It's easy, and right, to criticize this.
It's easy and right to criticize Rusty Simmons for plagiarizing press releases from the Golden State Warriors on his beat. It's right that his paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, suspended him. It's right that his offense is being written about in the Columbia Journalism Review and that his name is being spread around Deadspin and other media sites.
Plagiarism is the original sin in journalism. There's no defense for it. It's lazy. It's intellectually dishonest. It cheats the readers and it cheats the industry. My good friend Dr. Matt Zimmerman pointed out on Facebook that there are a lot of very good reporters out there who are honest and hard working and are either looking for work or who will never get the opportunity to cover a pro team for a major metro paper, and none of them plagiarize.
It's wrong. Period. Point blank. Full stop.
But I can't help thinking about the institutional and organizational aspects of this. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, this is not at all a defense of Simmons' actions. It's a brief look for an explanation. I teach economics every so often, and one of the key aspects of that field rationality. People make decisions for what they believe are rational explanations. Or, as Merlin Mann puts it, everyone has their reasons.
No one gets into the business to be a plagiarizer. No one who is talented enough to get a pro beat at a major metro daily needs to plagiarize.
So why do they do it?
I keep thinking to our digital culture now in news. This is not blaming the Internet — lord knows there were plagiarizers before 1996 — but we can't talk about this without at least acknowledging our digital news environment. Speed and content are king. For better or worse, they are. Reporters are under a constant demand for content - more and more content. Keep the readers on the site. Keep them engaged. Keep them clicking. In talking to journalists for my research, I've had reporters tell me they are required to publish a minimum of five online news posts per day. That's regardless of how much news is going on. Another organization required tweets from their team's training camp every five minutes, every day.
And speed matters. It's not enough to get the content, you have to get it posted fast. So your organization gets the clicks, gets the Retweets, gets the unique visitors.
Combine the need for content and the need for speed, and it creates a high-demand, high-pressure environment for reporters. More is always demanded. Frankly, I'm surprised plagiarism doesn't happen more often.
Again. This is in no way a defense of Simmons or of any plagiarist. It's wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Every type of wrong. The original sin of journalism. Have I made that clear? That his actions are wrong? Because they are.
But to rightly criticize the sinner without also examining the organizational, institutional and environmental factors of the journalism ecosystem makes any discussion incomplete and superficial.