It’s a weird badge of honor in the humor writing world to be stolen from. To have someone else take your work, stick their name on it, and claim they wrote it. To tell the world they thought of that story, spun the words together, and made those jokes about the Mayor’s wife’s nose job.
It’s a strange mix of emotions when it happens.
On the one hand, there’s red-faced anger. Many of us make a mere pittance from our work and to have it stolen by someone who financially benefitted from it is an outrage.
On the other hand, there’s pride. Pride that someone thought my work was funny enough to steal. That, of all the humor columnists to rip off, my work made them laugh enough to declare, “THIS! This column is so good, I must steal it.”
We get special privileges when this happens, like openly mocking humor writers who were not ripped off.
I got to experience all this last Thursday, when I received an email from another humor writer, David Fox, telling me and several other writers, that a newspaper editor named Jon Flatland, of the Blooming Prairie Times in Blooming Prairie, Minn., had been stealing our columns for several years.
Fox had contacted Flatland’s boss, publisher Rick Bussler, and let him know what had happened. In the meantime, one of the writers contacted Flatland directly, and told him we were on to him. According to Bussler, Flatland resigned via email and admitted to the plagiarism, all before Bussler got to the office that day. Last we heard, he had left town almost immediately.
As we started searching for more evidence, we added more victims to the fold. At our latest count, at least 12 of us had been ripped off.
My friend and fellow humorist, Dick Wolfsie, wrote that his wife had said, “Are you telling me that he could have stolen from any of hundreds of humor columnists in America and he picked you?” which helped him experience a new, third emotion.
To make matters worse (or better) Flatland had won a few humor awards from the North Dakota Newspaper Association over the years. The author of one award-winning column has already been identified as blogger Jason Offutt. The rest of us are holding our breath to see if we won any others.
The “real” winners will get to re-experience the joy and anger of having his column ripped off yet again, but secretly we’re more worried about what might happen if it wasn’t ours. Or worse, if our columns were used in the years he lost.
The Internet has already started exploding with stories about Jon Flatland’s thievery. Minnesota Public Radio and some area TV stations are reporting the story, as are several newspapers around the Minnesota and North Dakota area. I was even interviewed by the Poynter Institute, a well-respected journalism school in Florida, and the story was online less than 18 hours later.
If you’re interested in seeing the fallout, you can Google Flatland’s name and see pages and pages of stories about his shameful acts.
And that right there — the ability to go online and find this information in mere seconds — is what’s most surprising about this entire story.
We live in the 21st century. We have technology that lets you find things on the Internet. Type in a word, name, or phrase, and you can find nearly every web page that contains it.
That’s how David Fox tracked Flatland down. He Googled a phrase from a column, and found it had been stolen. He Googled some of “Flatland’s columns” from the Blooming Prairie Times, and found that they had all been stolen. And that’s when everything fell down around Flatland’s ears.
How someone can steal from other writers for years and years without thinking he could be caught is astounding. It’s second only to the fact that it took years and years for the rest of us to figure out he did it.
The end result is that the same tool he ignored is now doubly responsible for making sure he never works in journalism again: it’s how he was caught, and it’s the first place potential employers are going to check when they search for his name.
Guess what they’re going to find.
But maybe he won’t even look for a job. Maybe he’ll turn to novel writing instead, and make a living writing books. I can just imagine it:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”