Scooper & Scooped: Poached Edition

We were surprised to open up Monday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune to see Jon Tevlin’s article on religion in the workplace. Surprised, because it was very similar to a feature story that was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine about a month ago. We’d noticed Russell Shorto’s feature, not only because it was a compelling cover story, but because its main subject was a small bank in outstate Minnesota. Also because the photographs, taken by white-hot Minneapolis photographer Alec Soth, were wonderful.

We’ve already commented recently on the phenomenon of follow-on news stories: The New York Times or the Washington Post do the heavy-lifting on a story, get all the glory for the scoop, and when the parade has passed, all the local papers shuffle along shoveling up the remainders, maybe a little ashamed that someone in Manhattan managed to break a local story under the noses of a whole newsroom full of local reporters.

Tevlin does acknowledge the source of his interest in Riverview Bank, after a fashion. Near the end of his piece, he notes that Riverview Bank, on its website, claims to have converted Times "freelancer" Shorto during an "interview for a newspaper article." (Shorto denies this.) When we emailed Tevlin about his follow-on article, he told us there were lots of other interesting loose ends to tie up in the Riverview Bank story, and he was onto them the day after the Times article appeared. The St. Paul Pioneer-Press, in the person of business reporter Dave Beal, was also on the story. They published their own follow-on November 11.

There is nothing wrong with this practice per se. While we don’t want to inflame professional jealousies, it would be nice if writers acknowledged where they get their story ideas, particularly if it’s from other writers. It is merely vanity that prevents someone from writing "as first reported in the New York Times." But this sort of story poaching goes on all the time; local daily newspapers are especially bad about doing it to nationals, weeklies, and monthlies. They have done it to us here at The Rake. (We’ve already given up hope of ever working elsewhere in this town. Funny how if you write about media in New York, you’re guaranteed a job practically for the rest of your life. If you write about media in the Twin Cities, you’d better keep Monster.com bookmarked.) For our own part, we admit to being allergic to a story if it has appeared anywhere else our esteemed readers may have been exposed to it. This falls under the principle of giving your readers a little credit. And, as we love to point out, a newspaper article and a magazine story are two very different animals. Tevlin’s story was different from Shorto’s, though it was clearly provoked by it.

Still, we were surprised that the Star-Tribune photographs were so similar to Alec Soth’s. One Strib image depicted the exact scene as the shot on the New York Times Magazine’s cover: An office wall with a handsome painting that shows one modern businessman introducing another businessman to the robed and haloed Jesus Christ, as if to say,"I’d like you to meet my boss, the Son of God."

The striking similarity in the photographs seemed a breach. Were we being naive? We can see how you might make the argument that, just as Riverview Bank is sitting out there in the public domain for anyone to write about, their office interiors and personnel are not themselves copyrighted. And given that Tevlin’s lead specifically refers to this painting, it falls under the definition of pure documentary photography, right?

We don’t know. It doesn’t seem possible that Stormi Greener, an excellent photographer in her own right, was unaware of Soth’s photos when she shot hers for the Star-Tribune. To our eye, it seems obvious that someone asked her to take precisely the same pictures Soth had taken for the Times magazine— photos that are undoubtedly under license and embargo, and not therefore available to the Star Tribune or anyone else. You look and see what you think: Here is Soth’s photo for the Times, and here is Greener’s.

We got ahold of Alec Soth in Paris, and he was a little surprised. "Wow, that is quite similar," he said. But he was willing to believe that it was a coincidence—and that probably an editor at the Star-Tribune should fall on the sword for this. (We know from experience: It is ALWAYS an editor’s fault!) Jon Tevlin told us he thought you could send dozens of photographers to Riverview Bank and they’d have taken the exact same photo. The Jesus-in-the-executive-suite artwork is a "no brainer," he said. Times magazine editor Gerald Marzorarti politely declined to comment, and Greener has not answered a call and an email.

This photographic facet of the follow-on story undoubtedly falls into a grey area, and maybe it illustrates the difference between fine art photography and photojournalism. Soth’s photo is striking in part because it is so artful, whereas Greener’s has a solid if unremarkable gravity as photojournalism—and it’s almost the same picture!

But it’s the art within the art. When we first saw the cover of the Times Magazine, we were convinced that a Times art director had pulled off an amazing illustration. Indeed, the point of both the Soth and the Greener photos was actually to reproduce the astonishing piece of framed, evangelical art, in situ. Perhaps the real injured party here is Nathan Greene. He is the formerly anonymous born-again capitalist who was responsible for painting "The Senior Partner." He’ll undoubtedly get his reward—and maybe his copyright—in the next world.