As a freelance journalist, I’ve occasionally reworked material on the same topic for multiple stories. I haven’t done much of this, but I’ve often brainstormed how to get more mileage out of my work. I’ve read books from freelancers who talk about repurposing written material, presenting new angles for different audiences. It seems appealing, especially for my bottom line.
So it piqued my interest when prominent science journalist Jonah Lehrer recently got himself in trouble for doing just that. Media blogger Jim Romenesko broke the story that Lehrer had “self-plagiarized,” sometimes paragraphs at a time, in numerous pieces for various publications.
It triggered plenty of discussion in the media, including everything from sharp criticism to shrugs and everything in-between.
Since then, a handful of Lehrer’s stories for The New Yorker, where he started working in June, have been flagged with disclaimers about the duplication of material. Also, Lehrer apologized in The New York Times, saying it was “a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” The New Yorker has promised it won’t happen again.
Some noteworthy speakers on the subject have defended Lehrer, asking, “How bad is it to repeat oneself?” Others have pondered the broader context, blaming the “more-is-better” ethos of the web, for Lehrer’s slip-up. Others call him an idea man, not a straight-up journalist. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, whom Lehrer has been compared to, backed him up, saying that in this new media environment, the rules for bloggers are still being written.
The situation got the SPJ Freelancers Committee talking about the practice of repurposing work. Our comfort levels with doing so ran the gamut, with some people shying away from the practice altogether. But a couple of my colleagues are veterans at this, and they offered some tips for recycling pieces while staying in editors’ and readers’ good graces. I’ve included some of their thoughts, below.
For the most part, it’s a matter of transparency from the get-go, they say.
Committee member Ruth E. Thaler-Carter has done some repurposing through the years but “only very carefully — making sure it’s clear that a version of the information has been published,” she told me.
Once, she submitted a profile on a small business owner that she’d written for the St. Louis Argus to Essence magazine. “They sent me a check for $75 and published it almost verbatim. My first national clip!” she said.
For several years, she wrote about the annual conference of the International Association of Business Communicators for a number of publications, often drawing from the same material. Her clients were OK with the overlap; their publications came out at all different times and went to different audiences, she said.
More recently, she started contributing to a newsletter for a client for whom she also pens a monthly marketing column. Before she started this gig, she let her client know that she writes for an association magazine in the same field.
“This client said it would be fine if I rewrote some of those articles for her company’s newsletter,” she said.
By the same token, “The association editor says it’s OK as long as my articles for her come out first and the repurposed ones are noticeably different,” even if the same sources and quotes come up, she said.
So, how does this differ from the Lehrer case? “I’m being open about this with my clients and their readers,” she said.
Another committee member, Dana Neuts, agrees. If a writer goes to the involved editors and says, “‘Hey, I used this story over here and I think the example I used also applies here. Do you mind if I reuse it?’ Then the second editor has the opportunity to view the original piece and decide if he wants something fresh and new or if reusing the original work is acceptable.”
When a new version of a story runs, she suggests including a citation of some sort at the bottom, noting the similarities, as The New Yorker has done for the Lehrer pieces.
“To me, the issue boils down to being forthright with your editors so they have enough information to make the right decision for their organization. It is also a matter of professional courtesy,” and it doesn’t take much time or effort, she said.
As someone who’s frequently worked under tight deadlines, I can understand the impulse to quickly copy-and-paste. At the same time, in a business that’s all about informing people, it makes sense to me to be open and honest about a story’s back-story. I’m thankful to Lehrer for reminding me to do that. Now I just need to go back through my work and figure out what pieces might deserve a new slant.
Anna Pratt (Twitter @annapratt) Email
As a staff reporter-turned-freelance journalist, Anna Pratt, who lives in Minneapolis, Minn., has ventured into garbage houses, spent the night in a homeless shelter and witnessed a fistfight in a church basement, all for various stories. Over the past nine years, her byline has appeared in the Star Tribune, The Line, the Southwest Journal, the Minnesota Independent and several suburban and community papers, web publications and broadcast media in the Twin Cities. She’s had many beats, including education, community news, business, development, arts, civil/human rights and immigration. Pratt chairs the programming committee for the award-winning Minnesota Pro Chapter of SPJ and she’s running for president-elect of the chapter. She also serves on the organization’s national programming committee. To read more, visit annaprattjournalist.com.