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Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Freelance Toolbox

Lessons from Jonah Lehrer

By Anna Pratt

Note: A version of this column originally ran on SPJ's blog for freelancers, The Independent Journalist. It was written for the blog -- and submitted for the July/August issue of Quill -- after Jonah Lehrer's issues with self-plagiarism came to light in June but before further revelations of made-up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan led to Lehrer's resignation from The New Yorker in late July.

As a freelance journalist, I’ve occasionally reworked material on the same topic for

multiple stories. I haven’t done much of this, but I’ve often thought about how to get more mileage out of my work. I’ve read books from freelancers who talk about repurposing written material, presenting new angles for different audiences. It seems appealing, especially for my

bottom line.

But when media blogger Jim Romenesko called out prominent science journalist Jonah Lehrer for “self-plagiarizing,” sometimes paragraphs at a time, in numerous pieces for various publications, it gave me pause.

I watched as responses ranged from sharp criticism to shrugs.

Since then, a handful of Lehrer’s stories for The New Yorker, where he started working in June, have been flagged with disclaimers about the duplication of material. Also, Lehrer apologized in The New York Times, saying it was “a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” The New Yorker says it won’t happen again.

Does that mean I shouldn’t try to repurpose? But what about syndication? That’s just reselling the same article to multiple places.

I asked around for advice and pulled together these thoughts on how to recycle pieces while staying in editors’ and readers’ good graces.

1. BE TRANSPARENT FROM THE GET-GO

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, a freelancer in Rochester, N.Y., says she repurposes, but “only very carefully — making sure it’s clear to new editors that a version of the information has been published.”

The payoff can be big: Thaler-Carter once submitted a profile on a small business owner that she’d written for the St. Louis Argus to Essence magazine. It was a small item, but they published it and it netted her both $75 and her first national clip.

2. FIND DIFFERENT MARKETS

General publications often don’t care if a version of an article appears in a trade publication, for instance, and vice versa.

3. REWORK YOUR WORK

Cutting and pasting is easy, but it also creates issues like Lehrer’s. Best to rewrite yourself at least a bit. You can reuse sources and even quotes, but do so carefully, and make sure you note that an article has appeared in different form elsewhere.

4. ASK PERMISSION, NOT FORGIVENESS

Attribution is important. Dana Neuts, a freelancer based in Kent, Wash., and chairwoman of the SPJ Freelance Committee, says that before repurposing something, go to your editor and tell them you want to use something from a piece you’ve already published. She says try something like saying “‘Hey, I used this example in a story, and I think it also applies in the story I’m doing for you. Do you mind if I reuse it?’

“That way your current editor can view the original piece and decide if he wants something fresh and new or if reusing the original work is acceptable.” (Of course, you should make sure you own the rights to the original piece.)

5. CITE

Jonah Lehrer might not have had any controversy if he’d just mentioned at the bottom of his pieces that he was reusing material.

As someone who’s frequently worked under tight deadlines, I can understand the impulse to quickly copy and paste. At the same time, in a business that’s all about informing people, it makes sense to me to be open and honest about a story’s back-story. I’m thankful to Lehrer for reminding me to do that.

Now to go back through my work and figure out what pieces might deserve a new slant.

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