Back when the daily papers of our great cities went at it tusk on tusk as the trees shook and the earth bounced, the squabbles of the mites in the grassroots were scarcely worth anyone's notice. But the world's changed, and the mastodons aren't nearly so frisky. Ron Roenigk, publisher of the Inside-Booster, has never had a pot to piss in; Patrick Boylan describes his wellesparkbulldog.com as an "effort of love" requiring him and his wife to take freelance assignments to get by. Yet in their neck of the woods—the north side's North Center-Lincoln Square corridor—they're the go-to guys for hyperlocal news, the new fashion.
And they've been rumbling.
The story begins with a reporter who remembers well the vanished golden age. Pat Butler began reporting for the Booster in 1968, when it was a crown jewel of the then-mighty Lerner chain of community weeklies. He wrote for it through several changes of ownership—Lerner, Pulitzer, Hollinger—but when the remnant of Conrad Black's Hollinger known as the Sun-Times Media Group sold the Booster to Wednesday Journal Inc. in 2008, Butler stayed with the company and went to work for Pioneer Press.
Which on January 13 laid him off. "They called me in and said, 'Because of the economy and because of the structural changes in this organization your job has been eliminated. The union representative will be here to look out for your interests,'" Butler tells me. "I said, 'I'm glad somebody is looking out for my interests because you guys sure aren't.' Needless to say, I was pissed."
At 70, Butler might have retired. "Why should I?" he says. "I love being a reporter. I still have all my marbles, and then some."
For Pioneer, he'd been covering Edison Park and Norwood Park. But he freelanced for the Inside-Booster, which is what Roenigk's tiny Inside weekly became when Wednesday Journal dumped the Booster in 2009 and Roenigk picked it up for its legal advertising.
"Foreclosure notices! That saved us," Roenigk says.
Last month, writing an Inside-Booster story on Gene Schulter's decision not to run for reelection as the 47th Ward alderman, Butler possibly screwed up. At any rate, he triggered a firestorm.
"Attention: a disgruntled blogger accused the newspaper of plagiarism last week so everyone be careful in your articles." So began a staff memo written last week by Jeff Borgardt, editor of the Inside-Booster. "You may write things from other sources but be sure to attribute them. In the news business, this can be somewhat ridiculous at times."
Butler was the author of the article in question, and his editor was lecturing him as if he were a freshman who'd just joined the high school paper. "In any event," Borgardt went on, "plagiarism is defined 'the wrongful appropriation, close imitation, or purloining and publication, of another author's language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions, and the representation of them as one's own original work,' according to Wikipedia."
In his January 19 Inside-Booster story, Butler had quoted Green Party candidate Matt Reichel as saying of Schulter, "He did the right thing. We're looking forward to six weeks of hard work. And I look forward to running against O'Donnell." That would be Tom O'Donnell, a long-standing Schulter ally.
But two days earlier Reichel had been quoted by Boylan's Bulldog as saying the same thing. When Boylan spotted Butler's piece he sent a finger-wagging e-mail to Borgardt and Roenigk. "Plagiarism is not a crime," Boylan explained, "however it is the source of many journalism scandals and soils the name of any publication that encourages it or countenances it. . . . You should know that if your writer has done this to me, he has probably done it before and will do it again. . . . I do not envy the task you have before you. I know that there is no painless way to deal with this issue."
What is it about a cribbed quote or two that brings out the schoolmarm in journalists? Boylan gave Roenigk and Borgardt until January 28 to reply, and when the day came and he hadn't heard from them, he posted a story. "Inside-Booster article may have plagiarized Bulldog" didn't flat-out accuse Butler of ripping Boylan off—perhaps an editor was at fault—but it invited that conclusion. "We encourage you, the reader, to make your own judgement whether this is a case of plagiarism," Boylan wrote, "and whether to trust future reports from a newspaper that does not take the first step to stamp it out."
Roenigk soon surfaced. "Geez, ever heard of a phone you jerk?" he replied that evening in a comment posted at the end of Boylan's story. "Sorry, I just got back from a funeral in Denver and didn't see your note or ridiculous deadline demands until Friday night upon my return. I guess you didn't want to talk out of cowardice since your wife had not long ago dirtied our newspapers reputation with some of the worst journalism I've ever seen. I do indeed plan to check out my reporter's action but as far as I'm concerned you're a punk-assed pussy for hiding behind one stinking e-mailed note and not making a call to my office yourself."
"So you're the victim. Nice to see that clarified," Boylan posted in response. "So I'm a pussy. What's it called when you defend yourself by attacking another person's spouse Roenigk?"
Only a single comment was added by anybody not Roenigk or Boylan, indicating the reading public's failure to be gripped by this clash of hyperlocals. After two days Boylan closed down the comment board with a parting shot. "Roenigk's attempts to use misogynistic pejoratives in communications in an attempt to emasculate me," he wrote, "and previous descriptions of professionals in our community as girls demonstrates his lack of maturity."
At this point I called Roenigk and Boylan and asked what was going on. Roenigk laid out the backstory he said I needed to know. Last July the Inside-Booster carried a front-page story written by Boylan's wife, Jane Rickard. It was a slightly expanded version of an article carried several days earlier on the Bulldog site. "We had an informal agreement that they could take articles from the site," Boylan explains. "One of our issues with the locals is when we do good work it's not recognized. Having other media sites say yes, we validate this piece, it helps us with authority and authenticity."
Rickard's subject was a patch of open ground at Western and Lawrence that under the sponsorship of Schulter and the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce was supposed to become a community garden. "Somehow, something seems to have gone wrong," Rickard wrote. "Today this well-located 'community garden' is a litter covered weed patch." She said she tried to get answers from the alderman and the chamber, but her messages "went unreturned."
The next issue of the Inside-Booster hung Rickard out to dry. Borgardt reported that what caused the delay was simply a strike of city workers responsible for clearing the land. And under the misspelled headline "Sorry, we were mislead," Roenigk told readers that "after we published the story we found out that our reporter in fact did not try to contact any of the people she had claimed to. . . . We now see that we were completely mislead by a reporter who either did an incredibly bad job of reporting or purposely set out to use this newspaper to embarrass the LSCC and Alderman."
Without naming Rickard, Roenigk pledged that she'd "never again get another assignment in our pages and if you should see her byline in other news outlets I hope you will consider the source."
Rickard's sin, Roenigk tells me, was to ask questions in the guise of someone from the neighborhood curious about the garden, without telling anyone she was a reporter. True enough, says Boylan; politicians often say things to voters they won't say to reporters. "We looked at the New York Times ethics booklet. It says you don't have to identify yourself as a reporter when asking for information. When people ask why you're asking, then you say 'I'm a reporter.'"
Which brings us around to Boylan's plagiarism beef. "Pat Boylan runs a competing online newspaper—that's what that's about," says Butler. "This is clearly revenge," says Roenigk.
Yes, but did Butler swipe the quote or didn't he? "Pat says he talked to him, but I don't think he did," said Roenigk, never given to vagueness. Even so, "if there was anybody I work with I'd give a pass, it'd be Pat—considering he just got laid off. I don't pay him that much, and I'd be the last guy jumping on top of him. Not Pat Butler. He's earned his stripes in this town. But that doesn't mean he didn't get a copy of [Borgardt's] memo too."
Butler told me he's sure he talked to Reichel, but sure of nothing else. "We've known each other since he was running for Congress as a Green candidate two years ago," says Butler. Beyond that, "I don't have the details I would need to answer intelligently."
But Reichel says, "I know Pat and I talked to him in previous elections but in this election cycle I did not talk to him. That's something I would have remembered."
Aside from the matters at hand, Roenigk and Boylan seem to have no particular quarrel with each other. "He does some decent work," Roenigk told me. "The last thing he did on Tom O'Donnell was pretty damn good journalism. He called him out on three different things that are patently wrong. As far as I'm concerned, I have no ill will against Boylan. His wife, yes."
Boylan gives Roenigk his due—"He did some really outstanding work on the Sulzer library"—and when I tell him Roenigk admires his coverage of O'Donnell, sounds a little stricken by the praise. "We're actually beating him up too much," he frets. "How much do you put out there on a man?" After all, he reminds me, there are other candidates.
A difference between Roenigk and Boylan is that one always sounds nonchalant and the other fretful. Boylan may simply lack Roenigk's ease with life on the edge of disaster. On February 1 Boylan sent his contributors an e-mail of apology. "I was pretty angry at their attack, and I responded in an inappropriate manner to their publisher. I apologize to you for my actions. I embarrassed you. It was unintentional. But that doesn't excuse what I did," Boylan wrote. "We'll react strongly to any publisher who attempts to steal work from this team's efforts. But in the future we will react with more grace when they play the victim card on us."
"We should show more respect for each other," Boylan tells me. "We're all working hard."
Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com/media.