The Wilko Report: Copy, right?

This article was commissioned by backers on the ‘crowdfunding’ journalism site Contributoria, but was not published. However as it is CC licensed we are able to publish here. Contributoria members are able to see the article’s production history.

Local newspapers are fighting a war against the web for digital attention — their advertising revenue and their lives depend on it. But are some fighting more dirty than others: reading smaller websites and ripping off their content?

If this were a case of copy and paste it would be solved easily. If it were a case of news stories it would be just what newspapers have been doing to each other since the first coffee house pamphlets — reporting what’s out there, borrowing each other’s exclusives. But this is more insidious: newspaper websites now trade in non-news pieces and ideas and content for these can be taken from anywhere. Possibly you.

One such incident is Wales Online, the website of the newspapers the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo, who seem to have had exactly the same idea as Dan D Donnelly in creating a photography series called ‘Humans of Cardiff’; just a year or so later.

Fans of the original have been leaving angry comments on the Facebook page of the newspapers:

“Whichever one of your employees saw it could of had the decency to check with the original page owner if they were still running the project, isn’t research part of a journalist’s job. Hopefully your second rate version will be down soon and an apology sent to the rightful owner of Humans of Cardiff.”

But the newspaper would claim to have been inspired elsewhere. The ‘Humans of…’ idea is older and originally from New York, and they seem secure in the knowledge that nothing can be done. On mentioning our investigation on Twitter, we got responses and examples from as far apart as Brownhills and Birmingham. We think there is plagiarism of a type here here, but how do we prove this? We have to gather what facts there — and then ask the difficult questions of the journalists, editors and bosses. And ask them again and again, not being scared of a digital door in the face. Our next case seems a little more cut and dried.

I worked with local Birmingham ‘Miscellany’ Paradise Circus (yes, that’s us, that’s me — allow us our Roger Cook-style character here) to try to get to the bottom of similarities between their content and that published online under the banner of the Birmingham Mail. Née the Evening Mail, the paper is 140 years old but has placed much more focus online in recent years cutting its cloth accordingly – and if your interface with the paper is its Facebook page for example, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it now only dealt with death, White Dee from Benefits St and listicles about quirky things from the city. Paradise Circus doesn’t do a huge amount on murder or White Dee, but it has a long history of quirk, and has been working on a large list series since 2012.

That came to a head in June when the team at Paradise Circus sent an email to the editor of the Mail, and in the naughty fashion we’d expect from them, published it online too. Here’s part of it:

The publication of this article on Thursday 26th June 2014: Bizarre Brum: 14 funny facts you probably didn’t know about Birmingham contains a section on Birmingham’s supposed ‘invention’ of karaoke with concept and execution almost identical to the 101 Brum article published on PC on the same subject in November 2012.

I would like to know your thoughts on this. I suggest that your journalists would likely be well aware of our work, especially as your sister paper The Sunday Mercury used one of our pieces a week or so ago (which was asked for, paid for and credited). For my part the coincidences seem too great and I believe heavy inspiration is being taken by at least one Birmingham Mail journalist from our work: this damages our reputation and our ability to monetise our content.

Eventually the Mail responded, not through the editor who had been contacted but by Anna Jeys ‘Head of Web’. She said:

Each of the examples you have referred to were original pieces of content […]

‘Bizarre Brum: 14 funny facts you probably didn’t know about Birmingham’ was a follow-up to an article our journalist Graham Young did with a Birmingham film-maker. We contacted him who supplied the basis for his film – these were boiled down into 14 facts as many of them had been published in other articles about Birmingham’s history.

Please be assured that content has not been taken from your site and any similarity in wording is coincidental. 

Paradise Circus responded.

That Birmingham invented karaoke is not a fact (it is not ‘true’), but a creative creation of our author. In this case your contention is that this was presented to you by a third party – I would suggest that as publisher you have a responsibility to check such sources: not just for veracity, but also for authorship.

A Google search for “Birmingham invented karaoke” for example brings our site up very quickly — I do not believe that that is too much research or safeguarding against plagiarism to ask for.

Again the Mail, who change track somewhat from ‘original content’ to that supplied by a third party:

I have spoken to the journalist you referred to in order to fully investigate the claims made in your original message, as we would with any complaint.

Our article Bizarre Brum: 14 funny facts you probably didn’t know about Birmingham made it clear that these were facts contained within the film featured in the original story.

PC:

I don’t think that because ‘facts’ (not ‘facts’ but our content) are said to be within a film that may or may not have plagiarised us is an excuse for the Mail to do it as well. Or is that your contention? 

The paper refused to answer this:

I don’t think we can resolve this in an email conversation [they offered to meet face-to-face, which is costly for those who have to work at other things for a living]We have investigated the matter and the Editor is satisfied that content was not taken from your site.

PC wouldn’t be fobbed off:

I would suggest that it would be the journalist’s responsibility to check content from a third party for originality, and that the editorial team of would be accountable for that. Is that your understanding?

But the Mail considered the matter closed. The digital door slammed.

I feel I have set out our position in my email of July 1 and don’t feel I can add any more in this respect.

There is a lead here, however, so we contacted the filmmaker Steve Rainbow whose Birmingham film was said to be the source. Was it really, and if so did the idea really come from Paradise Circus in the first place? Steve responded quickly:

“[it] comes from my working in film for some time and knowing that subtitles are called Astons and that there is a Birmingham connection, it was through conversations with other people that suggested that Astons could have lead to the creation of other things one of which is Karaoke. I liked the idea and put it in. It was only after making the film that I was made aware of your website and saw the Karaoke fact. I can only assume that the people that suggested using the fact about Astons and adding the gag about Karaoke on the end of that had indeed seen your website.”

It seems that Paradise Circus is the originator, but even if they had the money for lawyers could they win? It’s a grey area to say the least. Paul Bradshaw, a reader in online journalism at Birmingham City University doesn’t think this issue is a new one: “Plagiarism has been a recurring issue for years in the relationship between the local press and blogs, but now, with the pressure to adapt to curation and more viral formats – particularly lists – many journalists are having to draw on content from elsewhere in new ways and against tight deadlines, and are not always well trained enough to do so ethically.”

“To some extent I think there are two cultures at play here: local journalists (and more often their editors and sub-editors) don’t always understand the culture of linking and attribution in the web, or the likelihood of a backlash when they don’t. Bloggers, on the other hand, aren’t generally aware of the culture in newsrooms around taking leads and ideas from elsewhere and passing them off as more ‘exclusive’ or original than they really are.“

“Information flows freely on the Internet,” they say, but creative concepts are not information. “You can’t copyright an idea,” is another maxim. But as we’ve shown it is possible to trace where an idea originates. I’d say that it is a commercial organisation’s moral duty to be aware of those sources, ignorance in the age of Google is no defence.

We all need to be vigilant. Don’t have nightmares.


We wrote this, then asked David Brookes, the editor of the Birmingham Mail if he’d like to respond to this article. This we are happy to add here in full:

“Paradise Circus is an amazing site, and you’re right to point out that they do a good line in the ‘quirky’, but so, too, do sites as diverse as Buzzfeed and the Daily Telegraph.

It’s a shame, too, you only highlighted the Mail’s coverage of White Dee (which is second to none by the way), death (of which there’s quite a lot in a conurbation as big as Brum) and its very popular listicles. Lack of space no doubt prevented you from mentioning its investigative journalism, which lifted the lid on the Trojan Horse scandal, or its campaigning on a range of issues – we won a national award just this week for our efforts to help stamp out violence in grassroots football.

As you point out in the article the Birmingham Mail has been working with sites like PC, paying for and attributing links and content, for many years. We’re therefore a bit confused by the allegation that we’ve ‘stolen’ a creative concept. Let me be clear, we didn’t ‘rip off’ PC in any way, shape or form.

I’ve no doubt PC was first to the karaoke punchline but that was a good year and a half before we ran the piece that’s in dispute. That’s a long time for an online joke, meme or urban myth to take hold in the sub-conscience of at least a few people in the city and beyond – and the trail back to its source to go stone cold. Indeed, the idea certainly found its way into Steve Rainbow’s thinking ‘through conversations with other people’.

Is it desirable, or even possible, to research every concept to the nth degree just to ensure recognition of the originator, no matter how many degrees of separation are involved? As you point out, we’re used in the press to seeing our original stories picked up, rehashed and republished without attribution. That’s pretty much the cost of being in the information business. You get attention by being unique and original but that very attention then puts your content – however original – firmly in the public domain, where it’s passed from hand to hand until it loses all trace of your fingerprints. It’s almost inevitable therefore that intriguing conceits such as the ‘karaoke’ idea find their way back into the media.

It’s also a shame that you’ve selectively quoted the email conversation so didn’t point out that our invitation for Jon and colleagues to come in to the office and meet the editor and web team apparently fell on deaf ears. That invitation remains on the table, and we’d be delighted to see the PC team whenever they would like to pop in.

By Howard Wilkinson

Director of Satire, Paradise Circus. Howard adds stability at the top, taking a strategic overview of operations whilst also stepping in from time to time in a caretaker author role.

Director of Satire, Paradise Circus. Howard adds stability at the top, taking a strategic overview of operations whilst also stepping in from time to time in a caretaker author role.