Editor's Note: The Bulletin's Web site appears to have been taken down since this article was posted. All links to Bulletin content in this article now lead to screen grabs captured by Slate when the Bulletin site was still live.
The saga began in the classical manner: with an e-mail about Jimmy Buffett. Several weeks ago, I received a note from a Slate reader drawing my attention to an article published in March 2008 in the Bulletin, a free alternative weekly in Montgomery County, Texas, north of Houston. "I believe your … profile of musician Jimmy Buffett was reproduced wholesale without attribution," the reader wrote. "I thought you should know." I followed a link to "Spring Fling: Concerts That Make the Holiday a Time to Party"* by Mark Williams, a feature pegged to concert appearances by Buffett and country singer Miranda Lambert. Sure enough, the article included 10 and a half paragraphs copied nearly verbatim from "A Pirate Looks at 60," my Slate essay of Jan. 9, 2007. My words were slightly reworked in places, and further enlivened by eccentric use of em dashes and semicolons—a hallmark, I would learn, of the Williamsian style. But the original text was largely unaltered. For example, my Slate piece began this way:
Jimmy Buffett turned 60 this past Dec. 25, a day he undoubtedly spent in a lower latitude, in a meditative frame of mind, in close proximity to a tankard of Captain Morgan. At least that was the case with birthday number 50, which, as recounted in his autobiography A Pirate Looks At Fifty (1998), Buffett celebrated by piloting his private jet from the Cayman Islands to Costa Rica to Colombia and drinking copiously, while contemplating "spirituality" and his goals going forward: "Learn celestial navigation," "Swim with dolphins," "Start therapy."
Mark Williams kicks off his consideration of Buffett with this passage:
Buffett, who turned 60 on Christmas Day, likely spent the day in a lower latitude, in a meditative frame of mind—and in close proximity to a tankard of Captain Morgan. At least that was the case with birthday number 50; as recounted in his 1998 autobiography 'A Pirate Looks At Fifty,' Buffett celebrated by piloting his private jet from the Cayman Islands to Costa Rica to Colombia—merrily drinking while contemplating "spirituality" and his goals: learning celestial navigation, swimming with dolphins and starting therapy.
I recalled writing the Buffett piece, laboring on deadline into the wee hours, hunched over a laptop at the kitchen table in my Brooklyn home. How could I have known that I was previewing a concert to take place some 15 months later at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in Spring, Texas?
I decided to contact the Bulletin's editor about the plagiarism of my work. On the Bulletin's Web site, I found data on the newspaper's circulation (20,000) and advertising rates (cost of a one-eighth-page vertical ad measuring 2½ inches by 6¼ inches: $105 per week). I learned that the Bulletin had been in business since 1969 and had received the 1998 "Most Improved Newspaper" Award from the Texas Community Newspaper Association. I searched the Bulletin's archives, skimming through music reviews, left-leaning political op-eds, local news features, and previews of Montgomery County community happenings ("A Spooktacular Halloween: Concerts & Parties That Make This Season Frighteningly Fun"). The phrase "send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org" was appended to many pieces, but the ghost editor was never named. The Bulletin's site has no masthead, and most articles dating from the past few years are unbylined. The only name that appears consistently is Mark Williams, billed variously as "Music Editor," "Bulletin Music Editor," and "The Bulletin Staff Writer."
Eventually, a Google search turned up the name of the Bulletin's publisher, Mike Ladyman, whose surname did little to dispel the feeling that I had been sucked into a Charlie Kaufman screenplay. But Ladyman is entirely real—a resident of Montgomery, Texas, who answered his phone on the first ring and listened patiently as I informed him of Mark Williams' misdeed. Our conversation was cordial and brief. "I'll look into it," Ladyman said. "I'll speak to Mark about it." We hung up, and I dashed off a follow-up e-mail with a mildly harrumphing tone ("I do not think I need to tell you how poorly this unethical practice reflects on your newspaper," etc.). And then, content that I had put the matter to rest, I let it drop.
Except that I didn't let it drop. I found myself reading and rereading and rereading again, poring over "Spring Fling" like a Talmudist. The article has an odd, jangling tone, a product of its syntax ("their loyalty has a vague spiritual overtones [sic]") and the ragged suturing of my writing to Williams'. But was the prose surrounding my own actually Williams' work? I began to wonder. When the borrowings from my Slate essay end, four paragraphs from the bottom of the article, Williams makes a jarring genre shift from think-piece to celebrity profile, complete with boilerplate quotes from the singer himself. Did the Bulletin really interview Jimmy Buffett? I Googled a phrase from Williams' piece—"leaves the Parrotheads with this head scratcher"—and the search returned two results: "Spring Fling" and a USA Today piece from July 8, 2004, "Buffett takes country out for a boat ride," written by Brian Mansfield.
It was then that I realized, with a pang of regret, that Mark Williams is not my biggest fan—a reader so enraptured by Rosen's prose stylings that he was driven to steal them. "Spring Fling" has at least three sources: my Slate essay, Mansfield's USA Today piece, and a Minneapolis Star-Tribune Miranda Lambert profile. And this is just the beginning of Williams' collage-art music journalism.