HARTFORD, Conn. – A small, family-owned Connecticut newspaper sued the state's largest newspaper Thursday, saying it repeatedly plagiarized stories after cutting its own reporting staff to save money.
The Journal Inquirer of Manchester accuses the Hartford Courant of "pirating" at least 11 local news stories in August and September, then publishing them as its own work under Courant reporters' bylines.
The Journal Inquirer's lawsuit, filed Thursday in Hartford Superior Court, alleges the Courant violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act and federal copyright law. It seeks at least $15,000 in damages, plus court and attorney fees.
It claims the Courant saved money by cutting back on some local coverage, then took credit for its smaller competitor's work on bread-and-butter stories such as town zoning board actions, school administrator appointments and local political skirmishes.
"Either hire reporters to cover these towns or don't. Their intent in taking our work was malicious and they did wrong, and they need their knuckles rapped over it," said Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, which covers 17 towns north and east of Hartford.
Messages were left Thursday for Courant representatives. Editor Naedine Hazell said the newspaper expected to issue a comment once it had a chance to review the lawsuit.
The Courant's CEO and publisher, Richard Graziano, acknowledged in September that the Courant had plagiarized his competitors, apologized to readers with a note on the opinion page, said it was not intentional and promised "corrective action" to prevent repeat occurrences.
"They acknowledged it, but just saying, 'Oh, sorry,' is pretty cheap," Powell said.
The lawsuit is part of a larger dispute between the newspapers, which have been direct competitors since the 35,000-circulation Journal Inquirer started daily publication in 1968 with the merger of two local weekly papers.
The Courant, whose daily circulation is about 155,500, started in 1764 as a weekly paper and prides itself on being the nation's oldest continuously published newspaper. It is owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Co.
Powell and editors of several other small Connecticut papers complained last summer when the Courant launched what it called an "aggregation" policy, in which it summarized or rewrote other papers' local stories without permission and put them on the Courant's Web site with attribution to the original paper.
The Journal Inquirer said some of those stories — of which 11 are listed in the lawsuit — later appeared in Courant print editions with attribution removed or changed to the Courant.
Tribune has defended the online aggregation practice, calling it legitimate and acceptable as long as it is not carried over to the printed product.
Powell and the lawsuit say the September apology does nothing to help the smaller paper recoup losses incurred if readers picked the Courant over the Journal Inquirer without knowing the Courant's offerings originated with its competitor.
The Journal Inquirer charges non-subscribers for access to news on its Web site, where higher page views can help attract advertising revenue. The Courant's Web site access is free.
Keith Woods, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the cut-and-paste world of the Internet has mistakenly given some people a loose sense of who owns what.
Without trying to judge the Courant's alleged actions or take sides in the dispute between the papers, he said, the age-old rules of journalism always apply, no matter how the news is presented and by whom.
"There's no measure of justification you can offer to people for doing it, no matter how tough the times get. You can't steal," he said.
Tribune Co. has stood by the idea of aggregating content on its Web sites in Hartford and elsewhere. Tribune, which is operating under bankruptcy protection, also owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The Sun of Baltimore, other newspapers and 23 television stations.