You may have heard on TV yesterday that Tim Goeglein, a senior White House aide, had resigned after it was discovered he had plagiarized parts of columns he had written for his home-town newspaper, The News-Sentinel, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, over the past seven years. I thought I’d shed a little light on this from a publisher’s perspective, and hopefully give a cautionary tip to new writers.
Writing columns was not Goeglein’s primary job for President Bush. He had far more important duties having to do with liaison and promoting the President’s policies. I think perhaps he was a wannabe writer (even though he did have a journalism degree) who wrote the columns on the side. Now this plagiarism discovery has destroyed his career and reputation.
According to the newspaper, 20 of 38 columns Mr. Goeglein published since 2000 included plagiarized material. A graduate of the town’s high school, the 44-year-old Goeglein has been writing columns for the paper since 1985.
It was an internet search that exposed the plagiarism! A former columnist for the newspaper, Nancy Nall, sometimes used her Website to poke fun at his columns. Goeglein’s column on Thursday included a reference to a “notable professor of philosophy at Dartmouth,” Eugene Rosenstock-Hussey. She was curious about this professor so searched the internet, then discovered that major portions of the column were copied wholesale from an article published 10 years ago in The Dartmouth Review.
That’s how my magazine sometimes discovers plagiarized articles before we make the mistake of publishing them. My Editorial Assistant, Lisa Nourse, began doing internet searches quite a while back for every article submitted to us. We look for key phrases and names. I expect all publications will begin doing this. The internet makes it easy to cut and paste someone else’s writing and submit it as your own to an unwary publication, but Google and other search engines make it just as easy to catch the plagiarists.
Only a couple of months ago we discovered (through our standard Google search) that two articles submitted to us by the same author had been partly plagiarized. We contacted the author, told him about it, and he apologized, then turned around and got one of the articles published in another magazine. Since we publishers tend to get to know each other, and none of us want to publish plagiarized material, I informed the other publisher of what happened. The lesson here for wannabe writers is that you may get away with stealing material for a while, but you will eventually be caught.
White House staffer Goeglein admitted his theft. He said, "It is true. I am entirely at fault. It was wrong of me. There are no excuses."
News-Sentinel Editor Kerry Hubartt said, “There was no reason for it that I can see,” emphasizing that Mr. Goeglein had submitted the columns voluntarily and had no deadlines to meet. “He was not under any pressure.”
I don’t know if it’s the case with Goeglein, but I think some wannabe writers probably don’t even understand what plagiarism is, nor how serious it is. When you plagiarize you steal someone else’s intellectual property (just like stealing anything else of theirs) and try and publish it as your own thoughts and words. Most seasoned writers see this as a major intellectual crime. Good writing is difficult, and it deserves recognition. Plagiarizing is easy, and it deserves exposure and condemnation. Goeglein destroyed his very successful political career for what seems to me to be foolish attempts to be what he was not.
We’re into deadline for the March/April 2008 issue. Our “send to the printer” date is January 17. As usual, missing deadline is not an option.
Deadline for writers to get their articles to us is today, Thursday, Jan. 10. If it’s not here it may very well have to be cut from the issue. With all articles and most ads in-house, it takes about a week to put together the issue.
Speaking of articles that sometimes get cut from an issue, here’s an interesting, almost tragic, story about an article I cut from last issue. It holds an important lesson for any novice and wannabe writers who might be reading this blog:
BHM has often worked with non-writers and novice writers to help them tell their story in the pages of the magazine. The effort sometimes pays off with an intimate written account of a person in the process of establishing a more self-reliant lifestyle for himself and his or her family. We put a lot of work into just such a story over the last several months. Two BHM editors had invested many hours, numerous telephone calls, and Fed-Ex expenses working with a novice writer on how he built his own home.
I had scheduled the article to appear in our Jan/Feb 2008 issue, but I pulled it at the last minute so editors could work on it some more and make it an even better article. I rescheduled it for this March/April issue. How lucky I was to have pulled it, because a competing magazine printed the article we helped the novice writer develop in THEIR Jan/Feb issue. Our version was more in-depth, with more photos, as the other magazine had made their own editorial changes to the manuscript and shortened it.
A quick telephone call to that magazine’s editor revealed that he too had worked with the novice writer in question for the last several months, investing a lot of time and effort. In fact, the novice writer had previously tried to interest a third magazine in the article. None of the magazines or their editorial staffs were aware that the novice writer was working with any other publication.
I have now killed the article and torn up the “first rights” contract the novice writer had signed with us. There are no “first rights” to be bought. We will not deal with this novice writer again. I’m not mad at the other magazine either; they had been taken for a ride just like us.
But this is a lesson would-be writers need to understand. (Professional writers already do.) Do not submit articles simultaneously to various publications unless you inform the publications of what you are doing. And for heaven’s sake, do not take advantage of editors who work hard on your article to make you look like a competent writer when your article appears in print. Also, do not set up competing publications for an embarrassing publishing train wreck by secretly working with more than one magazine at a time on the same article. I was lucky to have pulled the article from our Jan/Feb issue so no collision of magazines occurred this time.
Writers who do this sort of thing not only destroy their own reputations when caught, but they hurt the chances of other novice writers by making publications gun shy of unknown talent. If you want to be a writer, or just get your story published, for gosh sakes be honest with the people who are trying to help you realize your goals.
At this late stage during deadline, it’s always the same problem: What the hell should I write about in my columns? The “Note from the Publisher” is easy; I just talk about what’s going on in the magazine, sort of like these blog posts. The “My View” column is harder; it’s got to be more substantive. Like most people, I take the easy way out and write the “Note” first. Some of the topics will be the energy show just completed in Wisconsin, the protective plastic wrappers in which the print issue is now mailed to subscribers, the new blogs on the website, some letters I got between issues, and the upcoming issue’s rather unique cover.
I’ve been thinking about the “My View” column for weeks, and I have a fair idea of what the kernel of the commentary will be, but it’s not well formed in my head. This column is always hard to do, even though I’ve been writing it for nearly 18 years. I’m not an off-the-top-of-my-head writer, speaker, or thinker when it comes to more “weighty” topics. I need time to sit back and think. Like most Libertarians, I tend to consider both sides of a political issue but almost always favor the side that supports more individual freedom. But this issue I have a nonpolitical topic in mind. We’ll see.
The wind has begun to blow so my opportunity to fish the ocean before I have to leave town again (this Friday, the day after deadline) may have been missed. Isn’t that a shame?
My golf game is improving thanks to deadline. I work on articles at the kitchen table, then go out and hit golf balls at selected targets. I work some more, then hit more balls. I’ve got four targets: a water spigot 35 yards away on the other side of our small pond, a tree 50 yards up the hill, a white pole I put in the ground on a flat spot 65 yards up the hill, and a small cedar tree 80 yards down the hill on the other side of the yard. I’m getting good at all of them. My goal is to play bogey golf.
Molly rolled in something dead so the boys had to shampoo her and hose her off. At the same time, we’ve got a feral cat, a skunk, and a raccoon all sneaking in the barn and eating the cat food, then trying their best to get at our chickens. We also suspect a rat is stealing chicken eggs. Our chicken enclosure is like a high security prison, but other defensive measures we’re taking include putting the cat food container into the garage so the raccoon can’t unscrew its top with his prehensile hands, then feeding the cats twice a day with only what they can eat. We’re also gathering the chicken eggs several times a day, plus setting a trap for the rat inside the chicken house. With luck the rat will be caught, and the coon, feral cat, and skunk will leave when they can’t get any free food for a couple of days. If the skunk goes under the house to have a litter, I’ll throw in a few moth balls to drive her away.
If that doesn’t work, it’s war!
Deadline is going fairly well. Lenie’s computer crashed yesterday, but we worked around it as most of the files for this issue are on what we call the “deadline machine.” Lorraine, Lenie, and I selected placement for all ads, have page numbers for all the articles, and are dealing with Don for a few more pieces of art. Things go together rapidly these last few days because so much preparation work has been done, principally by Lisa, during the previous two months. It’s like a big puzzle now, with me primarily responsible for fitting the pieces together. I like this part a lot.
It will be Lenie’s, Lisa’s, and Rhoda’s jobs now to finish up the details as I write my Note from the Publisher and My View columns. Lenie will handle the technical jobs: flowing ads and articles, tweaking headline fonts, creating filler ads to sell BHM books, laying out the cover with bullets (BIG IMPORTANT TASK), and making sure the pages look attractive and clean. The real burden at this point falls on Lenie because she has the computer skills and artistic vision to make things look right. (Funny, she never touched a computer before I met her; now she knows more than me.)
Rhoda will finish up proofing articles for Lenie. She’s turning into an excellent proofer with good wordsmithing skills, and I plan on expanding her responsibilities. This is a critical area. Too many word snafus and the magazine appears amateurish. Lisa will take care of everything else, including typing up a “pagelist” of instruction for how the printer should handle the several hundred files we will FedEx him Thursday. She has her eye on the future and will be examining what articles I pulled and what ones will fit into next issue, or a future issue.
The issue is superb, and that’s what counts. It will keep us in business.
So here we are on deadline again for the 107th time in 18 years. Drop dead day, which is when we must Fed-Ex the issue to the printer, is July 19. From now til then will be hectic.
Lisa has done a lot of the layout prep work on the articles, and both she and I have talked to various writers as they prepared their articles. I spent all day yesterday going over them, deciding which one will lead the issue, and whether or not the “mix” of articles is okay. I make a lot of important decisions at this point on how to play stuff in the issue, which articles still need art by Don Childers, what needs beefing up or cutting back. I often make a quick scan of suggested headlines and change some of them, or change their font size. I edit the articles that need a tweak, but leave most of the proofing and grammar correction to others. I look for the important stuff; a minor error in grammar is not as important as omitting a necessary ingredient to an article.
I’m very good at all this and fit into a day what a run-of-the-mill editor would take a week to accomplish. Experience and knowing what I want gives me the speed. When an article does need a good edit, I’m careful to leave the writer’s voice intact. This is important so the whole magazine doesn’t read like it was written by one person. Too many editors have a heavy hand when it comes to editing writers. They think their personal view of writing and grammar is everything. This is a weakness in an editor’s ego, I believe, or they are simply not skilled. If you have a good writer who knows his or her subject, let that writer alone to the greatest extent possible. If you have a writer who is strong on knowledge but a bit weak with his words, still edit him or her with care. People have their own voice, and that voice does not have to reflect your college professor’s English.
If you have a writer who is weak on knowledge, then we made a mistake buying the article. I generally kill a weak article, even if I had previously requested it from a writer and have already paid for it. You never know until you actually have the article in hand whether or not is is good enough. There are times, however, I have had to cancel a good article simply because it was off target for BHM’s audience. I’ve done this with my best writers. Very often it is my mistake by failing to give the writer the direction I wanted taken. Other times the writer makes an erroneous assumption about what the readers need to hear. In the end, I use my best judgment and I don’t let a writer’s sometimes sensitive ego influence my decisions. Some people think I am stubborn, or downright dictatorial. But that’s okay. When it comes to editorial content, BHM is not a democracy. Committee decisions don’t exist in my editorial office.
That said, I have a strong cadre of writers, many of whom run their own successful businesses. They are as determined and as qualified in their businesses as I am in mine. And I have a very good staff. Lisa Nourse is my right hand gal. She coordinates nearly everything in the office, including the entire staff, writers, and articles. By the time I get to the articles, she has organized them, set (layed out) many of them, and made critical suggestions about whether or not they are strong enough. We are on the phone several times a day, and emailing back and forth. She also works closely with the writers and with my daughter, Annie, our editor-at-large who has the artistic skill to lay out the key articles. Every successful magazine needs a Lisa.
I have yet to go into the office since our Midwest trip. I like working out of my home. When I’m tired of doing magazine work, I go out on the deck and hit golf balls into the woods. Lenie goes into the office every day, thank goodness. That’s another story for a future blog. She’s gold for BHM. Good thing I took that walk on the pier.
Launching this blog has to be one of the most frustratingly difficult things I have done in my life. It is a perfect example of the chasm that now exists in American society between an older generation like me who is not comfortable on the internet and a younger generation, like most of you who are now reading this blog, who are comfortable with it.
This blog is intended to help bring BHM into the 21st century. At age 63, I may not feel at home on this instantaneous-feedback medium, but I can see it represents the future of magazines, while a paper magazine such as I now publish will probably join other print relics of history before my lifetime ends. It’s all happening so damn fast!
Near as I can tell, about one-third of Backwoods Home Magazine’s print issue subscribers do not do the internet, and they likely never will. I feel for them. I empathize with them. I publish my magazine for them, and I go only grudgingly into this new medium because two-thirds of BHM’s print issue readership is as comfortable here as they are with the print issue. I have no choice unless I want to be left behind.
I am a hybrid, with one foot in the old print world and the other stepping lightly into the internet. Next month the internet will be even more revolutionary than it is today. And next year it will be unimaginably newer. I doubt society has ever been transformed so quickly, and so frequently.
But I have seen the future for a long time. That’s why I’ve worked with BHM’s webmaster, Oliver Del Signore, this past decade developing our large and well organized website, www.backwoodshome.com. And now I’ll hop aboard in a more personal way and try and give you a publisher’s personal view of what it’s like to found and direct a print issue magazine for 18 years, then transition to the internet over maybe another 18. I have a lot of insight, I think, but obviously I have a lot to learn with this new technology.