Jon Flatland, newspaper columnist, outed as serial plagiarist, driven from industry

Categories: Media
John Flatland.jpg
Flatland's history of plagiarism is far from totally awesome.
Jon Flatland worked as a reporter, columnist, editor, and newspaper owner for 28 years, most recently as managing editor of the newspaper in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota. He won numerous awards for his "work," including an award for best humor column last year from the North Dakota Newspaper Association.

But last week, Flatland, 47, was revealed as a serial plagiarist. It now appears his "Thoughts While Shaving" column for the Blooming Prairie Times contained next to no original material. And just as Flatland's history of plagiarism came to light, he abruptly quit his job and left town, suggesting he was fully aware of what he was up to and knew he couldn't explain it away if busted.

In the day and age of Google, it seems like it was only a matter of time before Flatland was outed. In fact, it's amazing he was able to dupe people into believing he was a legitimate writer for as long as he did.

Here's how Flatland was busted -- Dave Fox, a humor writer based in Singapore, was Googling old columns of his as he prepared to launch a new website. He discovered that Flatland had basically lifted one of his old columns, pasted a new byline on it, then had it published "in multiple newspapers" on "multiple occasions." Fox then contacted the publisher of the Blooming Prairie paper, who mentioned the allegations to Flatland. Hours later, the publisher received an e-mail from Flatland basically saying Sorry, it's true, and I'm out of here. Flatland then left town for an unknown destination.

To take just one example, consider Flatland's column from February 28 of this year, entitled "A penny saved is 2.4 cents lost." Here's a comparison of Flatland's column with another of the same name, written by Jim Lee and published on February 19 in the Carroll County Times of Carroll County, Maryland:
Lee: Continuing production of the penny even though it costs more than double what it is worth sort of illustrates what is wrong with this country and why we are so deeply in debt.

Hopefully President Barack Obama was thinking more bigger picture stuff back in 2008 when he campaigned on a message of hope and change. Now though, he'll have to settle with hoping Congress goes along with his plan to change our change...

A penny saved may have been a penny earned at one time, but today, saving a penny actually costs us twice as much as it is worth while, a penny not saved can actually be two pennies earned.

It can all get rather confusing when you start throwing in these old sayings, and in all likelihood they too will have to change if we change our change to eliminate the penny.

But all this is just my two cents, which today is almost enough to make one penny.

Flatland: Continuing production of the penny, even though it costs more than double what it is worth to produce, sort of illustrates what is wrong with this country and why we are so deeply in debt.

Hopefully President Barack Obama was thinking more bigger picture stuff back in 2008 when he campaigned on a message of hope and change. Now though, he'll have to settle with hoping Congress goes along with his plan to change our change...

You see, a penny saved may have been a penny earned at one time, but today, saving a penny actually costs us twice as much as it is worth, while a penny not saved can actually be two pennies earned.

It can all get rather confusing when you start throwing in these old sayings, and in all likelihood they too will have to change if we change our change to eliminate the penny.

But all this is just my two cents, which today is almost enough to make one penny.
And oh yeah, that award-winning humor column Flatland "wrote" last year? Turns out it was actually penned by Jason Offut, a writer in Missouri.

Contacted yesterday by the Associated Press, Flatland acknowledged he "apparently" plagiarized but said he didn't do so "to the extent they're saying." He added that he's out of the newspaper business and isn't sure what he'll do next.

It looks like he actually cleaned up at least one typo from Lee's original column in the excerpt above... maybe a career in copy editing is a logical move?

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6 comments
Jason Offutt
Jason Offutt

Thanks for writing about Jon Flatland's kick-in-the-groin plagiarism. However, my last name is spelled "Offutt."

Joe Sixpack
Joe Sixpack

Feb 23 issue of the New York Review of Books has a right wing article on Haiti by Mischa Berlinski where he plagiarizes himself using past articles of his own.  I find that annoying but not criminal, but I wonder if the NYRB editors new they were getting old fish wrap with a new headline.

Ron Goulart, a sci-fi writer from the 1970s, had a story where an author sold the same novel with a new title to his publisher for an advance. Fun, great throw away fiction.

Kirk the Conservative Jerk
Kirk the Conservative Jerk

Hey Aaron, is that what happened to some of the former Citypages writers?I used to say CP (citypages) was a acronym for "copy and paste".  Things since have improved. Anyway, I believe this is a common practice in media.  Have ya ever flipped through the newscasts at our local TV stations?  Good thing I'm not blind, otherwise I might think my remote was broke.

Anon
Anon

Considering how much news on national/international scale these days is essentially hot off the press from Reuters, AFP and the AP (and is appropriately attributed) , there isn't much left to copy and paste. A person in Iowa can't exactly copy-paste state news from Oregon. That leaves opinion.

atrupar
atrupar

Hey Kirk, I appreciate the back-handed compliment. You know, I haven't heard anything about plagiarism being an issue here at the CP, but your knowledge of our history might run deeper than mine.

The thing that's particularly egregious about Flatland is that he was working as an opinion columnist, not a reporter. It's bad enough when a reporter lifts content from somebody without attribution, but when you're a columnist who is paid to formulate and express original views and you end up just basically copying and pasting entire columns others wrote... boy, that's just hard to wrap the mind around.

Again, it's amazing that he got away with it for as long as he did, especially considering that at least one of his plagiarized columns won a statewide award. One thing I should've probably mentioned in the piece is that there are at least 12 documents cases of Flatland blatantly plagiarizing, so it's not like it was just an isolated instance or two. Problem is the papers he worked for have removed his columns from the net, so it's difficult to track down examples at this point.

Albatross
Albatross

Then there's Kirk the Conservative Jerk, who apparently simply copies talking points from LGF and the RNC and pastes them onto the City Pages website. The company that pays him to troll this site probably prefers that to any attempts at original thought.

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