SOUTH PORTLAND — A reporter for a weekly newspaper was fired last week after competing newspapers discovered he had plagiarized their work.
Editors from The Forecaster and the Current, weeklies that also cover the city, contacted the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Sentry after discovering text from their stories published Feb. 17 also appeared in articles written by Michael J. Tobin in the Sentry’s Feb. 24 edition.
The Sentry, which is owned by Biddeford-based Mainely Media, fired Tobin within hours of learning about the problem on Feb. 24.
“In the world of journalism, we live by a specific code of ethics and consider any violation of that code a serious matter to be treated accordingly,” Harry Hartman, a regional vice president of Sample Media Group, which owns Mainely Media, said in a front-page statement published in this week’s Sentry.
Tobin’s articles about South Portland city meetings contained sentences and paragraphs copied from stories by Mario Moretto of The Forecaster and Current writer Duke Harrington.
Tobin used content from three of the five stories Moretto wrote for Feb. 17, as well as from a story about a new emergency communication system planned for South Portland that was published last November. In some cases, Tobin took information Moretto paraphrased and used it as quoted material from sources Tobin had not interviewed.
On Wednesday, Tobin admitted he copied content from his competitors, but said he had not realized that doing so was wrong.
“I didn’t copy whole stories. I cut and pasted things that were public knowledge, and not what one newspaper got,” although in some cases he copied the lead paragraphs of Moretto’s stories, which typically analyze and sum up issues, rather than paraphrase information.
“We are all taught by middle school what plagiarism is. Copying and pasting another reporter’s work chips away at the reader’s trust in journalists,” Karen Wood, publisher of The Forecaster, said.
Ben Bragdon, managing editor of the Current, said “everyone that works in journalism knows the rules, or at least should know the rules. The reporters and editors I know would be mortified by this.”
“We have limited resources, so when we send someone to a meeting, it’s an allocation of our resources,” he continued. “When those resources are stolen, it’s a big deal.”
Tobin began working for the Sentry in September 2011, with no prior newswriting experience, although he had written columns and theater reviews for the Portland Daily Sun.
“There was a lot I didn’t know as a first-time reporter,” Tobin said. “I unknowingly made a mistake, and I’m sorry, and I lost my job because of it.”
Tobin said that he understood why he had been fired, but wished that the Sentry had offered him more training.
The Forecaster was initially alerted to the stolen content by South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey, who reads all three of the local weeklies.
Tobin and Gailey had only spoken once, last summer, the city manager said. He said he began noticing that Tobin’s articles contained information and quotes that originated in city workshops as far back as November that the Sentry reporter had not attended.
City Council meetings are videotaped and available for viewing any time on the city’s website, and Tobin could have watched them from home. Workshops, however, are only audio taped, with the tapes available for loan from the city clerk.
Tobin did not sign out the tapes to work on stories about workshop discussions, and there’s no way to know if he watched the council meeting videos, Gailey said.