Why is it that The Post and the New York Times will come out with very similar stories on the same day? I’m not talking big national or international breaking news stories of the kind that readers would expect both publications to cover thoroughly.
No, I’m talking about features and stand-alone stories about culture, art and lifestyle, and both papers in two very different cities will carry something remarkably similar.
I get frequent letters asking about this, and the situation came up again this month. So this is our Thought Bubble for the week. Here’s a letter from a reader who signed the e-mail “F Cardemil.”
“Sir, yesterday I read the lead article in the Style section of your paper about art and memory, and I regret to tell you that it is almost identical to an article on the same subject that appeared in yesterday's Science section of the New York Times.
“This is not the first time that same subject matter appears in both papers, especially when dealing with science issues. I understand that current news will be reported at the same time in different newspapers but I do not understand why other topics — including similar graphics — will appear in more than one venue on the same day about an issue that it is not current.
“I would like to know how does the Style editor select the topics to be published and if your newspaper is aware of plagiarism . . . after all the Science Times article was posted on the web [Sept. 19] prior to the [Sept. 20] printed Post publication.”
The two similar stories the reader was referring to were about noted illustrator Lonni Sue Johnson, a woman who had done cover illustrations for the New Yorker magazine but who lost almost all of her memory in 2007 after an attack of encephalitis. She regained some memory of herself and her family, but not much else, and she couldn’t remember any longer what she did five minutes before.
Nor was she drawing anymore until her mother, also an artist, began putting pens and pencils in Johnson’s hand and asking her daughter to duplicate what she herself was drawing. Soon, Johnson’s was off and running, drawing again on her own — different than the kinds of pictures she had done before her amnesia, but unmistakably her style.
Her recovery of her artistic ability raises question about whether art is an inspiration arising out of experience and memory, or something more deeply buried. Johnson has been studied by scientists, and now she has an exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore of her art, before and after memory loss.
Here’s how Lynn Medford, Sunday Style and Post Magazine editor, responded to the coincidence in stories:
“In arts coverage — and news and sports, for that matter — newspapers quite often do the same stories.
“Museums, theaters, and other venues send out releases about their exhibits and shows, and critics and reporters go cover them, particularly if they are of wide or intense interest. We all covered the play ‘Follies,’ [when it opened in D.C. and in New York]. We all covered the unveiling of the Martin Luther King statue. We all cover the same football games and wars.
“When I received a release about the Walters putting on an exhibit by an artist with amnesia, I sat up in my chair: That’s fascinating. Her art before and after sheds light on the sheer source and nature of creativity. How awful for a human being to suffer full short-term memory loss — a harrowing existence. Post readers would be interested this story.
“I'm quite sure the Times editor who received the release had the same reaction, plus any other newspaper editor would, too. The Times thought enough to send a science writer down from New York to our territory — the Walters is next door in Baltimore, of course. We regularly write about their exhibits.
“I pitched the story to free-lancer John Pancake, who has some expertise in brain disorders as well as visual art, having been the Style Arts editor at The Post for a decade. The Times wrote it as a science story; we wrote it as an arts story. Any overlap you saw reflects good news judgment, not plagiarism. And we’re glad these letter writers are reading newspapers.”
I’m with Medford on this one. The publications took different angles on the same story — I learned different things about Johnson from each of the stories. And it is fascinating, and worth covering, for both metropolitan dailies.
As for the graphics, which were also similar in the two stories, those are images the Walters sends out with its press releases with permission from the artist. All newspapers would get the same ones.
Great minds do sometimes think alike, as do great newspapers.