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The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

Phil Bronstein has a silly post on his blog in which he points out that the New York Times article on Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts uses the same anecdote in the lede that a San Francisco Chronicle article used two months ago, about Batts initially declining to apply for the Oakland job, then changing his mind after the four Oakland police officers were killed a few days later. Bronstein gets all huffy and suggests that the New York Times took the anecdote from the Chronicle—the headline of his post refers to the Times’s “borrowing policy” and he claims to have compared the bylines on the articles to see if they were the same:

Maybe the Times was just being economical. So I checked the names. Chronicle reporter Matthai Kuruvila wrote our story. There was another completely different name on the Times piece.

And it probably wasn’t just me. A few of the other (57 percent) of the Times readers who also get the Chronicle may have felt like they’d seen it before, too.

Here we are, always bitching about how Google or MSN or Yahoo is stealing our original content and making money from it. It doesn’t really help our case if we’re raiding closets and borrowing outfits from members of our own fraternity without at least asking.

To be fair, a reasonable amount of what was in the Times story was different than the Chronicle’s, and written well enough.

Why is this silly? For several reasons: first of all, it’s obvious from the Times article that the reporter interviewed Batts, and the exact quotations used in the anecdotes are different. So it’s pretty clear that this is one of Batts’s standard anecdotes, which he recounts whenever he talks to someone about his decision to leave Long Beach and come to Oakland.

Secondly, the Chronicle’s own article made clear that the anecdote was told by Batts at a press conference when he was introduced as Oakland’s next police chief, and in fact the Oakland Tribune also recounted the anecdote on the same day as the Chronicle, in its own article about his press conference. Does Bronstein believe that the Chronicle has exclusive rights to anecdotes told by public officials at press conferences? Or does he merely believe that once an anecdote has been used as the lede in one article, no other publications should be allowed to use that anecdote as a lede ever again? Unfortunately, Bronstein didn’t explain precisely what he thinks the Times’ crime was, because he was too busy coming up with metaphors about fraternity brothers raiding one another’s closets. (Earlier in the post, he used a metaphor about how the Times arrived in the Bay Area wearing “panties and floaties” instead of “full battle gear;” I knew Bronstein was kind of the macho type, but still….)

If Bronstein thinks it’s so terrible for a paper to use an anecdote which has already appeared in another paper, then he might be disturbed to discover that yet another version of Batts’s anecdote had appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram five days before it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Obviously this doesn’t mean that the Chronicle “borrowed” or “stole” anything from the Press-Telegram; all it means is that Batts tells this anecdote a lot, and reporters from many different papers (I think we’re up to four so far, after about 2 minutes worth of “research” on my part) find the anecdote interesting enough to feature prominently in their articles.

Bronstein ends his post this way:

Note to NYTimes Editor Bill Keller who, like his predecessors, still puts out a generally impressive product: The interwebs has all sorts of digital magic to check stories for prior use. Punch up the Tribune before you make your next move into Chicago.

Note to former SFChronicle Editor Phil Bronstein: The interwebs has all sorts of digital magic to check stories for prior use. Punch up the Google before you make your next indignant complaint about an oft-repeated anecdote being proprietary to the Chronicle.

Local newspaper executives have said that they are not threatened by the Times’s expansion of its Bay Area coverage, and that’s probably true in some ways—the Times is not really equipped to compete with local dailies when it comes to getting scoops or covering breaking news, and local publishers and editors certainly have bigger problems than the New York Times to worry about. Bronstein’s post suggests to me, however, that resentment about the NYT’s bigfooting on local turf, which has always existed in regional newsrooms, may have grown larger now that the Times has planted a flag more securely in Bay Area soil. And while the Times may not be able to compete journalistically with the Chronicle, it can certain compete for home delivery subscribers and web readers.