Google IDs Newspaper Editor Jon Flatland as Serial Plagiarist

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.

Jon Flatland, former editor of the Blooming Prairie (Minn.) Times

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.”

This post was originally published on Erik Deckers‘ Laughing Stalk blog.

Karl the Curmudgeon Wants a Writers Feud

“Writer’s don’t have feuds anymore,” said Karl.

What are you talking about? I said. We were sitting in a writer’s bar called, predictably enough, First Edition. We had run out of internationally-themed bars, ever since Hey Man, the Isle of Man’s bar closed down, so we decided to plumb the literary bars that dotted Indianapolis.

For the last 20 minutes, Karl had been glaring at a publicity photo of some writer hanging behind the bar, muttering something about holes in glass, or something like that. I had been on a mini-rant about how plagiarists should be publicly flogged with the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, hardbound edition, when he decided he wanted to fight with other writers.

“We need more writers feuds!” he thundered, plonking his empty beer mug on the bar. “Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote used to have feuds. Norman Mailer once head-butted Gore Vidal. Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein used to snipe at each other in their books. Why don’t more writers do that?”

What the hell for?

“Because we’re all too nice to each other! Because everyone is just supposed to get along. Not make waves. Not make trouble.”

Of course. We’re a civilised society. See, I even spelled civilised with an ‘s’ right there.

“Screw civilized society,” he snapped, restoring the ‘z’ to its rightful place. “It’s sucking the very life right out of us. I can feel my very soul withering away. It needs to feel. I need something to stir it up and get my blood boiling.”

And so picking a fight with another writer is going to do it?

“Yeah, I think so. Look at that picture of that guy on the wall. René Whitehorse. Some French dude. Heh, René is a girl’s name.”

Do you even know him? I asked. I waved down Kurt, our bartender, and ordered two more beers.

“Actually, yeah. I’ve met him a couple times at book signings and parties for other writers. Pretentious little snot. He publishes one freaking poetry book — a collection of blank verse — and he thinks that makes him a book author.”

Doesn’t it?

“No, it makes him first-time lucky. Kid, I’ve written 18 books so far, and I’m not nearly as pretentious as this guy. When his little ‘pamphlet’” — Karl made air quotes — “first came out, he pitched a fit at a bookstore manager because it wasn’t placed on the New Arrivals shelf with the real, big boy books. He even whined to his publisher, but nothing was ever done.”

What does that have to do with you?

“When my last book came out and it was put on the big boy shelf, I had a friend email him a photo of it and say ‘don’t you know this guy?’”

So you’ve already started the feud with him?

“Well, that’s what I’m not so sure about. I’ve started making snarky comments about him to other people, but I don’t think it’s working. I was hoping you could help me.”

Me? I don’t know the first thing about picking a fight. I consider myself to be a man of peace and quiet action.

“Uh-huh. I’ve ridden in the car with you. You’re anything but a man of quiet action.”

Whatever. Have you tried throwing a drink in his face?

“Waste of beer.”

Heckled him at one of his poetry readings?

“His last poetry reading had two people. I’m not wasting A-material on an empty room.”

Ever tried punching him in public?

“That’s a little drastic, don’t you think? I just want to have a feud with him, not be arrested for assault.”

So write a scathing review on your blog about his poetry.

“Won’t he write a nasty response about me?”

Sweet jebus, Karl! That’s what a feud is! You two carp back and forth at each other, trying to make each other sound stupid by using big words. So write something nasty about his work, and make him sound like the kind of pretentious twit who lists his weight on his résumé, like some county fair beauty contestant.

“Ooh, good one. It’s not like he can retaliate. What’s he going to do, write a woolly-headed poem about me in his next book? Both his readers will get a good chuckle over it. Great, what else?”

Write a novel with a diarrheic penguin who writes blank verse poetry as one of the main characters.

“Is that what you do with your literary feuds?”

I don’t actually have any literary feuds. I get along with everyone.

“Yeah right, what about that science fiction writer from Memphis?”

You mean where I wrote that 3,000 word blog post that he should stick with writing Big Bang Theory fan fiction?

“Yeah, whatever happened to that one?”

His mom grounded him from Facebook for three months after he used his high school laptop to Photoshop a picture of me on Attila the Hun’s body.

“So you. . .”

Count it as a total victory? Oh yeah.

This post was originally published on Erik Deckers‘ Laughing Stalk blog.