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The Worcester Guardian is off to a fraudulent start
Whoops! Just a bit of light plagiarism
So it was about midnight last night (this morning) and I was trying to figure out how to capture the essence of a five-hour hot mess Council meeting. Slightly depressed and very frustrated and rethinking my life choices, I got a text from Kevin Ksen (the realest of the real ones, IMO) that dropped my jaw and reversed my outlook on things. We both felt it was important to get this thing documented quickly in highly visible fashion and that it was just too dang good for a simple tweet!
So this is a special quick-hit dispatch about the Chamber of Commerce doing something that would get a college student expelled in launching an “independent” news organization. Woof! Please subscribe.
Whoops! The Worcester Guardian is off to a fraudulent start
The Chamber of Commerce’s freshly announced “non-profit” “news organization” committed glaring plagiarism in unambiguous fashion! Woah! The Worcester Guardian, which debuted yesterday, ripped its entire “about” page directly from a real independent news operation: the New Bedford Light. I’m talking word-for-word. Ksen sent me an imagine of the two pages side-by-side. Take a look:
Stunning. Couldn’t make it up! The most grievous passage is the mission statement, given what a mission statement is supposed to be. How do you plagiarize your fundamental goal? Why? Crazy.
The New Bedford Light’s mission statement:
We seek to inform and nourish the civic culture of New Bedford and surrounding towns by providing in-depth, fact-based journalism and a broad platform for diverse community voices. Through our innovative Journalism Incubator Project we promote media literacy and educate the public about the vital role of a free press in bolstering our democracy.
The Worcester Guardian’s:
We seek to inform and nourish the civic culture of Worcester and surrounding towns by providing in-depth, fact-based journalism and a broad platform for diverse community voices. As our organization grows, we hope to create meaningful partnerships, promote media literacy, and educate the public about the vital role of a free press in bolstering our democracy.
Except for the stated city and one clause in the last sentence, this is a word-for-word rip. Given the Guardian was announced yesterday and the New Bedford Light has been around a while, it’s clear who copied who. Every single section on the Guardian’s “about” page is a direct rip of the New Bedford Light’s “about” page. Only the slightest alterations when necessary for clarity. For instance, the last section on the Guardian’s page, “Who Decides What We Publish,” is 100 percent plagiarism of The Light. There is no ambiguity. Not a word is different. This is how it reads in both publications:
Our editors decide what stories to cover and what to publish. Funders do not influence our coverage. They understand that independent journalism is essential to our civic mission, and to building public trust. We are committed to transparency; we will regularly publish our tax forms, our ethics policy and a list of our donors.
A key difference, however: The New Bedford Light has editors. The Chamber’s new outlet has only identified a single “consultant” so far: Former T&G Editor David Nordman. No editors. In the press release, Nordman said (surely actually said, for sure) the following:
“I am excited to assist with this important initiative," Nordman said. "Free, nonprofit, independent news provides a dynamic new platform to tell the Central Massachusetts story and report on important issues impacting Worcester and the region.”
There’s no mention of hiring reporters or editors to staff this “independent, free, nonprofit digital news organization.” But a “white paper” the Guardian released makes heavy use of the term “news gatherers.” (I asked them what the difference is between journalists and news gatherers. So far, no response.)
You don’t have to be in the journalism (i.e. news gatherer) business–and the Chamber of Commerce is clearly not–to understand that plagiarism is a cardinal sin. It’s something you learn in middle school. It’s cause for expulsion in high school and college. A crime made impossible to pull off by the internet! Text is now searchable! For journalists, it’s perhaps the surest way to kill a career. Instant termination. A black mark forever. Sin without atonement.
The Worcester Guardian/Chamber of Commerce committed this sin in painfully obvious fashion before publishing a single piece of the journalism they promise. The same day they announced! Ksen told me he cracked the case with a simple Google search. A line that looked suspiciously off brand for the Chamber caught his eye and he searched it. Ping! Case closed. I searched the text as well and the New Bedford Light was the first and only result for all of it.
From the moment I saw this Guardian announcement yesterday, I knew it was in bad faith. The Chamber is a lot of things but a patron of truth telling is not one of them. How the press release starts:
Today, the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce announced the launch of the Worcester Guardian, an independent, free, nonprofit digital news organization.
“The Worcester Guardian will deliver free civically oriented journalism on an array of topics important to Worcester and the Central Massachusetts region,” said Timothy P. Murray, the chamber's president and CEO.
Laughable to think the Chamber of Commerce is committed to journalism, let alone the “independent” journalism they promise here. Independent of what?! The Chamber is the very power that journalism is supposed to hold to account. But to be so uncommitted you can’t even write a mission statement? Just copy-paste from a legitimate outlet? One in the same state? And don’t rework the copy to obscure the plagiarism at all? An honest journalist wouldn’t do that. A dishonest journalist wouldn’t do it so obviously. This was an unforced error, and a very stupid one at that.
Making it more stupid still, the Chamber cites the New Bedford Light as a model for the Guardian in the “white paper” they published explaining their decision to launch. The organization they plagiarized gets its own subhead, even:
THE NEW BEDFORD LIGHT MODEL
The Light, a free, non-profit news organization aimed at providing a concentrated slice of in-depth coverage on matters of local import in the Greater New Bedford area. The site discloses its donors – subscribing to editorial independence standards developed by the Institute for Nonprofit News – and is governed by a board of directors featuring community leaders as well as journalistic veterans
I mean, really! The audacity! The sloppiness!
Even without the plagiarism, the Worcester Guardian is a weird thing. Why is the Chamber of Commerce embarking on such a venture? Why now? Why call it a “newsroom” when there’s no stated plan to hire journalists? Why call it “independent” when it very clearly isn’t by any reasonable definition of the word?
In the announcement, the project sounds nice enough. It has all the buzzwords. The decline of local news is a real problem, and they identify it. But not a single person on this earth who is truly invested in independent journalism would commit such a silly, avoidable act of plagiarism. Wouldn’t assume they’d get away with it. Wouldn’t resort to it for such easy copy. It’s stunning the Chamber did, and should dispel any notion that the Worcester Guardian is a legitimate journalism operation with earnest goals.
What it does suggest however is that this announcement was hastily thrown together. I’m a slow writer and the page they plagiarized would take me an hour, tops. It’s not hard stuff. While real journalists agonize over ledes and nut grafs and transitions—legitimately difficult tasks which require commitment to craft—no self-respecting journalist would sweat over a short description of “who decides what’s published.” The risk/reward calculation on plagiarizing something like that is likewise very easy: No reward, extreme risk. Career suicide versus a few minutes of easy work.
So surely, this hasty and sloppy reveal was apropos of nothing, right? It has nothing to do with another non-profit journalism venture in Worcester that launched recently. For certain, it isn’t related to the Worcester Community Media Foundation and Rewind Video Store, made public by a Patch article in late July. Definitely not! This wasn’t chucked online out of spite by a frustrated political insider watching his faction rapidly lose control of the city to a budding progressive movement. No way!!
I’m deeply involved with Rewind and the Community Media Foundation. My commitment stems from a love of the craft of local journalism and a desire to help save it from extinction. So yeah I take this a little personal! It’s hard to see the Chamber’s intentions here as pure from my position! I could be wrong but it feels like a direct attack. It feels like they’re trying to poach funding opportunities from us with a shell organization, honestly. The fact they couldn’t even articulate their own core objective and instead stole from real working journalists only confirms the suspicion! Like I said–could be wrong! Don’t think I am, though.
In any case, my suspicions are included here for just transparency’s sake. They’re irrelevant otherwise. The story is a story either way: The Worcester Guardian shattered its credibility on day one. In doing so, the Chamber of Commerce’s overall credibility is called into question.
I find it very hard to believe the Chamber staffer who copy-pasted the Light copy onto the Guardian website believed it acceptable to do so. However, it’s easy to imagine they just didn’t care. Whether they were unable or unwilling to write their own copy, they insulted the entire journalism trade by doing what they did, and on the same day they claimed to have a new vested interest in it... Couldn’t make this stuff up, man. Sheesh.
It’s perfect symbolism that the Chamber folks couldn’t be bothered to write their own “about” page. The Guardian was transparently disingenuous from the start, plagiarism aside. Easy to see. But the hubris of plagiarizing a mission statement! Really adds to the craven nature of the enterprise! Fraudulent, right down to the stated goal. You need only look at the press release, where discussion of doing journalism is scant while need for fundraising on it is abundant, to see what they’re really after:
“As is the case in other communities this will take time to scale and will require resources and support from the business community, various institutions and nonprofits, as well as everyday readers,” Murray said.
If the Chamber was content to lie and steal in such an obvious fashion here, while in the same breath asking for the “business community” to cut checks, how can we trust anything else they do? In that way, it’s not just a stupid move, it’s revealing. It adds a note of staccato emphasis to a familiar Worcester Sucks refrain: What is the Chamber of Commerce? What the hell is it?! Why does it exist? Why do we take its influence in city politics as fact? Who assigns that credibility? And for what reason? And why does it go uninterrogated?
Asking those sorts of questions is a radical act around here. “Divisive.” Doesn’t make them any less valid, though. In fact, the “divisive” questions may be the only ones worth asking.
In this ridiculous move by the Chamber, there’s a frayed end of string in a densely woven fabric. To pull on it, watch it glide through the mesh as its hidden length emerges and cloth bunches in its wake, is to see the function of the string. How the fabric relies on such strings going unpulled. How easy it is to pull them. How pulling one loosens another. How many more there are to pull.
Ok this is just a quick one like I said! There’s other things worth covering this week but I’ll save em for another post. I felt this Chamber nonsense needed getting out immediately for a number of reasons. So no real odds and ends today and nothing about the nightmare council meeting last night. (Nothing happened anyway). Just please subscribe! If you can!
And if you saw any typos in this post, no you didn’t! I started writing it at midnight! Be kind.