Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, August 15, 2008

Belated follow-up from last week’s post on Jody Rosen’s article in Slate on the small Texas alt-weekly that systematically plagiarized a host of writers:

Via Zoilus, the Houston Press reports that the Montgomery County Bulletin shut its doors a couple of days after Jody’s piece appeared.

If you haven’t seen the Houston Press report, and you’ve a taste for the psychology of “there’s no defense like a good offense,” you should check it out. In it, Bulletin publisher/editor Mike Ladyman and putative writer Mark Williams lash out at Jody in wacky ways.

I call Williams a “putative” writer for two reasons. First, there’s the plagiarism -- relentless, systematic, chronic, as detailed in Jody’s piece. Second, I would bet money -- five bucks, maybe -- that he doesn’t exist.

The evidence for Williams’s non-existence is entirely circumstantial, but here it is:

* Ladyman spoke to the press, but he didn’t know how to put the press in contact with Williams -- his only “writer” for the last six years.

* Ladyman claims that Williams “lives in Brenham now where he’s a morning news talk show host in radio,” but that Ladyman doesn’t know Williams’s on-air name.

* Ladyman doesn’t have a phone number for Williams?

* Williams wrote a statement, which Ladyman appears to have forwarded to the Houston Press. In the statement, Williams repeatedly refers to “our” paper. To me, it sounds like Ladyman talking, not a writer whose editor is so out-of-touch that he doesn’t even have his phone number.

* The Bulletin’s plagiarism extended beyond Williams’s signed pieces. The unsigned editorials, which typically are the province of the editor and/or publisher (in this case, Ladyman is both), and which, according to Ladyman's testimony, Williams had nothing to do with, were systematically plagiarized too.

* Via the Museum of Hoaxes, comes a link to an NPR story on the affair, in which Williams read from his prepared statement and made no other remarks. Strange behavior for a radio talk show host.

* Since Ladyman was already plagiarizing the op-eds, why would he pay someone else for plagiarized feature stories? Makes no sense.

At this point, the question is, how much money was Ladyman pulling down in ad revenue? In the Puget Sound region, local weekly rags, including niche neighborhood newspapers, are more profitable than the dailies. Might not be true elsewhere in the country, but it's true here.

If Ladyman had been pulling serious dough, which is possible, he was not ripping off the writers he was plagiarizing so much as he was ripping off the local writing market. A selling point of local journals is their local flavor; featuring national reprints dilutes their appeal. In other words, Ladyman -- or, rather, an honest publisher working the same turf -- would have been unlikely to have been paying Jody or the writers from USA Today for reprint rights. If the business were workable, he would have been paying local writers for local content.

The New Village Voice Times alt-weekly empire has diluted that arrangement, but their nationalized writers are under contract, and they don't have to reveal that the original appeared elsewhere, when, say, a Voice review shows up in the Seattle Weekly. The same chain owns both. Wouldn't be the case with the Bulletin.

Ladyman’s (and “Williams’s”) psychodrama is compelling, and the whole story intrigues. I am craving some more actual journalism at this point, some follow-up to Jody's, into Ladyman's business model and Williams's existence.

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