Nearly four years ago, inspired by the fleeting Newfoundland summer, Telegram columnist Russell Wangersky wrote that he wouldn’t waste a beautiful day by worrying about bitterness and politics.
“We can look under every rock for how we've been wronged, for proof of the latest imagined betrayal, or we can make our own future, every single day,” wrote Wangersky in a column published July 5, 2008.
Last summer, an editor and publisher of a weekly newspaper in Alberta printed those exact 28 words — and the better part of every other sentence in Wangersky’s column — under his own name. It was one of 41 columns he is accused of plagiarizing over the past year.
The target of the accusation — Steve Jeffrey of The Anchor Weekly in Chestermere, a bedroom town of Calgary — denies plagiarizing anyone. But his column — under the headline “Gone fishin,’” the same as Wangersky’s — is virtually identical, apart from a few minor changes; a personal detail added here, a geographical reference rewritten to fit Alberta there. The duplication was uncovered by George Waters, a humour columnist based in southern California who Googled unique phrases from his own work to search out any unauthorized use.
He found Jeffrey.
Says he found more
“I started pulling up his other columns, because so many of them are available online,” Waters told The Telegram on Monday. “Just putting specific, unique, unusual phrases from the column, inside quote marks, into Google and seeing what else came up.”
More often than not, said Waters, who publicized his discovery on his own blog Monday morning, he found that work published under Jeffrey’s name had originated elsewhere. In a year’s worth of weekly columns, Waters found 42 instances of work previously published by another author.
But Jeffrey, when reached by The Telegram on Monday morning, said he hasn’t copied anyone and that he’s trying to “figure it out.”
“We’re a small community newspaper, and I write local news commentary,” he said. When asked about the word-for-word reproduction of Wangersky’s column specifically, Jeffrey said, “I don’t know the specific column. I’m kind of taken aback by what’s going on right now, and really don’t know what to say.”
When asked directly if he has put his name on other writers’ work, Jeffrey — who also sits on the board of directors of the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association — said no.
“I certainly have used other writers as inspiration, but I would say that I have not plagiarized anything,” he said.
The most frequently reproduced writer — Tennessee humourist Sheila Moss — saw her material used 25 times; in one instance, the same column was published twice, on June 23 and Oct. 27, according to Waters, who found, in all, 14 different writers over the past year with material reproduced under Jeffrey’s name, including three Newfoundland writers: Wangersky, Ed Smith of Springdale and Bill Westcott of Clarke’s Beach.
Waters has been trying to get in touch with the other writers whose work has been used. In his blog, he published links comparing Jeffrey’s columns to the source material, but Jeffrey’s archived work, which had been available early Monday, appears to no longer be accessible online. Issues of The Anchor had been archived at issuu.com as recently as Monday morning, and Jeffrey said he didn’t know why they weren’t available. “I haven’t been around this morning,” he said.
When told by The Telegram that an Anchor co-worker said Jeffrey had in fact been at the newspaper office Monday morning, Jeffrey admitted to having been in the office that morning but said he didn’t have anything to do with the archives no longer being online.
Wangersky said he was “half-bemused” when he was contacted by Waters.
“I’m interested that somebody would think they’re good enough to steal, but on the other hand, we’re in a business where columnists generally are lucky enough to be able to write about whatever they want to write about it,” he said. “It’s a powerful tool to have; why would you waste it by using someone else’s words? I think it’s kind of sad, actually.”
Smith dismissed the email he received from Waters on Monday morning, assuming it was some sort of Internet scam.
“I didn’t know whether to open it up or not, because you get all kinds of weird emails from people who see your email address at the bottom of a column,” he said.
Waters said given similar stories he’s heard — he was prompted to search for unauthorized use of his own work after hearing about another humour columnist who was plagiarized — he wasn’t surprised to find his work used, but the scope of it astonished him.
“I was surprised at the scale of this editor’s audacity to be doing this so consistently, week after week for a year,” said Waters, who worries the extent goes back even further than just the year’s worth of columns he found online. “If it were one column, just my column, I might have contacted him and said, ‘Hey, this is out of line. You need to pay me.’ But at this scale, I figured that other writers and other people in the media needed to know about it.”
Waters said the fact Jeffrey is an editor makes it worse.
“You expect an editor to be the person who is the paragon of virtue, the person who is dealing with a lot of writers and husbanding their creativity, not actually profiting from it,” he said, adding he isn’t sure what to do next.
“I haven’t talked a lot of the other writers. I talked to two or three this morning, or emailed, actually,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a consensus about that. As far as anything beyond hoping that he resigns, obviously, that’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to.”
Wangersky is similarly unsure how to proceed.
“If I really was a humour columnist — and most of the people whose work seems to have been nabbed were humour columnists — perhaps I’d send him an invoice,” he said.
Smith said Jeffrey should be brought to task.
“I’d like to expose him for what he’s done,” he said. “I’d like to see him stopped.”
On Monday, the Alberta Press Council — a nonprofit organization that takes complaints about its member newspapers — was asked to look into the matter by Erik Deckers, an Indianapolis columnist.
The council’s executive secretary-treasurer, Colleen Wilson, said the first step to resolving a complaint is to see if both parties can come to an agreement themselves, but she’s not sure that’s possible here.
If the council investigates, they’ll contact Jeffrey for a response to the allegations. “If he chooses not to (respond), then we would take it to the complaint review committee and perhaps adjudication,” she said.
To view Russell Wangersky's original column CLICK HERE.