Most editors like to stay
behind, not make, the news
Thursday, March 22, 2012 5:09 AM
Editors are always a big part of the news, but it's never a good thing when they become the news, as happened to two area editors recently.
Blooming Prairie Times managing editor Jon Flatland, a 28-year veteran in the newspaper business, was recently accused of plagiarizing his column in the area community newspaper when a freelance humor and travel writer from Singapore contacted The Times on behalf of at least 12 other columnists. The newspaper's publisher reported that they claimed Flatland's standard practice in "writing" his column each week was to find somebody else's work on the Internet, tweak very few details in their stories to make them sound like he had written them, and slap his byline on them.
Upon further investigation, The Times' publisher discovered virtually nothing in Flatland's weekly columns was his own original work, that he copied humor columns from a wide range of other writers including independent bloggers and columnists at major daily newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News, and that the practice has been going on much longer than the last four months he was working at the Times.
We exchange papers with the Blooming Prairie Times and it was quite a shock to see the revelation about Flatland a couple weeks ago when the publisher issued an apology to his readers. The publisher was quite forthcoming about the damage Flatland had done to, not only his publication, but all newspapers. As soon as the humor columnist in Singapore confronted him with the allegations, the managing editor quietly skipped town that night.
Not only did he violate copyright laws, Flatland tarnished the integrity of journalists everywhere as he violated the code of ethics that is the basis for our profession's integrity.
The funny thing is, I thought Flatland was a pretty good news writer as he pursued local stories aggressively, but I never liked the columns that he allegedly put so much effort into stealing from others. I like to read editors' columns in other community newspapers because they often reveal a lot about the character of the writer and the community. Flatland's columns did neither. They read like they were written by someone from, well, perhaps Dallas or even Singapore.
The same can't be said for the other editor making the news - Greg Sellnow of the Rochester Post-Bulletin. The longtime columnist and editorial page editor died suddenly after a medical emergency while driving home from the state high school hockey tournament.
Sellnow's twice weekly columns had a distinctive personal touch that revealed much about him and Rochester in general. From reading his columns, I got a feel for his views and could often spot his common sense input to the newspaper's editorials, which I presume are usually a group effort.
His columns were subtle, but could be convincing. Often they had unique takes on everyday life. They were always kind, but he could poke fun at himself or our social norms if they deserved it.
Writing columns isn't easy, which is why I had such appreciation for how easy Sellnow made it seem. His columns always flowed as if he was sitting down next to me telling a story.
When I got stuck or in a rut, Sellnow was always one person I felt I could look to for inspiration to remain grounded and remind myself that writing about the simple things right in front of us may reveal profound insight into the mysteries of life.
Although I had little direct contact with Sellnow, reading about his death was a shock. It wasn't just because I was thinking dark thoughts about my life since he was about the same age as me, in the same profession and also enjoyed my favorite hobby now - running. The main reason for the shock is that he was one of the good ones in our profession and it hurts to lose someone like that, even if he doesn't write for one of my own newspapers.
Newspaper professionals in this region aren't a tight group. We don't get together or correspond routinely. Most of us have little in common other than our profession. However, with maybe an exception or two, we don't like to become the news. We would rather connect with our own readers or help shape our own newspapers behind the scenes.
Still, we are aware of our public stature and realize that one day we will likely become news. I'm sure all of us want that to happen for the right reasons.
The two editors - one that deserved to be banished and the other that parted ways far too soon - are no longer an active part of this profession that I love, but they won't be forgotten. In quite different ways, the failure of one and success of another will be a reminder to always stay true to myself.