on Google, people will still try to plagiarize and steal your stuff.

It just happened to me yesterday, when I was alerted by a fellow humor writer, Dave Fox, that 28-year newspaper veteran, Jon Flatland, had stolen at least two of my past humor columns, word for word, and passed them off as his own.Photo of a raccoon on a trash can

To make matters worse, Flatland had done the same to Dave and four other writers, including a friend of mine.

Flatland didn’t just paraphrase our ideas, or copy a joke or two. He copied-and-pasted entire columns, changed a couple of details, like replacing his wife’s name for my wife’s, or changing the name of a city where an event took place.

Dave immediately got in touch with the publisher, as well as a state newspaper association who had given the writer an award for best humor last year (I’d love to know whose columns actually won the award for him).

One of the writers also called Flatland up and confronted him. Flatland said he didn’t believe he had plagiarized, but that he had found the stories in an old folder, thought he had written them, and published them as his own.

I’m not buying it. One of my stolen stories, ‘Twas the Month Before Christmas, was written in the exact same rhythm and rhyming pattern as the original Night Before Christmas. You don’t forget writing something like that, as much as I’ve tried.

Apparently Flatland knew something was about to hit the fan, because he sent an email of resignation to the publisher — admitting to only one column, even though we have proof of eight — and was gone before the publisher ever got into work. The publisher has since removed all of Flatland’s columns, and has notified his state’s newspaper association about the incident, blackballing Flatland and preventing him from working in newspapers ever again.

That all went down yesterday. I heard about it at 11:30 am, and by 11 pm, it was done. A career died in less than 12 hours.

What’s sad about this is Flatland was a 28 year veteran of the industry. He’s someone who knew better. He was one of the people who was supposed to teach young writers all about journalistic ethics. Flatland has had a long and impressive career in the community newspaper business, and has been the president of at least two state newspaper associations. So his name has carried a little weight in his corner of the world.

And he ended his career in disgrace, because he violated the one rule, the one foundational principle, the entire media business is built on: don’t steal someone else’s shit. In fact, Rule No. 9 on the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is never plagiarize.

I feel sympathy for Flatland. His career has ended in the most embarrassing manner possible. Former colleagues and association members will be talking about him, shocked that he would do the one thing that journalists are never, ever supposed to do.

But what makes it so stupid and senseless is that WE CAN FIND THESE THINGS OUT! Holy sweet jebus, it’s so freaking easy to find anything on the Internet! There are entire companies that have built multi-billion dollar empires by making it possible to do exactly that.

Want to see Portlandia’s “Put a Bird On It” video? Google it.

Want the lyrics to Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida? Google it.

Want to see if a phrase you used in a humor column in 2006 has been used anywhere else? Google. It.

Enter a unique or uncommon phrase from one of your posts or columns, and put quotes around it. That tells Google to look for exactly that phrase, with all those words, in that particular order.

If the phrase, along with most of your words other words, shows up without your name on it, it was stolen. If it doesn’t, it wasn’t.

It truly is that easy. And why Flatland didn’t know that or couldn’t figure it out is probably the most staggeringly disappointing part of this whole mess. He didn’t think he would get caught. He didn’t think that people might/could/would look to see if any of their stuff was appearing anywhere that it shouldn’t be.

And now, because Flatland didn’t know that one basic fact — that, and he’s a column-stealing thief who benefitted financially from my years of hard work, while I got nothing — he’s ended his career in the worst possible way, ensuring he’s never going to work in that industry again.

If you get nothing else from this column, please burn these two lessons into your memory forever.

First, don’t steal people’s work.

Second, if you do steal, please know that there are giant f—ing search engines that will find you out, no matter what tiny part of the globe you’re in.

Just write your own stuff, or don’t turn it in at all.

Photo credit: Adam Thomas (Flickr)

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.

    Comments

    1. Dewey Chaffee says:

      Holy crud. Well, here’s my response to this whole situation:

      I’m baffled at the fact that, when we live in a day and age where you can find anything — anything! — on Google, people will still try to plagiarize and steal your stuff.
      It just happened to me yesterday, when I was alerted by a fellow humor writer — we’ll call him Dave becaue that’s his name — that a newspaper editor — we’ll call him Gene; not his name — had stolen at least two of my past humor columns, word for word, and passed them off as his own.
      To make matters worse, Gene had done the same to Dave and four other writers, including a friend of mine.
      Gene didn’t just paraphrase our ideas, or copy a joke or two. He copied-and-pasted entire columns, changed a couple of details, like replacing his wife’s name for my wife’s, or changing the name of a city where an event took place.
      Dave immediately got in touch with the publisher, as well as a state newspaper association who had given the writer an award for best humor last year (I’d love to know whose columns actually won the award for him).
      One of the writers also called Gene up and confronted him. Gene said he didn’t believe he had plagiarized, but that he had found the stories in an old folder, thought he had written them, and published them as his own.
      I’m not buying it. One of my stolen stories, ‘Twas the Month Before Christmas, was written in the exact same rhythm and rhyming pattern as the original Night Before Christmas. You don’t forget writing something like that, as much as I’ve tried.
      Apparently Gene knew something was about to hit the fan, because he had submitted his resignation via email — admitting to only one column, even though we have proof of eight — and was gone before the publisher ever got into work. The publisher has since removed all of Gene’s columns, and has notified his state’s newspaper association about the incident, blackballing Gene and preventing him from working in newspapers ever again.
      That all went down yesterday. I heard about it at 11:30 am, and by 11 pm, it was done. A career died in less than 12 hours.
      What’s sad about this is Gene was a 26 year veteran of the industry. He’s someone who knew better. He was one of the people who was supposed to teach young writers all about journalistic ethics. Gene has had a long and impressive career in the community newspaper business, and has been the president of at least two state newspaper associations. So his name has carried a little weight in his corner of the world.
      And he ended his career in disgrace, because he violated the one rule, the one foundational principle, the entire media business is built on: don’t steal someone else’s shit. In fact, Rule No. 9 on the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is never plagiarize.
      I feel sympathy for Gene. His career has ended in the most embarrassing manner possible. Former colleagues and association members will be talking about him, shocked that he would do the one thing that journalists are never, ever supposed to do.
      But what makes it so stupid and senseless is that WE CAN FIND THESE THINGS OUT! Holy sweet jebus, it’s so freaking easy to find anything on the Internet! There are entire companies that have built multi-billion dollar empires by making it possible to do exactly that.
      Want to see Portlandia’s “Put a Bird On It” video? Google it.
      Want the lyrics to Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida? Google it.
      Want to see if a phrase you used in a humor column in 2006 has been used anywhere else? Google. It.
      Enter a unique or uncommon phrase from one of your posts or columns, and put quotes around it. That tells Google to look for exactly that phrase, with all those words, in that particular order.
      If the phrase, and all your words around it, shows up without your name on it, it was stolen. If it doesn’t, it wasn’t.
      It truly is that easy. And why Gene didn’t know that or couldn’t figure it out is probably the most staggeringly disappointing part of this whole mess. He didn’t think he would get caught. He didn’t think that people might/could/would look to see if any of their stuff was appearing anywhere that it shouldn’t be.
      And now, because Gene didn’t know that one basic fact — that, and he’s a column-stealing thief who benefitted financially from my years of hard work, while I got nothing — he’s ended his career in the worst possible way, ensuring he’s never going to work in that industry again.
      If you get nothing else from this column, please burn these two lessons into your memory forever.
      First, don’t steal people’s work.
      Second, if you do steal, please know that there are giant f—ing search engines that will find you out, no matter what tiny part of the globe you’re in.
      Just write your own stuff, or don’t turn it in at all.

      • Dewey,

        That was funny. It took me a minute to work out what you had done. I started reading it, and said to myself, “But wait a minute, he’s just copying and past—ooooooh, I get it now!”

        I’m from Indiana, you need to give me a little extra time for these things.

        Well done!