“Write every piece three times,” the late Richard Strout used to advise journalists who craved advancement in the profession.
Strout, who wrote the New Republic’s TRB column for four decades and worked 60 years as a Washington correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, wasn’t calling on his colleagues to submit identical copies of their work to different publications for payment, as New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer just got busted for.
Strout was more subtle. If, for example, you were a freelancer who had just penned a slice-of-life piece for the New Republic about a coal strike in West Virginia, the only way to earn back your investment of time on such a low-paying piece was to spin off a similar yet distinctive version, maybe to the Outlook section of the Washington Post. If you could reconstitute elements of the narrative into a work that fed the policy debate over unions, your efforts were legitimate. After satisfying those two outlets, a smart freelancer would shoot for the glossies with a big coal-strike feature, perhaps the New York Times Magazine or the Atlantic. Sometimes the publish-every-piece-three-times impetus has come not from writers, but from editors who, having seen a writer’s earlier work on a topic, wanted a localized version of the writer’s story.
As entrepreneurial as Strout was about repurposing, he never sanctioned the wholesale lifting of paragraphs from old pieces and their insertion into new publications with a few tweaks – what Lehrer stands guilty of. Under Stroutian rules, writers were expected to freshen their work enough to make some plausible claim to originality.
In the early hours of l’affaire Lehrer, my instincts were telling me that Lehrer had transgressed, but I couldn’t figure out whether his offense was a felony, a misdemeanor or a violation of journalistic taboo. A variety of observers were calling what Lehrer did “self-plagiarism,” but in my mind plagiarism requires some act of thievery. You can’t steal money out of your own bank account, can you? You can’t commit adultery with your own spouse, right?