Freelancers are increasingly important to newspapers, magazines and Web sites as smaller newsroom budgets mean less money for full-time reporters and their costly pay and benefits. But sometimes, freelancers can burn you.
That’s what happened to The Post’s Travel section for April 17. A freelance travel writer, Robert Rigney, wrote a story about the Andy Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce, a small town in Slovakia where Warhol’s parents grew up before immigrating to the United States.
It’s a decent piece of writing, somewhat impressionistic and novelistic in its description and anecdotes, except that some of the quotes and scenes in the story were lifted, without attribution, from a documentary film about a journey to the museum made by Stanislaw Mucha in 2001. You can watch the film, “Absolut Warhola,” here on YouTube. A sharp-eyed Post reader remembered the documentary and informed the Travel section.
Travel editor Joe Yonan and deputy editor Zofia Smardz then contacted Rigney, asked him more questions and did more fact-checking on his story. Turns out Rigney, who has also written for the Christian Science Monitor, had made several trips, some dating back 10 years, to the Warhol museum, and the story was based on all of those, not just a recent trip.
When confronted by The Post, Rigney acknowledged that he “nicked’ some of the scenes and quotes from the documentary. Yonan and Smardz’s further fact-checking did determine that Rigney had been to the museum again recently and did in fact talk to the museum director.
They also fact-checked, as best as they could, two other stories Rigney had done for Travel, one about Berlin’s underground World War II bunkers and a second about Montenegro’s remote seaside towns. The bunker one checked out, but Rigney’s first-person account of his walking tours of Montenegran towns was almost impossible to verify, except that the towns described do exist, and seem to fit his descriptions.
Once the plagiarism on the Warhol museum story was discovered, The Post stopped its payment to Rigney, and of course he’ll never work for The Post again. The standard Post freelance contract states that the writer’s material must be based on original reporting.
But as for preventing any further instances of this kind of thing, here is the reality. The Post does not have an army of fact-checkers, as Kevin Sullivan, Post Sunday editor, explained. The paper can’t send staffers to Eastern Europe to fact-check every travel story. The Post is vulnerable to a one-shot deception by an unscrupulous freelancer.
“We can be ever-vigilant and spot-check what we can, but I’m afraid that if a writer is intent on plagiarizing or otherwise violating basic journalistic practices, given our resources it will indeed be difficult to always catch it,” added Joe Yonan, Travel editor.
That’s a sobering reality, particularly in a world where more publications, including The Post, are relying more on freelancers and on aggregation of reporting taken from other writers and publications. It’s a risky business.
I feel sure that this will happen again. The trouble is that it steadily erodes the Post’s reputation for accuracy, which is a necessary ingredient to its survival.