Thou Shalt Not Plagiarize Thyself


The world of media writers who write about media writers went aflame this week after Jim Romenesko outed Jonah Leher for “copy-and-pasting” his own material from one article to another in different publications. Romenesko pointed out that three paragraphs of a blog post Leher wrote for The New Yorker were remarkably similar to an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal last fall. It turns out that it wasn’t the only time Leher has done this.

It’s a bit ironic ironic that Jim Romenesko was the one that discovered Leher’s faux pas, since last November Romenesko himself was caught “copy-and-pasting” not from his own work but from other writers in his media-round-up aggregation. It seemed at the time that many came to Romeneskso’s defense, essentially saying it didn’t matter as long as he was offering links as to where he was getting the material. (TCDP’s Mary Turck took a different view, saying that if Romenesko was quoting people, he should be using quotation marks, even if he did properly attribute the material with a link.)

Unlike the swarms of writers who came to Romenesko’s defense, there doesn’t seem to be as much rallying around Leher, which kind of baffles me.

Honestly, when I heard about the Leher self-plagiarism, I thought: “Oh. You’re not supposed to do that?”

I’m just going to out myself and say that I have totally borrowed from my own writing to write something new, especially when I’m covering an ongoing topic where a contextual paragraph remains the same even as the latest news changes. Or when I’m writing a preview of a company I’ve reviewed before, sometimes I’ll look back to remind myself what I thought of their latest production. I am having a hard time understanding why that is bad.

I realize it’s a little bit different when you’re talking about using the same material for multiple publications—and perhaps three whole paragraphs is a bit excessive, but to me it comes down to a dilemma created by the freelance world we live in. Even though I exist on a much smaller pay scale then Leher, I understand the pressure to produce content. For the past two years at least, I can’t remember a time when I’ve been “caught up” with my writing. There is no shortage of freelance work it seems, and I’ve learned that I have to produce quickly in order to keep up. Yes, it would be better if I could spend more time on each piece, but sometimes I don’t see how that is possible.

I know this in part because of the way I read. I don’t buy magazines, or newspapers. Everything I read (with the exception of young adult novels, my vice) I read on the web, and I read quickly. I’m rather voracious about it — insistent on reading everything that comes through my feed that looks interesting. I think that’s how a lot of people read, which is in part why journalism is at such a crisis right now: People want more content, and they don’t want to pay for it. I’m part of my own problem.

When I write, I think of everything as being part of an endless stream of the same body of work—or maybe each topic is its own body of work with some overlap. It’s not as if each article exists in a separate vacuum: it relies on what comes before, and lays the foundation for what I write later.

For this column, which I’ve been writing for a year, I know I’ve touched on similar topics more than once. That’s because they are things I think about a lot, and I’m working out for myself how best to say them.

In any case, this is all a learning experience for me, and now I know you’re not supposed to say the same thing more than once- at least not in the exact same way. Lesson learned, in case I ever become famous and someone who makes their living aggregating others’ material calls me on it.