Near the end of the workday on July 12, 2011, a group of Kansas City Star editors and reporters filed into a small, drab conference room adjoining the paper's cavernous second-floor newsroom, where there seem to be more and more empty desks every year.
There were still enough reporters around that afternoon that the conference room was standing-room-only to hear the unscheduled announcement. Anne Hartung Spenner, at that time the Star's assistant managing metro editor, stood at the head of the table and delivered the news: Longtime metro columnist Steve Penn was getting fired. He had, Spenner explained, lifted sentences and paragraphs from press releases and passed them off as his own in his columns.
Gasps and murmurs followed. Penn was a 31-year veteran at the Star. (Full disclosure: I was an intern at the Star at the time of Penn's firing but have never met him, and I've had little contact with the paper's employees since my internship ended.) Parrying questions from a couple of the nosier reporters in the room, Spenner offered only a few more details and said that a fuller accounting would come in the following day's paper. It did: an unsigned burn notice that appeared on page A5 and charged that Penn had grafted whole sentences and paragraphs from press releases. In a display of inverted euphemism, the paper never used the word "plagiarism," but the phrasing could have been a dictionary definition of the dreaded scarlet P: that Penn had presented "others' conclusions and opinions as his own and without attribution."
Those words and that story — which amounted to Penn's professional burial — are now at the heart of a lawsuit filed by Penn at the end of June, nearly one year after his termination. The lawsuit claims that the Star "intended to injure" Penn's reputation by claiming that the copying of material from press releases was unethical.
Penn, who did not respond to an interview request made through his attorney, claims he has lost work opportunities because of the way the Star publicized a firing he says was unfair. In the lawsuit, which seeks $25,000 plus damages, Penn makes his case with this surprising claim: "Such press releases are widely-understood [sic] in the journalism industry to be released to the press by those who want their words published with no or minimal editing and who do not desire attribution as to authorship."
Copying is expected, Penn claims. But his crowning accusation goes further: "As such, [Penn's] training (and the widespread practice at the Star) was to use these press releases without attribution, and on the basis of an implied permission for such use." In other words, he admits having ripped off press releases, but explains that doing so was fine because so did a bunch of his colleagues at the Star.
"We believe the evidence is going to show that it was being widely done by various reporters at the Star," Penn's attorney, Lyle Gregory of Raymore, tells The Pitch.
Hoo boy. And so, as Penn scrounges for his ex-employer's loose change, his lawsuit is sending observers down the rabbit hole of KC media's inner workings.
So far, the Star is declining to put up its gloves. "We won't have any comment," Star editor Mike Fannin tells The Pitch in an e-mail. Spenner, now a vice chancellor of marketing and communications at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, also declined to rebut Penn's claims. But a former colleague closely familiar with Penn's career tells The Pitch that Penn's claims about the Star are "total horseshit."
"The only place where you're most likely to rewrite press releases is the business desk, where you rewrite releases all the time," says the former colleague, who did not want to be named for fear of becoming involved with the lawsuit. But even PR sent to the business desk would be rewritten, not copied, the colleague says, and only for brief items — not for columns. "No one that I know uses, verbatim, press releases in any capacity. And anyone who does is A: lazy; and B: someone who doesn't have any kind of integrity."