I guess I should admit that I occasionally recycle points and lines in my blog and in speeches and workshops. I don’t think I do this in the way that Jonah Lehrer did in his New Yorker blog. I think Lehrer crossed a noteworthy line and I don’t think I have. But I do recycle.
I’ll discuss all that shortly, but here are some points I believe I have repeated in some fashion (and I’m pretty sure this list is incomplete):
- Don’t turn obstacles into excuses; make them the war stories of your innovation success.
- Newspapers are experiencing a time similar to the pre-Gutenberg monks who handmade artistically inscribed Bibles.
- Several points about why paywalls on newspaper websites are a bad idea.
- Tips on using Twitter.
- Criticism of newsrooms with restrictive, fear-based social media policies.
- Tips on maintaining your digital profile and finding jobs in digital journalism.
- Blogging tips.
- Never say no for someone else.
- Newspapers need to develop more diverse digital revenue streams. (OK, I’m going to stop coming back here and adding bullets; I think you get the point and I already said this list was incomplete.)
Some people have used the term “self-plagiarize” to describe what Lehrer did. I don’t consider that phrase accurate. Plagiarism is theft of words and you can’t steal from yourself. Recycling, remixing or repurposing seem to better describe what he did (I just changed that sentence to take out the word “offense” because I don’t think recycling, remixing and repurposing are offenses in themselves. They are honorable and common writing practices).
Lehrer’s offense was to recycle without acknowledging the practice to readers or to his New Yorker editors. I have re-used the same content as extensively as he did in the pieces cited in the Romenesko post that exposed his practice. But I acknowledged (in the headline and the top of the post) that my updated and expanded Twitter tips for journalists were updated and expanded from earlier tips (some tips needed no updating and were the same or nearly so).
Transparency changes repetition from deception into consistency. (I liked that line so much I decided to recycle it into the headline, although you read it first there.)
We must bring originality to our work, but we (writers, editors and audience) must recognize that most writing grows from other writing. For instance, this post draws on pieces that Romenesko, Craig Silverman, Kelly McBride and Josh Levin have written about Lehrer’s recycling and from the Poynter live chat (embedded at the end of both of the Poynter pieces linked above) about the Lehrer case (the R words I used instead of self-plagiarism were all used in the chat). Not to mention that this post draws heavily from my own previous writing.
When I am beating a drum I’ve beaten before (say on newsroom social media policies or paywalls), I lace that post with links to previous posts or just to the whole category where I have discussed the topic at length (as I just did). I have sort-of promised a couple times that I’m done talking about paywalls because I really haven’t had anything new to say since my original (hmm, should I even use that word? I linked to others in that piece and had made some of the same points before in discussions and tweets) post on seven reasons paywalls won’t work. Paywall posts since then have been repeating the points I made there — perhaps with elaboration and certainly addressing a new context, but the argument is the same.
The obstacles/excuses and Gutenberg points have been mainstays of my speaking from my Newspaper Next days at the American Press Institute five years ago. (I started using the Gutenberg point after a visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, in April 2007.) I give them different twists and use them in different context, but the basic points are pretty consistent.
I don’t use them in every workshop or every speech, but I have used them a lot and used them both in a speech earlier this month. I think that sort of recycling is more accepted in speaking than in writing. We refer to the “stump speeches” of politicians and I am sure I’m not the only frequently-speaking journalist who has some stump speeches.
In a comment on the blog version of my speech earlier this month, Bill Garber said I should deliver that speech to press associations around the country, an endorsement of recycling in speaking. My pages promoting my speeches and workshops make clear that I am offering to present versions of speeches and workshops I have done before.
When I first mentioned Gutenberg in this blog, I referred to my “closing shtick” in speeches to newspaper gatherings. Subsequent posts used that shtick in pretty transparent ways (the text for the speech this month and prepared remarks for a panel discussion two years ago and a video from a discussion in a college class that included a passing reference to Gutenberg but not the full shtick).
I count 14 blog posts with the words obstacles and excuses, including a reposting of a 2005 post from my old Training Tracks blog, when I first developed that point. The first reference on this blog noted that it was a point I had made before. Maybe I need to be more original and develop some new shticks (at what point does consistency become cliché?). But that’s another matter.
As several freelancers pointed out in the Poynter live chat, pitching different stories from the same research to multiple publications is a longstanding and ethical journalism practice if you’re honest about it. When I published my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection in 2009, at least three different blogs or sites and the Nieman Reports asked me to write guest posts about it. Each of them expected and received something that was strongly derivative of my blueprint. But each of them also got a different take (I might have been straining a bit by the fourth one).
Expectations make a huge difference in whether repetition is ethical. If Lehrer had told a New Yorker editor that he was going to recycle the top three paragraphs, the editor probably would have told him to rewrite it or take a different approach. But if they knew it was coming, that would be fine, especially if you disclose to readers. Last year I rewrote my call for a new journalism code of ethics for a Quill magazine piece. Similarities between the two pieces were significant. But that was OK because it was what Quill Editor Scott Leadingham had asked me to do, and he disclosed to readers that the piece was adapted from a blog post.
Here are my tips for making repetition acceptable and ethical:
- Link to earlier related pieces.
- Acknowledge repetition to editors and readers.
- Add new context, examples and insights to make each piece distinct, whatever the similarities.
And don’t rely just on repetition. Mix that consistency up with some originality. I might want to work on a new closing shtick next time I speak.