Dude, You Stole My Article

How I investigated a suspicious alt weekly.

Editor’s Note: The Bulletin’s Web site appears to have been taken down since this article was posted. All links to Bulletin content in this article now lead to screen grabs captured by Slate when the Bulletin site was still live.

The saga began in the classical manner: with an e-mail about Jimmy Buffett. Several weeks ago, I received a note from a Slate reader drawing my attention to an article published in March 2008 in the Bulletin, a free alternative weekly in Montgomery County, Texas, north of Houston. “I believe your … profile of musician Jimmy Buffett was reproduced wholesale without attribution,” the reader wrote. “I thought you should know.” I followed a link to “Spring Fling: Concerts That Make the Holiday a Time to Party* by Mark Williams, a feature pegged to concert appearances by Buffett and country singer Miranda Lambert. Sure enough, the article included 10 and a half paragraphs copied nearly verbatim from “A Pirate Looks at 60,” my Slate essay of Jan. 9, 2007. My words were slightly reworked in places, and further enlivened by eccentric use of em dashes and semicolons—a hallmark, I would learn, of the Williamsian style. But the original text was largely unaltered. For example, my Slate piece began this way:

Jimmy Buffett turned 60 this past Dec. 25, a day he undoubtedly spent in a lower latitude, in a meditative frame of mind, in close proximity to a tankard of Captain Morgan. At least that was the case with birthday number 50, which, as recounted in his autobiography A Pirate Looks At Fifty (1998), Buffett celebrated by piloting his private jet from the Cayman Islands to Costa Rica to Colombia and drinking copiously, while contemplating “spirituality” and his goals going forward: “Learn celestial navigation,” “Swim with dolphins,” “Start therapy.”

Mark Williams kicks off his consideration of Buffett with this passage:

Buffett, who turned 60 on Christmas Day, likely spent the day in a lower latitude, in a meditative frame of mind—and in close proximity to a tankard of Captain Morgan. At least that was the case with birthday number 50; as recounted in his 1998 autobiography ‘A Pirate Looks At Fifty,’ Buffett celebrated by piloting his private jet from the Cayman Islands to Costa Rica to Colombia—merrily drinking while contemplating “spirituality” and his goals: learning celestial navigation, swimming with dolphins and starting therapy.

I recalled writing the Buffett piece, laboring on deadline into the wee hours, hunched over a laptop at the kitchen table in my Brooklyn home. How could I have known that I was previewing a concert to take place some 15 months later at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in Spring, Texas?

I decided to contact the Bulletin’s editor about the plagiarism of my work. On the Bulletin’s Web site, I found data on the newspaper’s circulation (20,000) and advertising rates (cost of a one-eighth-page vertical ad measuring 2½ inches by 6¼ inches: $105 per week). I learned that the Bulletin had been in business since 1969 and had received the 1998 “Most Improved Newspaper” Award from the Texas Community Newspaper Association. I searched the Bulletin’s archives, skimming through music reviews, left-leaning political op-eds, local news features, and previews of Montgomery County community happenings (“A Spooktacular Halloween: Concerts & Parties That Make This Season Frighteningly Fun”). The phrase “send your comments to” was appended to many pieces, but the ghost editor was never named. The Bulletin’s site has no masthead, and most articles dating from the past few years are unbylined. The only name that appears consistently is Mark Williams, billed variously as “Music Editor,” “Bulletin Music Editor,” and “The Bulletin Staff Writer.”

Eventually, a Google search turned up the name of the Bulletin’s publisher, Mike Ladyman, whose surname did little to dispel the feeling that I had been sucked into a Charlie Kaufman screenplay. But Ladyman is entirely real—a resident of Montgomery, Texas, who answered his phone on the first ring and listened patiently as I informed him of Mark Williams’ misdeed. Our conversation was cordial and brief. “I’ll look into it,” Ladyman said. “I’ll speak to Mark about it.” We hung up, and I dashed off a follow-up e-mail with a mildly harrumphing tone (“I do not think I need to tell you how poorly this unethical practice reflects on your newspaper,” etc.). And then, content that I had put the matter to rest, I let it drop.

Except that I didn’t let it drop. I found myself reading and rereading and rereading again, poring over “Spring Fling” like a Talmudist. The article has an odd, jangling tone, a product of its syntax (“their loyalty has a vague spiritual overtones [sic]”) and the ragged suturing of my writing to Williams’. But was the prose surrounding my own actually Williams’ work? I began to wonder. When the borrowings from my Slate essay end, four paragraphs from the bottom of the article, Williams makes a jarring genre shift from think-piece to celebrity profile, complete with boilerplate quotes from the singer himself. Did the Bulletin really interview Jimmy Buffett? I Googled a phrase from Williams’ piece—”leaves the Parrotheads with this head scratcher”—and the search returned two results: “Spring Fling” and a USA Today piece from July 8, 2004, “Buffett takes country out for a boat ride,” written by Brian Mansfield.

It was then that I realized, with a pang of regret, that Mark Williams is not my biggest fan—a reader so enraptured by Rosen’s prose stylings that he was driven to steal them. “Spring Fling” has at least three sources: my Slate essay, Mansfield’s USA Today piece, and a Minneapolis Star-Tribune Miranda Lambert profile. And this is just the beginning of Williams’ collage-art music journalism.

Since 2005, the Bulletin has published dozens of stories under Williams’ byline that appear to be copied, whole or in part, from other periodicals. Compare the Bulletin’s Nov. 4, 2005, Franz Ferdinand piece and this NMEreview, published five weeks prior; the Bulletin’s Steely Dan piece (July 14, 2006) and this article from the Web site All About Jazz (July 4, 2006); the Bulletin’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club feature (June 14, 2007) and an earlier Boston Globe piece(May 25, 2007); the Bulletin’s McKay Brothers article (Nov. 11, 2006) and this Dallas Observer item(Oct. 19, 2006); and the Bulletin’s “God and Country: More Popular Artists Are Now Singing a Spiritual Tune” (Sept. 20, 2007) and the  Billie Joe Shaver concert review by Washington Post pop critic J. Freedom du Lac (Sept. 13, 2007). The  Eagles piece published in the Bulletin on Dec. 13, 2007 is a nearly word-for-word recapitulation of David Fricke’s Rolling Stone review (Nov. 1, 2007). Mark Williams sought inspiration from USA Today for his features on Paul Simon ( USA Today version; Bulletin version) and Tom Petty (USA Today version; Bulletin version). The Evanston, Ill.-based blog Pop Matters is the apparent source of articles on Dwight Yoakam (Pop Matters version; Bulletin version) and Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs (Pop Matters version; Bulletin version). And then there’s “Crazy About ‘Crazy’ ” (March 2, 2007), Williams’ deconstruction of the monster 2006 pop hit by Gnarls Barkley—an article that bears a striking resemblance to “Crazy for ‘Crazy’,” published six months earlier in Slate.

And so on. Uncovering these sources is a matter of choosing the right phrases to dump into Google, not a difficult feat for anyone moderately attuned to writerly rhythms. Often, the keywords leap right out at you. The Willie Nelson appreciation currently headlining the Bulletin’s Web site begins: “Willie Nelson is so impeccably grizzled that he has moved into a realm to which the phrase ‘elder statesman’ scarcely begins to do justice”—a sentence with a twang more British than Texan, probably because it was first published in the U.K. Guardian.

Shortly after realizing I might not have been Williams’ only plagiarism victim, I called Mike Ladyman a second time. Ladyman speaks in a soothing singsong tone and has a genial telephone manner. But he seemed eager to cut short our conversation and uninterested in the details of my allegations. I pressed the point: “I think there’s a serious pattern of plagiarism here. You should really look into this.” Ladyman’s reply was vague: “Well, I’ve already mentioned it to Mark. So that’s under way. E-mail me the articles and I’ll take a look.” And then we hung up.

Whereupon I returned to surfing the Bulletin site, digging deeper into the newspaper’s archives—and turning up dozens more suspect articles. Like many alt weeklies, the paper’s bread-and-butter is politics, and from the spring of 2005 on, its political op-eds comprise an apparently unbroken sequence of pilfered prose. The Bulletin’s archives reveal a strong preference for the online magazine Salon—in particular, the punditry of Joe Conason and Sidney Blumenthal. Compiling a complete annotated list of articles would require the services of a half-dozen unpaid interns, so a few examples will have to suffice. Compare:

The Bulletin’s rampant borrowing has not gone totally unnoticed. A May 2007 post on a now-dormant “Bulletin watchdog” blog, Nation of Mice, points out that an article on Rudy Giuliani was “completely plagiarized from” “Low and behold, will The Bulletin Publisher and Editor Mike Ladyman ever give credit to pre-published articles in his liberal rag,” the writer asks, not quite grammatically but not unreasonably.

I have tried in vain to put that question to Ladyman directly. But since June 17—the date when I first contacted the Bulletin’s publisher and when we had our two phone conversations—I have had no communication with Ladyman or Mark Williams or any other member of the Bulletin’s staff. I phoned Ladyman repeatedly at four different numbers, but he has not answered my calls. He has failed to respond to my voice-mail messages. I sent Ladyman three e-mails, all on June 17, to which he never replied. But I suspect that he received them: The e-mails detailed plagiarism in three articles bylined to Williams—”Spring Fling,” the Eagles review, and the Dwight Yoakam review—and all three pieces have since disappeared from the Bulletin’s Web archives. No correction or retraction was ever issued.

At times over the last month, I’ve doubted that the Bulletin actually exists. A tiny newspaper from the Houston suburbs, filled week after week with bowdlerized Joe Conason columns and record reviews airlifted from the pages of Slate? It seemed preposterous, and the longer I spent squinting into the mustard-and-magenta glow of the Bulletin’s Web 0.0-quality Internet site, the more I began to suspect that I was the dupe of a conceptual art prank, a cheeky Borgesian commentary on the slipperiness of language and authorship. Or something.

But I telephoned the offices of Montgomery County’s reputable daily, the Courier, and reporters there assured me that the Bulletin indeed exists. A Courier staffer picked up a copy at a shop in Conroe, Texas, and mailed it to me, and as I type these words I am looking at the front page of the Bulletin’s latest edition, Volume 38, Issue 26, with a color cover photograph of Austin blues-rockers the Band of Heathens beneath the headline “Hot Summer, Hot Texas Music: New Lone Star CD Releases That Make the Summer Sizzle.”

It is a tabloid format newspaper of just 16 pages. There are a couple of pages of classifieds, and lots of advertisements for local businesses: restaurants, real-estate brokers, the Schlitterbahn Waterparks. Unlike the Bulletin’s Web site, the paper-proper has a masthead, which lists five staffers: Ladyman (“Publisher & Editor”), Williams (“Music Editor,” “Staff Writer”), an account executive, a listings guy, and a graphic designer. (I tried to reach all of these Bulletin employees by phone, to no avail.) The masthead also reveals that the Bulletin is part of the Alternative Weekly Network, a nationwide consortium of 110 weekly publications.

As for the articles: more of the same. The cover feature on those sizzling summer CDs seems cribbed from three sources: an piece about Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, an customer review of a Band of Heathens CD, and a review of the band Reckless Kelly. A review of the new Coldplay album   looks an awful lot like a review first published in the Daily Telegraph. An op-ed titled “Environmentally Incorrect: How McCain Can Prove He Won’t Be Like Bushis apparently a rejiggered Joe Conason column. Even the Bulletin’s letters to the editor   appear not to be letters at all but op-ed pieces written by a couple of professors and published elsewhere first.

In other words, with the exception of the local events listings, every single item in the June 3-July 10 Bulletin is suspicious. Indeed, I wonder: In purely statistical terms, do the articles in the Montgomery County Bulletin amount to the greatest plagiarism scandal in the annals of American journalism?

But perhaps the Bulletin is merely on-trend—or even ahead of its time. The Drudge Report, the Huffington Post, and Real Clear Politics have made names and money by sifting through RSS feeds; Tina Brown and Barry Diller are preparing the launch of their own news aggregator. Mike Ladyman and company may simply be bringing guerilla-style 21st-century content aggregation to 20th-century print media: publishing the Napster of newspapers.

In any case, there is at least one example of original writing in the current Bulletin. At the top of the masthead section is a note about the paper’s distribution—an obvious point of pride for Mike Ladyman. It reads: “The Bulletin is available free to readers and distributes 20,000 papers every Thursday at 572 locations.” There then follows this sentence:

The Bulletin is distributed at outdoor racks, book stores, barber shops, hair salons, nail salons, cleaners, coffee houses, liquor stores, meat markets, convenience stores, grocery stores, brake shops, tire stores, transmission shops, body shops, insurance agents, banks, libraries, hotels, motels, gyms, drug stores, clinics, hospitals, doctors, dentist [sic], chiropractors, college campuses, restaurants, movie theaters, bars, night clubs, ice houses, etc.

Now, this is a great piece of writing, an epic catalog in the Homeric mode: a poem, a poem, forsooth! Journalists hallow truth, but beauty trumps truth, and when the list of Bulletin distribution locales hurtles forward in breakneck rhythm (“transmission shops, body shops, insurance agents”), rising to that ringing final cadence—ice houses, etc.—who but the hard-hearted and the tin-eared could deny the beauty of those words? I may have to borrow them sometime.