Opinion

Steal This Article

Sam Tranum portrait
Sam Tranum

Sam Tranum is deputy editor of Dublin Inquirer. He's been a newspaper reporter, a newspaper editor, an assistant professor of journalism, an author and a book editor, among other things. You can follow him @samtranum.

One of the great things about publishing news online is that it spreads. People share it on social media, then various news sites pick it up, then newspapers, then maybe the radio.

And then thousands and thousands of people are talking about what you thought was important enough to write about – talking about your work. You’re helping to set the news agenda.

One of the bad things about publishing news online is that sometimes other sites just steal your stuff and pass it off as theirs, without giving you any credit, much less paying.

Imagine you are a farmer. You are growing carrots. You plant them and raise them and harvest them. It takes time and money and effort.

You bring them to the farmer’s market in Dublin, and you put them out in your stall. All around you, there are other long-haired hippies selling organic turmeric and free-range cabbages.

Along comes some guy with a degree in business, in a sharp suit, sneering at you. He has his personal assistant grab your carrots, and they walk off. When you protest, he gives you the finger.

This guy sells your carrots from his supermarket down in the road, and keeps all the profits. He basks in the compliments from his customers about what lovely carrots they are.

Like growing carrots, publishing original journalism takes time and costs money. News organizations pay journalists to come up with ideas, do research, interview people, write articles and take photos.

Then they publish it on their websites. And then there are the people in sharp suits who come along and take the articles and put them up in their own supermarket-websites.

There are websites out there, I am sure, that get young people with few other ways to get experience in journalism to churn out multiple articles a day for little or no pay, many of which involve no idea-generation, research or interviewing.

These writers are probably told to just look at NewsWhip to see what stories are hot at the moment, skim through them, and rewrite them a bit.

Sites like this don’t give credit or payment to the journalists who did the harder work of coming up with the idea, researching it, interviewing people and writing the original article, or to the news organizations that paid them to do so.

***

At Dublin Inquirer we’ve had a lot of really good experiences with our colleagues in the media, who have treated us well, and given back to us when they were spreading, amplifying, or building on our work.

Some have given us credit in their articles and/or linked to our articles (The Journal, Newstalk, RTÉ and Broadsheet, to name a few). The Sun went even further. They liked an article we did, reached out to our managing editor, and asked if they could rewrite it and run it in their paper — and then they paid us.

Since we’re a little fish, we’re generally happy when these bigger fish help us extend our range, and give us credit or money.

We’re trying to get our name out there, let people know we exist, and earn enough so we can keep the lights on and pay our reporters to produce more original journalism, which we hope will then spread and help to set the news agenda.

Journalism is a community endeavour. While news organizations compete, they also build on each other’s work, or look at it from different angles, or correct it, working together to create a fuller, more accurate account of events.

And we want to be part of that public conversation, so we have chosen to make most of our content freely accessible online, even though this leaves it vulnerable to thieves.

There are lots of other journalists and news organizations out there with the same priorities. And they can get really, really frustrated, when a website lifts an article without giving even a “hat tip”, much less a link, much less payment.

***

The Liberal is a news website founded in 2014 that at the moment I am writing this has 316,218 likes on Facebook. That’s within shouting distance of the Irish Times’ 369,628.

Leo Sherlock’s LinkedIn profile says he is the founder and CEO of TheLiberal.ie. It also  characterizes him as a “media entrepreneur”. The Digital Times published an interview with Sherlock last year, asking him how and why he set up the site, and what it’s all about.

This article quotes Sherlock as saying: “We welcome contributions from writers who have something to say. At the same time, we have a number of reporters who keep us up to the minute with current news stories from Ireland and around the world.”

These reporters seem to have been particularly intrigued with the story of Adriana Watters, a woman from Cork whose son fell in the river and was rescued. The Liberal published at least two articles on the subject.

Each bears a striking similarity to an article that had been previously published in another publication.

The Evening Echo’s website has an article dated 21 May and headlined “Mum Pays Tribute to ‘Guardian Angel’ Who Saved her Little Boy From Drowing in the River Lee”. Here’s an excerpt:

“She really is a true hero. She’s our guardian angel,” said Caleb’s mother, Adriana Watters, who lives on the Lower Glanmire Road.

“I’m just absolutely amazed by this act of selflessness, that she just saw a child in distress and just jumped in without thinking about herself. It’s amazing to see someone do that. It’s not everyone who would. She’s truly special.”

The Liberal’s website has an article dated 21 May at 13:01 titled “Hero: Cork woman praises mother-of-1 who dived into the river Lee yesterday and rescued her 3-yr-old son from drowning”. Here’s an excerpt:

“She really is a true hero. She’s our guardian angel,”, Adriana said.

“I’m just absolutely amazed by this act of selflessness, that she just saw a child in distress and just jumped in without thinking about herself. It’s amazing to see someone do that. It’s not everyone who would. She’s truly special.”

These are not the only similar passages. Have a look for yourself. The photo the Liberal uses is also the same as the one that appeared in the Echo. (If the article disappears, let me know. I have screenshots.)

A few days later, the Examiner’s website posted a followup on Watters’ story. It’s dated 26 May at 3:46pm. Headline: “Gofundme page set up for ‘Guardian angel’ who saved toddler from drowning in the river Lee”.

The Examiner article quotes Watters as saying, “The money is for Maria and her family as a thank you and recognition for her selfless act of bravery. It’s the least we can do.”

The Liberal’s website has an article dated 27 May (the next day) at 8:00 with a very long headline that I won’t quote in full here because we’ve had enough headlines. It includes exactly the same quotation.

These are just two examples. A look through the Liberal’s website turns up more.

On 28 May, the Evening Echo ran an article about protests in Dublin meant to highlight homelessness, which included quotes from IMPACT’s Joe O’Connor. The Liberal ran an article that day that was time-stamped 17:30 and included the same quotations from O’Connor.

On 29 May, I read an article in the Sunday Business Post about Renua trying to rebrand itself. This Liberal article, time-stamped 22:00 on same day, looks to me like a “lite” summary of the SBP article.

Perhaps there is an innocent explanation for the striking similarities between some of the articles on the Liberal’s site, and previously published articles produced by others.

For example, sometimes multiple news organizations pull the same quotations and other information from a press release. If that’s what happened in these cases, though, I was unable to find the press releases in question.

That is not what happened, says independent journalist Tom Tuite, when he wrote an article published on 30 May about two gardai being assaulted by a teenager, and the Liberal published a strikingly similar version later the same day.

“I find it potentially damaging to my news business,” Tuite told me, and “it could encourage other entrants into the news media to do the same.”

“It’s serving nobody well at all, particularly not the public,” Tuite said. It reduces the incentive to find and produce “fresh news”, he says, which could lead to less original journalism being produced to inform the public.

***

I tried hard to get someone from the Liberal to talk to me on the record about how it operates, how it sources its content.

Since 26 May, I have emailed the website’s “info” address twice (the only contact the site offers), tracked down an email address that may be Leo Sherlock’s and emailed that too.

Then someone gave me Sherlock’s mobile number. (I later discovered that this was publicly available on his LockSher Group website’s contact page anyway.)

When I called Sherlock on 28 May and said I was a reporter and wanted to talk to him for an article about allegations against the Liberal of plagiarism, he said he was in a meeting and couldn’t talk. When I asked him when would be a more convenient time, he hung up.

Later that day, I got a text from Sherlock’s number saying “Call me now.” So I did. I told him again who I was and what I was calling about, saying I wanted to talk to him on the record about allegations against the Liberal of plagiarism.

He asked me who I’d got his number from, and when I refused to tell him, he said he could call the guards on me for calling him unsolicited. (“Call me now.”)

Then he asked me again and again who I was and who I wrote for and what I was writing about, and whether I was a freelancer or an employee “covered” by Dublin Inquirer, telling me he was taking notes all the while.

And then he hung up on me again, without commenting on the allegations of plagiarism.


Editor’s note: If you want to comment on this article, we’d love to hear from you, but keep in mind that we moderate the comments and aren’t going to approve any personal attacks on Sherlock or unsupported allegations of wrongdoing by The Liberal. If you’re a journalist and you want to point out similarities between an article you’ve written and one The Liberal has published, please provide links to both articles.

 

Comments

  1. Log in to leave a comment.

  2. A
    1 June at 07:41

    Great piece. I think it’s important to note Tom Tuite is a court reporter and is often the only one in the cases he covers, which makes TheLiberal’s pilfering more egregious.

    A court reporter’s business model is based around having copy nobody else does. If TheLiberal flouts that, they could kill off court reporting entirely.

  3. Celenius
    1 June at 07:57

    Interestingly, they allude to the fact that they are reusing content in their copyright policy: http://theliberal.ie/copyright-policy/

    > “There are various ideas, subjects and categories such as News that are not copyrighted but open information.”

    The entire copyright policy describes how they respect the copyright of others – it’s almost accusatory in it’s justification.

    For reference, I submitted it to the wayback machine to archive today’s site: https://web.archive.org/save/http://theliberal.ie/

  4. Dave Smith
    1 June at 09:29

    One of the methods used by The Liberal to gain so many likes on Facebook was to run competitions offering superb prizes in exchange for a like. It appears to have worked if they now have the same amount of followers as The Irish Times.

    A commentar on Reddit today says they were banned by the Liberal for asking about winners of these spectacular prizes.

  5. Journo
    1 June at 09:50

    Stealing content is a big problem in online journalism but the examples you’ve given here are actually from the tamer end of the scale.

    Quotes are generally considered fair game once they’re in the public domain but it’s good practice, and manners, to include an attribution like ‘x told the Evening Echo’.

    Of greater concern is the fact that there are national publications, including newspapers, who are willing to wholesale copy and paste content, not just quotes, if they think they can get away with it.

    I wrote a 600-word interview piece for a national website recently that was reproduced verbatim in a daily tabloid a week later.

  6. Kelly O'Brien
    1 June at 10:18

    Thanks for writing this Sam! I plan to write something on the issue myself but it may not be for a while. For readers, I was the person at the Echo who wrote the story about the child falling into the River Lee. The quotes did not come from a press release, they came from a sit down, face to face interview I did with the mother of the child at 9:30pm in her house the night after the incident occurred. Having worked a full day shift until I tracked down the mother, interviewed her, transcribed the interview, and wrote it up for the following morning’s paper, it meant I worked a 17-hour day that day. Then TheLiberal.ie saw it was a great article getting traction online and they spend two seconds copying and pasting it onto their own site. I was disgusted. Was that why I worked a 17-hour day? To give TheLiberal.ie quotes they would not attribute to me or pay me for? In a cruel twist of fate, TheLiberal.ie’s “version” of my article received more likes and comments from people on Facebook. So they did better than the Echo did out of that story. I’m not going to let this go. Am talking with solicitors at the moment about it, which is why I don’t want to write about it yet. But I will.

  7. steve white
    1 June at 10:41

    have media orgs not tried reporting repeated copyright violations via facebook https://www.facebook.com/help/400287850027717/

  8. Kevin Doyle
    1 June at 10:42

    The Liberal isn’t the only one. Have you seen this mini doc on how Irish media is stealing videos? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNmnbnMqQFw

  9. austin
    1 June at 10:48

    I wonder do the businesses that advertise on “The Liberal” know that they are associated with a site which is [allegedly] plagarising others? And also, bizarrely, seem unable to deal with questions in relation to it

  10. Barry Purcell
    1 June at 12:02

    The carrots analogy doesn’t really work. It’s like the “You wouldn’t download a car” ad campaign against copyright violation.

    A better analogy would be if a farmer worked to produce carrots, and someone else found a way to copy those carrots and sell them in such a way that the original farmer wouldn’t even notice. In the copyright campaign, this example now becomes, “You wouldn’t drive an exact copy of a car you liked if the owner would never notice unless he specifically searches for it.” To which the answer is, I’m sure, that a lot of people would, and they wouldn’t see anything wrong with it.

    We need to think about content provision and copyright protection in new and imaginative ways if we’re going to live in the new online world. Expecting old models to migrate is unreasonable and might get you killed.

  11. Aoife
    1 June at 12:57

    @Kelly O'Brien: Good plan to keep quiet, Kelly. Anything you say can be held as contempt, so it’s best to keep it all zipped until the end of it all.

  12. Michael
    1 June at 13:16

    The Liberal Facebook is well known for posting Like and Share competitions which is just pure clickbait. I’m not surprised about this article and I what he is doing.

  13. A
    1 June at 16:24

    @Journo: Stealing content isn’t just an online problem. Papers regularly steal from ech other or websites in fairness.

  14. Peter Dempsey
    1 June at 19:48

    Good piece but your childish dig at people who wear suits ruins it.

  15. Craig
    2 June at 08:46

    Excellent piece, Sam. It reflects what is happening not only at the top end of the mass media market but right across the spectrum of coverage down to niche players, the rise of the sports blog now attracting sizeable commercial sponsorship and advertising but built on the community efforts of people paid very little or nothing at all while lifting the work of others and recasting it as their own, sometimes with original course cited, often not.

  16. Barb
    2 June at 12:01

    It was bad enough when 35 years ago a magazine picked up a story I had written for the newspaper and republished it withour attribution when, in those days, plagiarism took effort. No internet or Google or links; no computers. My sympathies to journos today who don’t stand a chance of stemming this unconsciable theft or at least rampant, unstoppable plagiarism.

  17. Shane
    3 June at 06:52

    @Craig: PA?

    If so I have an interesting story to share in private…

  18. Derek from Dublin
    3 June at 07:23

    This article sounds like it was written by a child that wants to wear a suit any his rattler fell out of his pram.. You’ve lost all credit for referencing a man in a suit, comparing Facebook tallies again is childish and also to select the Irish Time’s as some kind of marker. Perhaps growing organically is what the liberal did here with competitions and not have their work done for them by others in the business and you now have a sore thumb about Facebook likes. Why not compare twitter or use another source than the times.. If source is linked fine and quotes are public again that’s fine. Much of today’s media is regurgitated from plenty. Faceless regurgitated rubbish consolidated onto two paragraphs and no source at all. Recent example being Garth Brooks… Rather than singling out the liberal take a look closer to home.

    (Editor’s note: This comment has been edited to take out potentially defamatory comments about third parties)

  19. dave
    3 June at 12:04

    One thing I notice fundamentally in Ireland is a lack of decent journalist/blog writing. It doesn’t seem to have developed here at all the way it has for years in the US for example, where popular blogs ‘talk around’ news and offer added insights into a story and see beyond the headlines and this gets them growing readers. Here, the news items themselves are almost irrelevant in the case of many recent ‘news’ template websites built around grabbing clicks for breaking facts, but it has nothing to do with journalism or the issues themselves. Ultimately I think high quality writing and intelligent journalism will be what makes a publication stand out from headlines. Unfortunately we really don’t have that here. I mean who has read a RTE news story on their website with any real intensity beyond the headline, or a Journal.ie clickbait piece to rile up the comments page? and how many of these writers actually go out in the world beyond their desk to gather facts. If you’ve seen Spotlight yet, you’ll know it’s a long way from what we call journalism these days.

  20. Derek from Dublin
    3 June at 16:36

    So what we have here is a coward who won’t publish non derogatory comments highlighting the other facts he’s left out in his vindictive rant against the liberal, luckily I’ve screenshots of my comments which he’s failed to post which proves his transparency nill and voids. Let’s see what twitter has to say about your cowardice efforts to hide facts rather than fiction.

  21. Lois Kapila
    3 June at 18:15

    @Derek from Dublin: Dear Derek, there was a delay in publishing your comment because it had potentially defamatory statements against other news organisations (not us) without the requested links and evidence to support it. I have solved this by editing your comment. We try to keep a constructive tone in our comments section. Please try to do the same.

  22. Derek from Dublin
    5 June at 12:17

    Your point is invalid and simply not true. Previous comments mention sites and are published. It seems to me that you cherry pick what favours the topic not giving a fair balanced opinion. There is absolutely no transparency here as to what passes for publishing.

  23. Jaggedy
    6 June at 09:01

    The Facebook followers number for The Liberal is truly incredible.

    And, it is the sharing of The Liberal articles by these same Facebook followers which gets The Liberal trending on News Whip, the Irish start-up which reports top-trending stories. The Liberal articles are shared by 100s of Facebook accounts within minutes of appearing; generally beating the more established media hands-down.

    As far as I can see, The Liberal’s only unique selling point is its lengthy, some might say, click-baity, headlines beneath which are the same articles you get on RTE, the Irish Times or what have you. So, it is incredible, at least to me, that its articles are so widely shared.

    I’m not suggesting someone has set up fake Facebook accounts, though, thinking about it, how long would it actually take to set up a fake Facebook account?

  24. Jaggedy
    7 June at 17:08

    @Jaggedy: Just, a propos the Facebook numbers at The Liberal. Below are the Facebook likes of several Irish media outlets (eg Dublin Inquirer has 6487) along with their Irish rankings on Alexa (the rankings show the most visited websites in Ireland eg Dublin Inquirer is 3869th most visited site in Ireland)

    RTE 246,599 (18) Irish Times 371,278 (24) Broadsheet 20,038 (442) The Journal 319,697 (55) Dublin Inquirer 6,487 (3,869) The Liberal 317,325 (612)

    Something really doesn’t stack up here. If The Liberal has 317,325 Facebook likes, wouldn’t it have a higher ranking than 612.

  25. Lois Kapila
    8 June at 14:20

    @Jaggedy: That is really interesting. Perhaps, it’s a symptom of building an audience in part through competitions rather than through the spread of articles to followers interested in whatever you are covering?

  26. Kiersten
    9 June at 14:50

    I really like what you guys are up too. This sort of clever work and reporting! Keep up the terrific works guys I’ve included you guys to my blogroll.

  27. Brenda
    10 November at 13:51

    A number of solicitors firms have websites that regularly post court stories without attribution as if a staff member was in court and wrote the story which they were not.

  28. Jack
    21 November at 20:39

    Leo is also a massive Trump supporter and has been on numerous RYE shows lately singing his praises. Derek from Dublin I think you are in fact Leo Sherlock or closely associated with him. Leo Sherlock had also posted some sickening comments regarding fatal foetal abnormalities that I shall not repeat.

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