The Accidental Plagiarist

zachery kouwe new york ti The Accidental PlagiaristFive days ago, Robert Thomson, the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, wrote a letter to The Times’ executive editor, Bill Keller, about “apparent plagiarism” on The Times’ DealBook blog, in a post by Zachery Kouwe, a 31-year-old business reporter.

The examples laid out by Mr. Thomson were pretty clear-cut: Much of the story, which was about a lawsuit involving Bernie Madoff’s family, was obviously lifted from a Journal piece published a few hours before the Times piece.

>>READ JOHN KOBLIN’S BACKSTORY ON THE LETTER

Shortly thereafter, The Times’ editors notified Mr. Kouwe of their findings. “I was in complete shock,” said Mr. Kouwe in an interview with The Observer. “Then I started worrying and started thinking, how the fuck did this happen?”

The Times’ editors were asking themselves the same thing. Almost immediately, they dispatched a team to a quick scrub of Mr. Kouwe’s work. Within a day, they found half a dozen examples of passages lifted from other news sources. On Sunday night, an editors’ note was published on the Times Web site admitting that Mr. Kouwe had indeed lifted lines from a variety of sources, including The Journal and Reuters. 

By Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Kouwe had resigned.

“We have a zero tolerance policy for unethical journalism,” wrote Mr. Keller in an e-mail to The Observer. “Plagiarism is unethical journalism.”

“I was as surprised as anyone that this was occurring,” said Mr. Kouwe, referring to the revelation that he had plagiarized. “I write essentially 7,000 words every week for the blog and for the paper and all that stuff. As soon as I saw, I guess, like six examples, I said to myself, ‘Man what an idiot. What I was thinking?’”

Mr. Kouwe says he has never fabricated a story, nor has he knowingly plagiarized. “Basically, there was a minor news story and I thought we needed to have a presence for it on the blog,” he said, referring to DealBook. “In the essence of speed, I’ll look at various wire services and throw it into our back-end publishing system, which is WordPress, and then I’ll go and report it out and make sure all the facts are correct. It’s not like an investigative piece. It’s usually something that comes off a press release, an earnings report, it’s court documents.”

“I’ll go back and rewrite everything,” he continued. “I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that’s what probably happened.”

In one story, published on Dec. 8 on the front page of The Times’ business section, Mr. Kouwe wrote, “In the face of increasing loan repurchases and a huge, undisclosed backlog of repurchase demands, the S.E.C. said, Mr. Kenneally, with Ms. Dodge’s knowledge, made changes to New Century’s accounting for loan repurchases in both the second and third quarters of 2006.” That line is copied nearly verbatim from a S.E.C. press release.

On Nov. 18, Mr. Kouwe wrote: “Employment in the securities industry in New York City fell by 28,300 jobs since its peak in November 2007, the comptroller said. The report predicts, however, that job losses in the sector are unlikely to exceed 35,000 by the end of the year, a much smaller number than previously forecast.”

The same sentences had already appeared, almost word for word, in a piece in The Wall Street Journal.

(The article that Mr. Thomson refers to in his letter is from Feb. 5.)

“There’s no excuse for this,” said Mr. Kouwe. “I understand the seriousness of it. Even if it was inadvertent, that doesn’t make it any less serious.”

Mr. Kouwe’s career at The Times began in November 2008. He was one of about a dozen reporters and editors who were hired to enhance the Times business-news verticals (DealBook, Your Money, Technology, etc.). At the time, the hires rankled some staffers, since the paper was in the midst of a hiring freeze and other than acquiring superstars—Peter Baker, for example—editors weren’t hiring anyone for any other section. 

The hires were encouraged by the business executives at the Times Company since those blogs tend to draw traffic (and compulsive readers) that are an attractive proposition to advertisers right now.

Times Company CEO Janet Robinson hasn’t been shy about promoting it. “As part of this expansion strategy, we have continued to grow the number of Executive Decision Makers who visit our site,” said Ms. Robinson in December at the UBS Global Media & Communications Conference, discussing the business verticals.

He was a reporter at the New York Post when Andrew Ross Sorkin approached him in 2008, Mr. Kouwe said. 

“Andrew said to me, ‘Are you ready to move on? Let’s talk about this.’ Then I went through the normal interview process,” said Mr. Kouwe.

He said he went through several rounds of interviews, including one with Mr. Keller. His assignment was to work with Mr. Sorkin on the DealBook blog. 

In the coming days, inevitably, The Times will look inward to ask whether the pace of publishing in the blogs can be sustained given the level of editorial oversight they obviously need.

The DealBook banner says that it is “edited by Andrew Ross Sorkin.” Though he does oversee it, he does not edit the majority of its posts, sources said. The editing responsibilities of DealBook are primarily left to Jack Lynch, who staffers said aggregates for the site and posts items and doesn’t precisely give thorough spot checks on each item that he posts. 

“Many people have thought for quite a long time that DealBook was the part of BizDay that desperately needed a baby sitter,” said one staffer.

A Times spokeswoman said, “Our journalistic standards are the same online as they are in print.”

When we asked Mr. Kouwe if he felt he needed stronger editing, or if perhaps the breakneck pace was to blame, he said, “It wasn’t anybody else. I was pushing myself to do as much as I possibly can. It was careless.”

More from John Koblin:

Robert Thomson’s Letter to Bill Keller About Zachery Kouwe’s ‘Apparent Plagiarism’

Rupert vs. the World