Woe is Journalism: Newsweek is ‘Worth’ Less Than a Latte while Plagiarism is Alive and Kicking

It is never a good thing for journalists to hear that a magazine that once generated $30 million in revenues three years ago was sold for maybe a buck.  But at least Newsweek was saved, and that it was, when the Washington Post Company yesterday agreed to sell Newsweek (saddled with tens of millions of dollars in debts and market share losses) to Sidney Harmon, the 91-year-old founder of audio behemoth Harmon Industries and a well-heeled philanthropist.  What was once a highly respected weekly, Newsweek is going through a serious media identity crisis despite the fact that it employs great writers and it even has a web site that is updated multiple times a day despite the “week” in its name.  Back to great writers: does it really matter anymore? (Yes).

More disturbing than the Newsweek “development” is an Aug 1 article in the New York Times titled: “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in the Digital Age.” To summarize: many students think it’s OK to lift passages from Web sites, wrap some original sentences around it, and call it a term paper.  If there’s a really great paragraph on Wikipedia and there’s no author and you couldn’t have said it any better, why not just copy and paste?  Only 29 percent of students consider it “seriously cheating” to do this, according to one study quoted in the NY Times article.  In the article, Teresa Fishman, who heads up the  Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, said: “Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author. It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.” And some of these students, who still want to be journalists despite the fire sales going on for big-branded magazines, perpetuate the mindset.  Just today, it was reported that an article from the NY Daily News was lifted from the Daily Mail of the UK.  The Daily News admitted to an “inadvertent admission of credit” in reporting on Kate Winslet’s divorce to Sam Mendes (really, why do you need to plagiarize a story on this?).

In the PR world, there is disagreement about whether a press release is fair game to reporters. Can you lift a paragraph from a press release, not source it, and package it, byline and all, as a news story? Most PR professionals not only say “yes,” but “yes, please do!”  Generally, it is an accepted practice among lazier journalists to do just that: go shopping in the press release for well-written sentences as a short cut to crafting a good piece of journalism.  There remains a crop of journalists out there who know better and do better, and it is this crop that PR needs to support, foster and build relationships with. They understand good reporting, will be fair and accurate, and make you and your company look good. That is, if you are good.

What do you think: Press releases fair game for journalists to cut and paste?

-Diane Schwartz

  • Deborah Kallgren

    As a former reporter and now PR/PAO, I’ve had reporters lift entire news releases for more than 20 years. In fact, I could direct you to a TV station website that yesterday copied and pasted my entire news release. It’s great to show the boss, but irritating as Hell. One could argue that my news releases are newsier than the average fluff piece. But back to the question: Are they fair game? I don’t think they should be. If I were the reporter, I wouldn’t cut and paste. But the practice is so pervasive, I doubt it will stop. That is, until PR practitioners start writing such bad news releases that reporters are forced to rewrite.