How Many Words Are Too Many? NYT Plagiarist Resigns, Producing 7,000 A Week

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In the second screw-up of a thriving journalism career over plagiarism in recent weeks — in this case with a 31-year-old business writer for The New York Times, Zachery Kouwe —  over-production seems to be the culprit.

He has resigned.

It’s too easy to line up and waggle fingers at anyone caught doing this. It’s much harder to be that person.

Any journalist who still has a job, at The New York Times, (which just axed 100 people from the newsroom, some who took the buy-out, some canned), or elsewhere is under the gun. They know very few other jobs are out there, certainly not at the $80-100k/year plus that an outfit like the Times is paying. With 24,000 print journalists losing their jobs in 2008-2009, it’s easy to feel like a polar bear tap-dancing on a shrinking ice floe, staring across what was miles of solid ice at a very large expanse of open water. Once you’ve gotten a good job, like many others these days, damned if you’re going to blow it.


No one wants to trash their career. Few intend to do so. Hearing stories like that of Gerald Posner and Kouwe, both of whom basically said “I was writing too much” begs the question — what’s too much?

In my most frenzied month of freelancing, I cranked out 9,000 words: from initial call to the people I interviewed to final copy. Kouwe was doing almost that each week, he says.

In addition to my blogging here and other writing and editing work, I’m writing a non-fiction book and, after about 2,000 words a day, I’m pretty tired. I hope to produce 5,000 to 6,000 per week, i.e. a chapter. I have a deadline, but it is months away — not minutes, as it is with a blog, for Kouwe and anyone else trying to keep up, let alone lead, a large and competitive pack.

From The New York Observer:

In the coming days, inevitably, The Times will look inward to ask whether the pace of publishing in the blogs can be sustained given the level of editorial oversight they obviously need.

The DealBook banner says that it is “edited by Andrew Ross Sorkin.” Though he does oversee it, he does not edit the majority of its posts, sources said. The editing responsibilities of DealBook are primarily left to Jack Lynch, who staffers said aggregates for the site and posts items and doesn’t precisely give thorough spot checks on each item that he posts.

“Many people have thought for quite a long time that DealBook was the part of BizDay that desperately needed a baby sitter,” said one staffer.

A Times spokeswoman said, “Our journalistic standards are the same online as they are in print.”

When we asked Mr. Kouwe if he felt he needed stronger editing, or if perhaps the breakneck pace was to blame, he said, “It wasn’t anybody else. I was pushing myself to do as much as I possibly can. It was careless.”

The web is a lovely thing for many of us, offering freelancers and others a larger, more interesting platform for our work and ideas.

Maybe not so much if you are on staff, having to crank out yards of the stuff — while remaining readable, accurate and reliable. These days, added to the daily responsibilities of covering a beat and staying highly visible and productive on it, it’s starting to look like a speeded-up industrial assembly line.

Is this journalism any of us want to read? Or produce?

20 thoughts on “How Many Words Are Too Many? NYT Plagiarist Resigns, Producing 7,000 A Week

  1. andreaitis

    Caitlin – in your previous post on Gerald Posner you said “Like every writer doing the wearying, challenging dance between the old, slower world of print and the newer, faster world of blogging, we have to make choices. Let your standards slip? Write fewer stories? ”

    We’re seeing a lot of cut-and-paste journalism, without attribution. That’s what’s been lost: the importance of crediting sources. Perhaps because it’s so easy to compile information in a digital reporting or blogging process it makes that information seem less proprietary. Still, we all know proper technique, we’re all aware of footnotes and sentence structure that includes “according to” or “reported by.” Hyperlinks are the new footnote. It takes five seconds to link back to a source. Blogging can accommodate traditional journalistic values. Posner and Kouwe lost their way, and we saw their careers digitally crumble. The good news is, blogging can also give them a chance for redemption.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Andrea, I agree with your larger point — we all have to credit one another. It gets messy for reporters (not an excuse, an explanation) who feel so under the gun to produce so much (who is demanding this? their bosses? their ambitions?) that they lose track of whose work they are using or relying on.

    I don’t think it’s an excuse that works. My point in this post is to consider a larger issue — the insane demands for increased production that is, in some ways, really industrial speed-up. Just because it is now possible to crank out a lot more copy in more media simultaneously (i.e. print and web), does not mean that a human brain or body can actually do it WELL without exhaustion, distraction or screwing up.

    I know of very few journalists who (like anyone these days) is willing or able to say “Enough! I’m fried. I can’t do this much work.” So they try to keep up this pace and blow it.

    I am sympathetic to that — as someone who writes for print as well as a blog. They are different animals in some ways and, more tellingly here — I am just not under the pressure to produce so much so quickly. I can’t imagine dealing with that many words so quickly; handling and managing so much copy so fast WELL.

    I think the medium is NOT the issue. The insane frenzy to pump out product is.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    I also disagree that blogging can offer “redemption.” Not if you’ve screwed up in print. That wouldn’t impress me as a hiring editor.

    1. andreaitis

      @ finding redemption, I mean they don’t have to crawl away and hide. They can continue writing and self-publishing as a blogger, showing the quality and credibility of their work. That will ultimately speak for itself. Also, there is no more ‘screwing up in print.’ There’s screwing up in your reporting and publishing, platform agnostic.

      I agree with your industrial speed-up point, that it’s the market rather than the medium. All this adds up to the ever-growing importance of the individual’s brand.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    The “quality and credibility” of a blogger’s work is, arguably, highly suspect. The NYT, like many other media outlets (print or otherwise) hires and manages people, presumably, whose integrity and ethics it is willing to stand behind — these reporters form part of their brand and their “brand” is journalism whose accuracy you are meant to trust.

    We, here and elsewhere, are our own “brands.” Who’s to say that we’re worthy of our “brand value”?

    People who blog are….? Their ideas are meant to be, de facto trustworthy? Because they are merely prolific or popular — or haven’t (yet) been caught screwing up?

    How do readers of blogs “know” for sure that what they are reading is in fact credible and true? Because they are making or taking the time to fact-check it all? Cool, if true. Yet any one of us could link to someone whose work is…one day…called into question. Ooops!

    There is an undeniable economic problem in “writing and self-publishing” as a way to show how great you are. Who is paying your bills? How do we know that some super-cool popular blogger isn’t shoveling cash into their bank accounts from their current or future sources? We don’t! We have no idea of their ethics or integrity — only their page-views and popularity. Who or what is back-stopping them to make SURE their work is clean and accurate and ethically uncompromised?

    I was called, for example, yesterday by a fact-checker from a student magazine at a Canadian journalism school to go over what I had said in an interview for a story they are writing.

    Fact-checking is not, as I understand the game, even an issue in blogging. No one makes a follow-up call, as every magazine writer knows to expect, to make sure you got the damn thing right.

    You can blow it as a blogger. The blowback is…? What economic damage occurs? Are bloggers out there making their entire living from it exclusively and therefore deeply committed to getting it 100% right all the time? Or are they this Boy Scoutish because….it’s just the right thing to do?

  5. Claudia Deutsch

    Fascinating conversation, ladies — particularly for someone like me, who spent 25 years at the Gray Lady.
    I kinda laugh when we talk about number of words a week or a day or a month. There’s an old saw, “Forgive the length of this, I didn’t have the time to write brief.” The issue isn’t number of words, it’s number of items, and the speed you are supposed to churn them out.
    But the basic problem holds true — a system that rewards quantity rather than quality will inevitably result in these kinds of screw-ups. I’m in touch with several people at the Times who know Zach well, and they say this is no Jason Blair. He was a good, smart guy who simply got overwhelmed. My heart goes out to him — there but for the grace of God…

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks, Claudia. This is my point exactly – any one of us now holding a decent journalism job is hugely pressured to do a lot, and fast, and really well. I was impressed, and saddened, by his own description of what happened.

    It gets old watching talented journos fall on their swords while management — who profit, literally, from their labors — tut-tut and show them the door after they screw up.

    1. Claudia Deutsch

      Oh, it’s so much worse than that. It’s the publisher and shareholders who “profit” (remember when that word actually applied to newspapers?) from their labors. The editors who set the quotas and do the tut-tutting aren’t paid all that well — but they’ve drunk the kool-aid, their egos are involved, they feel they’ve failed if some competing organization got an item up a minute sooner. They actually believe they have the force of right on their side — which makes them much more dangerous than someone who is clear=eyed about doing things solely for money

  7. This is a great discussion. I’m especially interested in the credibility-of-blogging part. I hear Caitlin’s argument that readers have no way of verifying the credibility of a given blogger because there is no “backstop” behind the writer ensuring accuracy and ethical behavior.

    But I also hear Andrea’s argument about the ever-growing importance of writers developing individual brands.

    So — perhaps there’s a middle ground yet to be explored. What if serious bloggers were given an opportunity to publicly commit themselves to ethical standards — like signing on to a manifesto that lays out in specific terms what defines ethical blogging behavior? I realize you couldn’t screen out all of the bad ones, but it seems to me that if you ask bloggers to willingly sign and submit their blogs to scrutiny, you’d scare off a lot of the jerks from the get go.

    This would only be manageable within smallish communities of bloggers, of course (like, say, True/Slant for example) but if a trend was started and adopted by more and more of these networks, maybe we’d at least have the start of the “backstop” Caitlin mentions.

    1. Claudia Deutsch

      What’s fascinating here is that we’ve somehow turned this into blogging v. print, with the unspoken assumption that old-media automatically has credibility while blogging is iffy. I thoroughly agree with the iffy-blogging part…but how come we’ve somehow canonized the print part? The Times, the WSJ, a whole bunch of others have established reputations for accuracy, which is why we — and they– get so upset when something like this happens. The National Inquirer never had similar credibility — although they have always insisted they hew to high journalistic standards. And rightly or wrongly, we do not give the same credence to a story that appears on the front page of a local weekly that (as? where are copy editors when I need them?)we give to a front-pager in the Times.
      I think bloggers will keep each other honest in ways that newspapers never could. When I’ve (inadvertently, I promise) cited a wrong fact, or come to a boneheaded conclusion, I am immediately corrected, often by other TrueSlant contributors who know more about that particular subject than I do, or by readers who trot out facts and links to source data or better-thought-out items. The sheer immediacy of the blog conversation tends to set things right — and to weed out the poseurs and unethical writers.

  8. From what I’ve read, Kouwe did exactly what he admits to doing: screwing up, at high speed, on deadline. WordPress makes that so much easier, doesn’t it?

    The thing is, I know when there are words in my work that aren’t mine originally. Even when you’re under a lot of pressure, a good writer can see, smell, or sense syntax that is not truly his or her own. When you’re using digital technology that allows for borrowing and embedding so easily, you have to police your own work that much harder — either put quotes around certain content, or take stats and facts and write them your own way, and cite sources.

    But god help you if there are other writers involved in creating a single article, or a top editor who throws in a few lines, too. These people could introduce an error that gets attached to your by-line, and then it’s your firing, not theirs.

  9. andreaitis

    Blogging isn’t ‘iffy.’ Blogs are a platform, like print. Journalists screw up in print, on tv, radio,blogs, twitter, etc. It’s about the person, not the platform. That’s why I say the individual brand is so important. And that’s why Scott’s right — you have to police your own work. It’s not always easy, and the new time-to-market cycle definitely adds pressure. At the end of the day, though, it’s the journalist’s brand – the individual – who suffers most when his or her work is questioned. And that’s true whether it’s in a newspaper or on a blog.

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    David, interesting idea. I wonder if readers even think it necessary — I am a little concerned, although not surprised, that the only people talking about this here are us, T/Sers…

    I wonder if readers even care (?) about anything being accurate or sourced. Maybe just us?

    Andrea, I keep coming back to the economics of it, which can’t be removed from any conversation. Someone, somewhere has to pay each of us enough to pay our bills! I have a younger friend who physically injured herself (!) by blogging up to 12 hours a day — paid per post — for a major network. They have plenty of cash to spend but these are their (greedy, low-paid) terms. The payment model damaged her health, so much did she have to produce.

    This is nuts! Old media, new media, whatever. You can’t have/be or grow your “brand” when you can’t even make a living WITHOUT damaging your mental, emotional or professional health.

    Oh, yeah, this all sounds great to me.

    1. Stowe Boyd

      A lot of long-time bloggers (I started in 1999) have explicitly stated their ethical position on various issues as they have arisen in the blogosphere. For example, not too many years ago, we started to see ‘pay for post’ companies arise (like Marqui, now defunct), and many bloggers rose to condemn the practice, including me.

      I disclose at any point where it is relevant that I have a relationship with a company I might mention in a post, for example. The fact that I own stock in LinkedIn or doesn’t influence me much, and I am sure my readers believe that I am not shilling.

      I think there is a large cadre of well-respected bloggers who live by ethical codes not unlike those of large media companies.

  11. Todd Essig

    Sorry for the late entry into this conversation. In my defense, I’m not a journalist, not really, and I only now just finished my “day job” so I have time to see what’s been going on here. The point Caitlin makes about white collar “industrial speed-up” is right-on the (dwindling pool of) money. But everyone has to remember, it is not just journalism. Intellectual/creative labor is getting commodified (I hate that word but don’t know any other to use) all over the place.

    In the mental health world, it seems fee-for-service reimbursement shrinks hourly. Some of my colleagues who work with managed-care companies will overbook their day, hoping for a few cancellations and keeping people waiting if not. In public mental health it is not unusual for individual clinicians to have caseloads in the hundreds. Currently, in NY, OMH (Office of Mental Health) is promoting what they call “collaborative record keeping” which essentially means shrinking therapy sessions to 30 minutes and including in that time the clinician and patient doing the record keeping together—you would now do you charting as part of the session. It’s all about the money.

    There’s another side to this blog/print thing I want to briefly note. Blogging lets people like me write the piece instead of being a source for it. That is a huge change. While there’s no redemption to be found (mistakes still have consequence, thank god!), narrowing the gap between people like me and readers does increase accuracy while also, despite my best efforts, decreasing readability. That’s just seems to be one of the ways this new thing works.

  12. Caitlin Kelly

    Stowe, thanks very much for adding a veteran’s voice here. Much appreciated.

    The challenge of blogging — like that of any freelancer not explicitly (as NYT freelancers are, as I am, being one of them) bound by written codes they must sign — is readers have to trust them/us. It’s great you disclose your affiliations, as I do — I wonder if everyone does, though. I think it imperative, but I am not sure everyone is as honest about this, are you?

    1. misterb

      I think that Claudia got the important point. Your brand as a blogger isn’t all about you anymore; it’s about your network: sources, commenters and quoters. Instead of editors, you might get corrections from any of the above. It’s how you deal with the inevitable mistakes that will keep your brand growing.

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