Former North Dakota Newspaper Association President and Newspaper Owner Jon Flatland Exposed in Wide-ranging Theft of Humor Columns from Across the Country
An alert to NSNC members. Updates to the Memminger report follow his article.
By Charles Memminger
March 8, 2012
A few weeks ago, humor and travel writer Dave Fox was Googling some of his columns from Singapore when he discovered a column he had written in 2001 had been republished in 2005 in the Benson County Farmers Press in North Dakota with the byline “Jon Flatland,” a well-known regional newsman.
Fox dug further and discovered that just about all of the humor columns Flatland claimed to have written for two newspapers he owed — the Steele County Press in Finley, N.D., and the Griggs County Courier in Cooperstown, N.D. — and other Midwest newspapers had been plagiarized from columnists across the United States, including at least one of mine entitled “Language Laws Leave Us Speechless,” which was published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on Nov. 8, 1999, and on Nov. 1, 2005. The identical column was published in the Steele County Press in 2006 under Flatland’s byline. The editor of the Benson County Farmer’s Press inadvertently republished my column under Flatland’s name, as well as other columns Flatland had ripped off.
Fox* reached out to me and several other columnists whose work had been stolen, and soon we were all on the trail of Flatland and his misdeeds. (I suggest members Google some of their columns to see if Flatland used them).
The trail ended at the The Times in Blooming Prairie, Minn., where Flatland had been hired a few months ago as managing editor. He continued to run plagiarized columns in that paper, unknown to its publisher, Rick Bussler, including a Christmas poem “Twas The Month Before Christmas,” by Erik Deckers, who first published it through his Laughing Stalk Syndicate in 2006. Flatland apparently liked the poem a lot because he had previously published it under his name in one of his own papers.
Upon learning of Flatland’s plagiarism, Bussler confronted Flatland who “quickly and quietly left town,” Bussler wrote.
In an editorial in the Blooming Prairie Times dated March 7, 2012, Bussler apologized to his newspaper’s readers and wrote:
Last week The Times learned that Jon Flatland, who has served as interim managing editor for four months, has been plagiarizing his columns from columnists throughout the country. The situation was brought to our attention after a freelance humor and travel writer from Singapore contacted The Times on behalf of at least 12 other columnists.”
Bussler wrote a signed column offering his personal perspective. The Times may publish more about Jon Flatland’s activities.
In the newspaper editorial, Bussler also wrote:
Upon further investigation, The Times discovered virtually nothing in Flatland’s weekly columns is his own original work. After doing some digging, we discovered Flatland makes a weekly habit of ripping off humor columns from a wide range of other writers—from independent bloggers to columnists at major daily newspapers such as The Dallas Morning News.
This disturbing trend involving Flatland appears to have been going on for many years. Flatland has worked in the newspaper business for 28 years in several states, including Nebraska, North Dakota and Minnesota. The plagiarized columns have appeared in several publications Flatland has worked for in those states.”
What makes Flatland’s plagiarism even more distressing is that he not only was president of the North Dakota Newspaper Association but won writing awards for columns he had stolen.
After I informed Roger Bailey, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association (NDNA), of Flatland’s activities, Bailey began his own investigation.
He sent me a copy of a column Flatland allegedly wrote that took first place in the humor category in the 2009 in the NDNA writing contest and asked me if it looked familiar. After a Google check, I discovered the winning column actually was written by humor writer Jason Offutt and posted at the Foolish Times [site name corrected] website on May 1, 2008.
Flatland had published the column under his name while publisher of the Griggs County Courier and head of Flatland Publishing Inc. Flatland later sold both papers to New Century Press in Iowa.
Jim Hensley, chief operating officer of New Century, sent me an e-mail saying he was looking into the matter, even though the incidents of plagiarism occurred before New Century bought the Griggs County Courier and the Steele County Press.
Interestingly, the editor of the Steele County Press is Flatland’s daughter Lindsie. She was upset to learn of Flatland’s plagiarism and said she would conduct her own investigation of his past columns. In a note to me saying she intended to investigate this matter and write about it in her paper, she also said: “Oh and please do not continue to call him my dad. As I said before, I would like to keep business and personal separate.”
What makes determining the true extent of Flatland’s plagiarism difficult, is that many of his columns are not posted online. So someone will have to type in parts of columns into Google from newspaper hard copies to find if they were stolen. Dave Fox wrote me: “After Googling other articles by Flatland and then searching for similar terms, I discovered that virtually every column he has claimed to have written was previously written by somebody else.”
I was twice named the top humor columnist in the country by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for newspaper under 100,000 circulation and took third place in humor in 2010 for newspapers over 100,000. Considering the work Mr. Flatland chose to appropriate from fine writers across the country, the best we can say about him is that he had good taste.
I have been unable to contact Jon Flatland for comment.
As a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I suggest members Google some of their columns to see if they were picked up by Flatland.
Feel free to make comments to this posting.
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Charley Memminger had been a three-time-a-week humor columnist at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin before it merged into what now is the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in 2010. Most recently, he has been writing humor for the Hawaii Reporter, an online news journal. He has a book contract with St. Martin’s Press. Charley is a longtime member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and has won the NSNC Column Contest several times. Follow Charley at twitter.com/CharleyMemm. He is on Facebook.
*Editor’s note: Humor and travel writer Dave Fox issued a statement on Flatland on March 8, 2012.
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Update: Our colleagues at the Poynter Institute’s Latest News blog, Craig Silverman and Andrew Beaujon, published a solidly researched, well-organized report on this matter, “Jon Flatland, “Columnist and Former Newspaper Owner, Exposed as Serial Plagiarist.” On March 9, 2012, Poynter has a follow-up, “How Serial Plagiarist Jon Flatland Learned He’d Been Caught.”
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Update, March 14, 2012: Poynter’s Latest News today reports Flatland had been caught about two decades ago plagiarizing, in “Jon Flatland Was Fired for Plagiarizing in the ’90s.” It quotes an article published today in the Ashley (N.D.) Tribune News, “Flatland Focus of Plagiarism Scandal,” which finds that Flatland plagiarized the late Atlanta-based humor columnist Lewis Grizzard.