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.

written by

Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

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