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November 23, 2009

Journal Inquirer Sues Courant

The Journal Inquirer on Wednesday brought suit against the Hartford Courant, seeking financial damages for news stories the Courant acknowledged plagiarizing from its suburban competitor this summer.

The JI’s suit, filed in Hartford Superior Court by West Hartford lawyer Richard P. Weinstein, alleges violation by the Courant of federal copyright law and Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act. The suit documents 11 incidents of plagiarism by the Courant in July, August, and September and says there may have been more.

The Courant is accused of using its competitor’s work to make up for the work formerly done by the Courant’s own reporting staff, which was cut in half in the last two years as the economy weakened and the Courant’s parent company, national media corporation Tribune, fell into reorganizational bankruptcy. The Courant’s theft of the JI’s stories was, the suit says, “immoral, oppressive, unethical, and unscrupulous” and “caused substantial injury to readers, competitors, and advertisers.”

A Courant spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

The controversy began in July when the Courant’s interim editor, Naedine Hazell, issued a memorandum to the paper’s news department outlining new assignments and practices.

Hazell’s memo announced creation of the position of “aggregation editor,” who “aggregates/collects/rewrites content from around the state, acting almost as an Associated Press bureau for the Courant to broaden the news we offer readers online and in print.”

Later in July, local news stories taken from newspapers competing with the Courant began to appear in the paper, some clearly attributed to the originating papers but some not, and some even carrying bylines of the Courant’s own staffers though the stories were virtually identical to the stories already published by the competing papers. Some stories appeared on the Courant’s Internet site with attribution to the originating papers but with a Courant reporter’s byline when they appeared in the Courant’s print edition.

On Aug. 19, the Journal Inquirer’s managing editor, Chris Powell, sent a letter to Courant Publisher Richard J. Graziano, itemizing some of the plagiarized stories and asking that the practice be stopped. The Courant continued the practice, and in its Aug. 29-30 edition the JI published a front-page story detailing the Courant’s plagiarism and noting that the Courant had misappropriated and misrepresented not only the JI’s reporting but also reporting by the Bristol Press, New Britain Herald, Torrington Register-Citizen, and Waterbury Republican-American.

On Aug. 30 the Courant announced in a news story that in response to the JI’s complaint it was reviewing its “aggregation policy” and acknowledging “a mistake in our editing process when we take articles from our Website to our print newspaper.” The Courant’s story suggested that the “aggregation” would continue with proper attribution of stories taken from competing newspapers.

But five days later, on Sept. 4, the Courant printed a letter from its publisher, Graziano, admitting that “over the last several weeks The Courant plagiarized the work of some of our competitors.” The Courant, the publisher’s letter said, was taking corrective action and had disciplined the employees involved. “We apologize to our readers, competitors, and advertisers,” Graziano wrote.

While the Courant did not say then whether its “aggregation” of news from its competitors would continue, it appears to have stopped amid an avalanche of professional criticism and ridicule from around the country, including a reprimand from the ethics committee of the Society for Professional Journalists.

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