Small town MN plagiarism, global reach

On Wednesday, the publisher of the Blooming Prairie Times in southern Minnesota apologized for “inexcusable” plagiarism in columns by the paper’s managing editor, Jon Flatland, who “quickly and quietly left town” after being confronted.

Small town ethics breach by a journalism neophyte? No.

Flatland, a “former president of the North Dakota Newspaper Association and one-time newspaper owner, has been exposed as a serial plagiarist,” according to the Poynter Institute, a journalism training and ethics group.

It’s not clear yet how often and how many pieces Flatland plagiarized over a nearly 30 year career. But the Blooming Prairie publisher says he has discovered, “virtually nothing in Flatland’s weekly columns is his own original work.

“After doing some digging, we discovered Flatland makes a weekly habit of ripping off humor columns from a wide range of other writers-from independent bloggers to columnists at major daily newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News.”

Posts this afternoon reveal some brazen behavior.

Dave Fox, a writer out of Singapore and Flatland target, wrote today how he stumbled across Flatland’s plagiarism.

In Googling several of my stories to see where they ranked on search engines, I discovered a humor column I had written in 2001 had been published under Flatland’s byline in 2005 in the Steele County Press and the Benson County Farmers Press in North Dakota.

Three days later, I searched further and discovered that three months ago, Flatland had again taken credit for the same story in the Times in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota. Flatland had been the managing editor at the Times since last November.

At this point, I sensed there was something bigger than the simple plagiarism of one story. I began Googling random phrases in Flatland’s other columns. For almost all of them, I quickly found nearly identical articles by other writers. I contacted all of the writers I could locate and asked if their work had been plagiarized. Every one of them confirmed this was the case.

Humor columns under Flatland’s name often appeared in rural papers that typically do not aggregate their work online, “so someone will have to type in parts of columns into Google from newspaper hard copies to find if they were stolen, Charles Memminger, a Hawaii-based columnist, wrote today on the National Association of Newspaper Columnists site.

Even more bizarre, Flatland apparently deceived his daughter, a North Dakota newspaper editor. Says Memminger:

Interestingly, the editor of the Steele County Press is Flatland’s daughter Lindsie. She was upset to learn of Flatland’s plagiarism and said she would conduct her own investigation of his past columns.

In a note to me saying she intended to investigate this matter and write about it in her paper, she also said: “Oh and please do not continue to call him my dad. As I said before, I would like to keep business and personal separate.”