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Newspaper acknowledges ethical lapses

Kevin DarstThe ColoradoanAspen, CO Colorado

GREELEY The Greeley Tribune has agreed to end a years-old practice of copying stories from competing newspapers and falsely labeling them as Associated Press dispatches, the newspaper’s publisher said Thursday.”That’s clearly a very bad journalism practice,” said Steve Weaver, the Tribune’s publisher.Lehman Communications Publisher Ed Lehman said editors at the Loveland Reporter-Herald, which is owned by his company, spotted the practice and asked the Tribune last week to stop copying stories from the Reporter-Herald’s website. “They apologized,” Lehman said. “We’ve asked them to stop.” In at least two cases this month, the Tribune took stories from the Coloradoan and Loveland Reporter-Herald websites, copied them onto the Tribune website and put an Associated Press byline on the story.The Coloradoan broke the story Thursday.Weaver said the practice began several years ago when Chris Cobler was the newspaper’s editor. Cobler is overseeing the paper’s online operations and announced this week he was leaving to take a job with the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla., organization that provides training programs for professional journalists.Cobler worked at the Coloradoan from 1987 to 1993 as a news editor, city editor and assistant managing editor.Weaver, who has been the Tribune’s publisher since April 2006, said he learned of the practice this week, about a week after Tribune editor Randy Bangert learned of complaints from the Reporter-Herald and agreed to stop the practice.The Tribune is owned by Reno, Nev.-based Swift Communications, which owns a number of other Colorado newspapers including The Aspen Times.Weaver said he understood that Cobler told the newsroom he’d reached an agreement with AP that allowed the Tribune to copy other papers’ work and run it under an AP credit line.He referred further comment to Cobler, who was “the only one who was there” when the practice started and “would have made that agreement.”Cobler said he never told anyone in the newsroom to copy stories and attach the AP byline. He said reporters and editors working for him must have “misunderstood” how they were supposed to collect regional news.He also denied saying he had an agreement with the AP, calling the notion “newsroom folklore.”Cobler agreed the practice was unethical and said it was his fault if it happened on his watch, but he added repeatedly that he had not been the editor for 18 months.”If this happened while I was editor, I’m certainly responsible for it,” Cobler said.Bangert, who declined to comment to the Coloradoan, said in a Thursday online Tribune story that he thought Cobler had an agreement with AP.”We had been doing it for many years under the assumption that it was OK to do,” Bangert told the Tribune. “I couldn’t pinpoint when we started it. It was almost a decade. Basically, no other newspaper said anything and AP didn’t say anything, and no one objected. It became a part of our routine.”George Garties, the AP’s Denver bureau chief since early 2003, declined to comment specifically about the Tribune’s practice.”AP protects its brand,” Garties said. “We do not condone the use of AP’s brand by anyone other than AP.”Most daily newspapers, including the Coloradoan, Reporter-Herald and Tribune, are members of The Associated Press.The AP, in addition to covering news with its own reporters, routinely rewrites stories from its member news organizations that have statewide interest and releases them on the AP’s wire service. Many such stories credit the originating paper.Most editors know it’s improper to label a story as being from The Associated Press unless it has been provided by the news agency, said Coloradoan executive editor Bob Moore, a 25-year journalism veteran.”It’s a very disturbing practice for one newspaper to take the work of another and misrepresent its origin,” Moore said. “In my private conversations with editors in Greeley, whom I consider friends, it’s clear this has been going on for several years. I am glad they have decided to stop what is clearly a practice that violates basic ethical standards.”A Feb. 14 story on the Tribune’s website is a verbatim version of one by the Reporter-Herald’s Ann Depperschmidt that ran in the Reporter-Herald and on the paper’s website that same day. The Tribune gave the story an AP byline and did not credit the Reporter-Herald.The Tribune also copied a news update from Coloradoan.com on Feb. 5 about a Brighton school teacher’s release from the Larimer County Detention Center and published the story under an AP byline without crediting the Coloradoan.Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, said he couldn’t comment specifically on the Tribune situation but said generally that a struggling industry and new competition from other online news sources has prompted some editors and journalists to “take risks.”Steele said he was aware of Cobler’s new job at Poynter but did not have a role in hiring him.”Clearly, a newspaper should know what the standards are in terms of using material, crediting material to wire services or attributing other [sources],” Steele said. “It goes to the heart of honesty. That’s a value we shouldn’t be playing around with. We should be honest about where we get our information.”Added Steele: “There’s a great responsibility for quality control by top editors in a period of dramatic change and considerable pressure and new standards.”Asked whether the Tribune made an honest mistake or knowingly broke ethical rules, Lehman pointed to the latter. “I think that’s it,” Lehman said.


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