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By Ryan Johnson, Forum Communications Co., Published March 08 2012

'I'm definitely out of the newspaper business': Former North Dakota newspaper association president accused of plagiarism

GRAND FORKS – A former North Dakota Newspaper Association president, editor and owner resigned last week from a southern Minnesota newspaper he then managed after being confronted with allegations of plagiarism that stretch back to at least 1995.

Four months ago, John Flatland became interim managing editor of The Times in Blooming Prairie, Minn., a weekly newspaper with 1,400 readers.

Publisher Rick Bussler said Thursday there was “nothing major” in Flatland’s handling of the job at The Times that hinted at a problem. He said Flatland wrote several news articles for the newspaper in addition to about a dozen weekly “Thoughts While Shaving” columns.

“There were little inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies, things that we noticed with his overall work performance,” he said. “But nothing we could ever really put a finger on.”

But that changed Feb. 29, when humor writer Dave Fox, who lives in Singapore, sent an email to Bussler outlining evidence of plagiarism in at least 12 columns that had been published in The Times under Flatland’s byline.

Bussler said they have since been able to find evidence of Flatland plagiarizing other writers’ work as far back as 1995. “He’s been very meticulous and calculated all these years.”

Flatland is well-known in the North Dakota newspaper scene. He is a former owner of the Steele County Press in Finley and in 2009 was president of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, which represents and advocates for most newspapers in the state.

Fox wrote on his blog Thursday that he discovered Flatland’s actions “purely by accident” two weeks ago. He said he was searching on Google for his old columns to see where they ranked on search engines and found a column he had written in 2001 that was published under Flatland’s byline in 2005 in the Steele County Press and Benson County (N.D.) Farmers Press, both weekly newspapers.

Fox did more research and discovered Flatland also had taken credit for the same story in the Minnesota paper about three months ago. Fox said it was then that he sensed “there was something bigger than the simple plagiarism of one story.”

Fox said he began searching random phrases in Flatland’s other columns and in almost every case he found “nearly identical” articles by other writers. He reached out to the other writers and confirmed the plagiarism before sending Bussler an email.

It is “troubling” enough when a rookie reporter plagiarizes other writers’ work, Fox wrote. But Flatland’s actions were “unfathomable,” he wrote, because he was a respected reporter, columnist and editor for 28 years.

“For nearly three decades, he has masqueraded as a legitimate writer when in fact he has been a journalistic parasite, feeding off the hard work of others,” Fox wrote.

Flatland received a first-place writing award for a humorous column from NDNA in 2011, a column that Fox said “was in fact written by Jason Offutt, a writer in Missouri.”

NDNA Executive Director Roger Bailey said the association’s annual newspaper contests are judged by other state associations, and a judge from another state picked Flatland as the winner last year.

The newspaper association is looking into the allegations, Bailey said, but so far has not taken action to address the possible plagiarism in the winning column.

“There isn’t a process in place because we’ve never encountered it,” he said.

Bussler said he got the email from Fox on the morning of Feb. 29, and he planned to talk to Flatland about the allegations when he got to the office later that day.

But within an hour of seeing Fox’s email, he received a message from Flatland admitting to the plagiarism and offering his resignation, he said.

“Right after he sent that email, he walked out of the office and that was the last time anyone had communication with him,” he said.

Flatland has left Blooming Prairie, and also indicated in his email that he was done for good with the newspaper business, Bussler said.

The Times has removed all of Flatland’s columns from its website, but his bylined news articles are still online, Bussler said.

The publisher wrote an apology to readers of The Times that was posted online Wednesday, stating Flatland “single-handedly committed the plagiarism” and no one else at the newspaper had knowledge of his actions.

“Even though this was the work of one person, The Times apologizes to the columnists who were plagiarized and to our readers for being exposed to such unconscionable conduct,” he wrote.

Bussler said he never thought plagiarism like this would happen at the small weekly newspaper.

“This is by far the worst case that I’ve seen,” he said. “I’m pretty attuned to things going on in the industry. I can’t ever remember really seeing one like this in terms of being so widespread and something that’s been going on for so long.”

Asked Thursday whether he committed plagiarism, Flatland told The Associated Press, “Apparently I did, but not to the extent they’re saying.” He also said, “I'm definitely out of the newspaper business. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”


Johnson is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald