This Post is Not Plagiarized: Paul Sullivan, Aggregation, and the Problem of Access

me and paul sullivan at CubsConYesterday morning was an interesting one.

Readying myself for a morning of home opener coverage and endless Wrigley renovation updates, I saw this Tweet from Chicago Tribune beat writer Paul Sullivan in my timeline:

Boy, it rubbed me the wrong way. These fans were out to have a fun day, and Sullivan snaps a picture, using it to make light of why anyone would want to come out early to see the Cubs on Opening Day at Wrigley Field. Call me sensitive, but I thought it was a crappy thing to do, and it merited a call out. So I called him out in a sarcastic, but playful way:

Sullivan, who almost never responds to Tweets, responded in a way that (1) suggested he’d had something he wanted to say for quite some time, and (2) surprised the hell out of me:

It took me a few moments to collect myself, but I sent Paul a couple of Tweets. One frustrated:

And two sincere:

Paul and I also exchanged emails, the specifics of which I’ll keep between us. But they were short and courteous. I expressed my disagreement with his use of the word “plagiarize,” and offered to stop sharing/discussing his writing on BN. Paul essentially indicated that he likes the site, and I got the impression that he wasn’t looking to accuse me of a specific instance of (or instances of) Jayson Blair-style plagiarism. It doesn’t look like he’ll be publicly confirming that he was joking anytime soon, though.

Sullivan has a bit of showman in him, and some of his digs are in jest and good fun. This pushed that line a bit, and it’s disappointing. Moreover, it raises with it an important conversation about the nature of sports journalism, access, sports blogging, and what I do at Bleacher Nation.

First, let’s dispense with that ugly “P” word. The generally-accepted definition for plagiarism, as offered in this instance by Merriam-Webster, is “to steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one’s own; to use another’s production without crediting the source.” If it doesn’t go without saying, plagiarism is among the most serious and damaging charges someone can lodge at a professional writer. And, if it doesn’t go without saying based on that definition (or any reasonable definition you can concoct), let me state it clearly: I have never plagiarized, and never will. I’ve never even approached it. The light from plagiarism has yet to reach BN’s Earth. I don’t think it will ever get here.

I do what I do with integrity, transparency, and honesty. With one casually-flicked – and very public – sentence, Sullivan chipped away at that, however slightly.

It was unfortunate and unfair, but it gives me the opportunity to discuss the aspect of BN’s Cubs coverage with which Sullivan has an issue: aggregation.

Simply, aggregation is a long-standing aspect of blog writing, the most notable example of which here at BN is the morning Bullets. Aggregation comes in a variety of flavors, some of which is rather insidious. There are sites that automatically search out, steal, and repackage originally-produced content on their own site, a practice that would qualify as both plagiarism and copyright infringement. There are others that lift and repackage originally-produced content and supply a link, but they republish far too much of the source content and supply no original content/analysis/discussion of their own. That is not what I do, and it never has been. What I do is probably better described as “aggregation and curation.”

Useful and appropriate human aggregation usually has a certain look: here’s a link I think you should read, here’s a very small slice of what the author at that link says, and here’s what I think about what the author at that link says. A good blog uses aggregation as a piece of what it does, and there are very large, reputable baseball sites that rely heavily on aggregation. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because they do it the right way. The obvious examples here are the inimitable and widely-accepted MLB Trade Rumors and Hardball Talk.

Although it is far from the only thing that I do, thoughtful human aggregation is an important part of what I do. There is so much information about the Chicago Cubs available out there that, as part of what I do, I read/listen/watch everything I can find on the Cubs, cull what is important, and present the information in a useful manner – frequently with extensive analysis. Aggregation here is done with appropriate attribution, including a link. By doing so, I am not only keeping readers here informed, I am also spreading the love to other writers.

I don’t pretend to be anything I’m not here at BN. Over the years, when I’ve received barbs about “not being a real journalist” or “just being a fan like anyone else,” my inclination has always been to say, “Well, yeah. I’m just a dude who writes about the Cubs.” I’ve never really thought of myself as anything more.

That said, I can’t ignore a huge piece of this conversation: bloggers like me aggregate out of equal parts service and necessity. As a media entity without credentials or traditional “access,” sites like Bleacher Nation have always had to approach coverage from a different perspective. The aggregate-link-and-comment model arose for this very reason. Historically, independent bloggers have not had access to the press box or the clubhouse. We can’t talk to the manager ourselves. We can’t get quotes from the GM. So we do the best we can.

Fortunately, the Cubs have been supportive of what I do. I’ve recently started receiving media releases from the Cubs (transaction news and official news you see on BN is, like, actual reporting!), and I’d like to think the ball is slowly rolling toward the kind of legitimization necessary for me, or for someone writing under the BN banner, to be able to cover the Cubs like any other media source with credentials.

Even then, I wouldn’t want to change how I do things too dramatically. Information about the Cubs is all part of one large conversation. No one owns the information, and no one – save, perhaps, for the Cubs – should own the access. Reporters are entitled to write about the Cubs, and I’m entitled to write about what they say. Far more importantly: you, the reader, are entitled to see it all and participate in that conversation. When I’m able to do more “direct reporting” on the Cubs, if that phrase works for you, I’m still going to want to view the entirety of the conversation with a wide lens. And if that means linking to and discussing the reports of other writers, then so be it.

But, until that access is afforded – and the imprimatur of legitimacy that comes with it – I will be vulnerable to the kinds of criticisms Sullivan lobbed at me yesterday, fair or unfair.

For now, the best I can do is continue to be extremely transparent – which, ironically, is what gives people ammunition to blast me. When I’m relaying and commenting upon information that an outside reporter has cultivated, I go out of my way not to try and casually slip in the fact that the information came from another media source without a link (which, as an outside observer, is common practice among many traditional media outlets). Instead, I proclaim loudly and boldly the source of the information, and then I offer my own, original thoughts. To use my transparency as a sword against me is the kind of short-sited folly that I “have neither the time nor the inclination” to correct. I know that I’m doing things the right way, and I know that I’m proud of my work. Everything else is, at best, secondary.

I’ve always said I respect what the beat writers do, and, for the most part, I think they do great work. Even to this moment, I’ll say it about Sullivan, too. I share with you what they write because I think you should read it. I’ve never supported the “us against them” approach vis a vis bloggers and traditional media, and I think it’s a mistake on both sides. Perhaps it is because I am not a traditional journalist that I’ve always viewed our roles as complementary, not adversarial. I intend to remain that way.

Thank you for being a part of the Bleacher Nation community. I feel incredibly blessed to write about the Chicago Cubs for a living; it’s both an honor and an obligation that I take very seriously.

A final thought: Let’s not turn the comments into a Sullivan/beat writer blast session. There’s a reputational aspect to these things, and although there’s little I can do to put the credibility toothpaste back in the tube Sullivan just squeezed, I can do my best not to squeeze anyone else’s. It’s just not me, and I’d like it not to be you, either.

Brett Taylor is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation, and can also be found as Bleacher Nation on Twitter and on Facebook.

213 responses to “This Post is Not Plagiarized: Paul Sullivan, Aggregation, and the Problem of Access”

  1. Not Kyle

    *This* is the ugly side of Twitter and other social media.

    People use social media for only the following things:

    1) Information, primarily an update and corresponding internet link showcasing new promotions (what these social media companies are trying to monetize) and/or original content from that particular user.

    2) Thought-out, “clever” statements (most often humorous) based on observing everyday life or in response to different content elsewhere on the web. I call this the “internet stand-up comedian” phenomenon, because at first glance you’d think half the world is incredibly witty, charismatic, and somehow in the comedy business based on this type of posting.

    3) Brash, touchy, unnecessary, (most importantly) unfiltered comments that are either A) posted as a knee-jerk response to a very personal topic or (what they believe to be) a personal attack against them, or B) posted while intoxicated or in a unstable mental state.

    Sullivan’s comment is a number three in response to Brett’s number two. Sullivan felt “attacked” personally and decided to think. . . “Who does this blog writer think he is? Well, let’s be snarky and get him back by counterattacking. Well, his blog does gather information from a lot of beat writers, articles, and other baseball sources. So. . . it seems to me like he is merely that information for his own gain! All he does is plagiarize. Yeah, that’s it!”
    *Starts writing the afforementioned tweet*

    See how irrational that was? See how incorrect it was? See how it didn’t actually relate to anything about Brett’s comment? This is the kind of stuff that sparks Twitter “wars” and starts huges controversy when someone posts a thread that people interpret as racist, misogynistic, angry, and hateful.

    Why do you think celebrities, politicians, actors, athletes, and musicians have people paid to babysit their Twitter accounts? While they are throwing around millions of dollars, drinking tons of alcohol, have their heads buried in piles of blow and beautiful men/women (just a joke. . uhhh. . maybe), and are basically not subject to the same societal norms as everyone else, they might be juuuuust a bit more prone to those “number three” comments more than the rest of us.

    Disclaimer: This does not insinuate that Paul Sullivan does throw around millions of dollars and do blow, but rather had a completely unrelated knee-jerk reaction.

    1. EvenBetterNewsV2.0

      I actually Lol’d.

    2. bbmoney

      I was thinking about saying something about Ian Stewart’s fakely injured wrist.

      But alas, Kyle’s comment is too spot on.

      1. TWC

        Heh.

  2. EvenBetterNewsV2.0

    Well said Brett. He doesn’t need any more response beyond that.

  3. Serious Cubs Fan

    Brett,

    Don’t listen to sullivan. Guy is a jerk. When I saw that yesterday it really ticked me off. I get he is a sarcastic guy, but he definitely crossed the line. You have never plagiarized anything and you always credit others and link articles. I believe often times you don’t give yourself enough credit. Ignore him and keep up the great work!!

  4. Leroy

    Brett, when have you ever stolen ideas for your own without crediting them?

  5. lukers63

    Haven’t been directly to cubs.com (other than to order tickets), Tribune website, or any other cubs news outlet in about 2 years. The only way I DO go to those sites are by links provider on BN. Every morning, first thing when I wake up is check BN. Thanks for the great work!

  6. Stevie B

    Fight behind C pod !!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. J. Edwards

    Love the Plagiarism Check button!

    I’m seriously disappointed in Sullivan. Maybe he’s pissed that people have to pay for access to his “paper” in order to read some of his TOTALLY NOT IMPORTANT NEWS ABOUT A BASEBALL TEAM.

    Most of us realize that what Brett’s doing is part of the new wave of information dissemination and consumption. And we get it at BN for free/whatever we want to donate because Brett’s a good dude who tries to pay the bills and keep us informed by sifting through mountains of media.

    Too bad for Sully but he’s on the stupid side of the business model these days…and ultimately his days are numbered. He’s part of the old media mountain that can’t make enough money to sustain itself.

  8. Johnny Mac

    It actually surprises me how angry this comment made me. As much as I hope this was made in jest, no knowledgeable writer could accuse another of plagiarism without knowing full well all the accusations that the word carries with it. Like most people here, I follow this site regularly since it provides me with both a little humor and a lot of pertinent information. It allows me to follow the Cubs with a zeal that could not be matched if I had to wade through all of the stories and news myself.

    I would have stopped following this site instantly if I ever doubted the credibility or ethics of either Brett or Luke. But the combination of news, links, discussion, and overall community feel this site presents is something that isn’t matched anywhere else. Continue your good work and bringing us Cubs news with your own spin.

  9. Karen P

    You have very succinctly and eloquently reaffirmed every reason why Bleacher Nation is the only fan site, blog, what-have-you that I follow outside of the “big boys” who are employed by “legit” media outlets.

    Thank you for continuing to be real, honest and open with both the media and your community here. When people try to get kitschy is when I lose respect for them; I am grateful that I never have to worry about that with you.

  10. Morken

    What an absolutely baseless accusation handed out by Sullivan.

    Unfortunately, the Internet provides a vessel to distribute slander without any accompanying accountability. So when Sullivan was called out for his elitist views on sports fans, he predictably responded recklessly.

    I’ve never read a post where Brett failed to credit the person who’s information he used. Brett aggregates information from various sources, credits those sources, then puts his own knowledgable stamp on the information being relayed. And that’s just one part of this blog.

    This is the best site regarding Cubs baseball.

  11. Tom

    I’ve started to see the whole “traditional sports journalist” vs. the “Sports blogger” feud as the same as the “Grizzled old scout” vs. the “young sabermetric front office” debate. You can hold back progress for only so long before time catches up to you.

  12. Rich

    Brett sorry this happened , I really enjoy reading both of you ! You’re a class guy I really thought the same of Sullivan , but now I have my reservations about the man. Keep up the great work .

  13. matt

    I think Paul essentially called Brett “the rooftops” because he’s getting paid to “aggregate” others product. After Brett essentially called Paul a jerk because he was sensitive about a tweet.

    Next we’ll have litigation.

    1. Kyle

      I do kind of think “Brett=Rooftops” is a funny parallel. Not that I don’t appreciate EBS.

      1. Ron

        Kyle IS Sullivan…Sullivan IS Kyle….Kyle is a TROLL!

        1. whiteflag

          How is Kyle a troll? His view might be different than the typical cubs fan, but at least he backs them up. People use the world troll a little to freely.

          1. TonyP

            agreed, someone having a different opinion doesn’t make them a troll.

        2. MightyBear

          Kyle is not a troll.

  14. James

    Paul Sullivan is a beat writer for a dieing newspaper.Years of seeing what Paul Sullivan reports makes me wonder how he even still has a job. Paul is always reporting about trades that are going to happen and he has his sorces. Well Paul told everybody that Marmol was going to be traded to Tigers. Paul reported Anabel Sanchez was coming to the Cubs as a freeagent and it was a done deal. Paul also reported that Soraino would be traded by spring training. Paul Sullivan has the greatest job in the world. When you have the power to say what ever you want and have no acount abilty that just amazes me. If any of us did that at our jobs then we would be looking for work right away.

  15. Tom A.

    Brett, love what you do and truly appreciate BN. I look at it daily or more and respect the many wonderful fans that post. I don’t always agree with everything written, but it is always well written and clearly passionate about the Cubs. Please keep up the fantastic work !

  16. wayner21

    I know you said not to crush Sullivan, but I can’t help myself. I gave up reading any of his articles as of about 3 years ago. His sarcastic nature and the way he treated his readers really rubbed me the wrong way. I used to read the Sullivan e-bag where he answers email questions, but after a couple of times I just couldn’t believe he could get away with how he was treating people. He bashes Cub fans for being loyal to their team and I will not support any writer who treats his readers like a bunch of idiots, which is what I think Sullivan thinks of us.
    That said – I absolutely love this site. I check it at least a few times a day. Keep up the great work Brett

  17. JR

    Paul Sullivan is such a dbag. That dude defines “troll” in the real world. Not only is he extremely negative and tries to stir shit up he actually looks like a damn troll.

  18. IrvingandAshland

    Bret… you’re starting to make it! People are starting to get jealous of the attention you’re getting! This is good for you!! I promise!!

  19. jstraw

    “here’s a link I think you should read, here’s a very small slice of what the author at that link says, and here’s what I think about what the author at that link says”

    That right there is the literal, origin of blogging. It’s the entire basis for the concept. It’s called blogging because it’s ‘weB-logging.”

    Blogging has evolved to where it’s a part of a greater whole but sifting through the mountain of horseshit for the pony was the genesis and still key. Calling someone a plagiarist for presenting links to his work to an audience that might not be otherwise motivated to read it is just plain ignorance.

  20. DocPeterWimsey

    I think that the issue might be that blogging is really editorialism rather than journalism, but journalists (with some justification!) feel that they are being supplanted by editorialists.

    Now, a lot of editorialists are a blight on society: they selectively pick and choose facts (or even make outright fabrications) to support some view that they want to be true. Brett is doing nothing like that: and, at the risk of either sounding sycophantic or making Brett blush (or both), I think that Brett does a really good job of synthesizing the facts from various sources and offering logical opinions about what those facts mean towards the greater goal of the Cubs being a winning team. It’s the difference between “patriotism” (wanting what is best for your tribe) and “nationalism” (“MY TRIBE IS BEST!!!”). So, of all the bloggers to diss, Brett should be way down on the list: I’m sure that there is someone posting that Casey Coleman is a Cy Young winner being oppressed by the evil Epstein somewhere who would make a much better target!

  21. Nickydee

    Love your format. Love what you do here. No need for this post, or having to explain what you do. You can see from all the responses that you have a loyal following. Hopefully, someday, you (and BN) get the recognition Sullivan gets through the Tribune.

  22. Cubsfan66

    Cant stand the guy and his writting!

    Keep this in mind – Kaplan reads Bleacher Nation and acknowledged you on the air during the Marmol / Haren rumors! I heard him talk about if anyone wanted extensive, up to date info, they should goto bleachernation.com. You know you are doing something right with that kind of statement from TheKapman!!

    KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!

    DS in South Bend

  23. arealpoy

    I really thought the tweet was embarrassing more than anything. Not just for BN but for Sullivan as well. He’s on Twitter to spread his work and comment on what he covers. Not to be an asshole or a snarky old man. Say one thing to the guy after he says something you don’t agree with and he blocks you. He’s one of the folks who don’t feel they should be held accountable by their audience. Well too bad.

    Good on you for not being a dick about it all, Brett. However, I hope you plan on adding the “Free Check for Plagiarism” link at the end of every post on BN until the end of time as a subtle gfym. I’m not as diplomatic.

    I think I said it the best I could given the 140 characters I was allotted. You are an independant blogger and your following is larger than a beat writer paid by the “World’s Greatest Newspaper”. By over 2k. It isn’t hard to figure out why.

    1. arealpoy

      Oh damn. That “Free Check for Plagiarism” thing I saw was an ad. Now I look like a yoyo.

  24. JulioZuleta

    Well said. While an allegation like that does warrant a response, I think you have earned the reputation of not having to respond to something so ridiculous. That tweet really bothered me all day yesterday, glad it’s over with. I hope you know that everyone immediately saw how off base he was.

    I think you’re reputation is enhance by the fact that the only person on Twitter who responded to his post saying they liked it….WAS OZZIE GUILLEN’S SON. So to recap: Sullivan and the Guillens think one thing….respectable humans think otherwise.

  25. TonyP

    I took the Sullivan Ban Hammer in the sack for pointing out the followers of BN vs him. :-)

    1. Kyle

      I got it for telling him I wasn’t surprised he doesn’t understand what plagiarism is and is not. A bit quick on the trigger, I’d say, but his call.

      We need to play Beatwriter Twitter Ban Bingo. So far, I’ve only got Sullivan and Kaplan (I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure I deserved it in his case.)

  26. Hawkeye

    Brett,
    Thanks for all you do. Like many, I haven’t missed a day of reading BN over the past couple of years. My posting has decreased dramatically over that time, but wanted to take the time today to drop you a note and let you know that we all very much appreciate what you do and the manner in which you do it. Keep up the good work.

  27. Dustin S

    Keep up the good work Brett and don’t change a thing. I’m easy-going, and you took a higher road than I might have. Your work appreciated by us all here. The “P” word has a moral and even legal implication that he should have understood was way off-base (see what I did there).

    I suppose there is a deeper underlying animosity in media circles against the “new media” collaboration/discussion sites (like BN) that are on the rise, while the traditional news organizations are in a state of slow decline. CNN just laid off their entire investigative journalism department a short while back.

  28. True(ly) Blue

    Brett, I love this site and read it at least twice a day. You do a great job and I love (most) of the comments and commentators. I have written comments about a dozen times and half of those were to blast Paul Sullivan as a mental midget who didn’t really report about the Cubs but used his position to denigrate all things Cubs, particularly Cub fans. He probably has half of his readers because of your links to his articles. That has to blow his mind, eh?
    Keep up the great work!

  29. someday...2015?

    Wow is Sullivan ignorant or what!? This guy has been getting under my skin for years as the Cubs beat writer and it’s good to see someone call his moronic journalism/tweets out. Great job Brett and keep up the great work. Oh and since he called BN out as a whole the same goes for Luke. Keep up the great work as well Luke.

  30. Fly

    Who on Earth would want to steal Paul Sullivan’s ideas? I’d put in large bold and Helvetica font that it was from him and not me.