In newspapers nationwide, financial columnists published others' work as their own

By Nick R. Martin | June 30th, 2009 | 6:38 pm | 2 Comments »

It appears that financial advisers across the nation have copied whole or partial articles, which were originally penned by a trade group they belong to, and passed them off as original work in newspapers across the nation, including Arizona’s recent Pultizer Prize-winning East Valley Tribune.

The issue was first raised today by Joe Strupp on the website of Editor & Publisher, a publication that covers the news industry. Strupp noticed that an advice article about financial planning that appeared two weeks ago in the Tribune was “almost identical, word for word,” to an article that appeared six days later in the Huntsville Item newspaper in Texas. Both stories claimed to have different authors, each of which live in regions in which the papers are published.

At first, because of the timing, it looked as if the Texas writer had perhaps copied the Tribune’s piece wholesale. But then E&P, along with other journalists like Ray Stern of the Phoenix New Times, began to notice the article had popped up all over the Internet under several different bylines, some of them on other newspaper websites.

This was enough to raise my curiosity. I started to follow Strupp and Stern’s trails. At least one of the identical articles, posted on the website of a financial planner in Alaska, mentioned it came from a group called the Financial Planning Association.

From there, it wasn’t hard to find a page on the association’s website titled “Request Articles,” in which the association’s members can sign up to receive free pre-written stories, which the group says “can be used in whole or in part, and can serve as story ideas for personal finance coverage.”

Some of the group’s members took the suggestion a little too far.

This afternoon, a spokeswoman with the Financial Planning Association, based in Denver, told me its members are not supposed to pass the articles off as their own, but they are allowed to reprint the articles with their names attached as long as they disclose that they “provided” the article as a surrogate of the association.

A written guideline for its members, however, is less than clear about the matter. It says: “You will notice at the end of each article a tagline which states the article is provided by you as a member of the FPA. Unless you substantially rewrite the articles for publication in your local newspaper or client newsletter, we ask that you use this tagline.”

Spokeswoman Christine Richardson said the association “will review this situation to determine whether these guidelines were misunderstood.” If so, the organization will change its guidelines, she said.

Suffice to say, the financial advisers who gave those pieces to the East Valley Tribune (which I used to worked for) and the Huntsville Item did not include taglines with their stories. The fact that the association permitted its members to reprint the
articles with nearly free reign is the only thing that spares the writers from a plagiarism charge — and even then, just barely.

But even so, the practice doesn’t even come close to meeting journalistic standards by which most newspapers abide. The newspapers here would not have likely allowed the writers to submit the work had they known it had been originally written by a trade group.

It’s unclear how many other newspapers have printed stories written by the Financial Planning Association.

Meantime, the Tribune is conducting a review on its end. Editor Chris Coppola said in an email to me today that he started looking into it right after getting a call from Editor & Publisher. As of about 6:30 p.m., he said he still hadn’t heard back from Rebecca Warren, the financial adviser who submitted the stories.

Strupp and Stern also tried to reach Warren and had similar luck.

“Obviously, we’re taking this
very seriously and hope to clear things up for our readers as soon as we can,” Coppola wrote.