We think it’s important that you have a resource for accurate information about The Reader Magazine and hear our side of the story of any misperceptions.
Facts about The Reader Magazine and Source Material
by Chris Theodore, Founder, The Reader Magazine
Every year, Noble Media, Inc. (aka The Reader Magazine) publishes and mails 480,000 Reader Magazines. These magazines contain 35 million advertisements and 5.7 million articles. The Reader is one of 1,739 companies world-wide to receive the designation B-Certified by the non-profit B-Lab, the same designation earned by the globally-respected brands Patagonia and Seventh Generation. In 2016, The Reader changed its corporate structure to benefit corporation, laying the legal foundation for it to pursue high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency in addition to profit.
In The Beginning
The first Reader Magazine, published Spring 2001, was nine pages of ads and a three-page section of content called The Redlands Reader, which contained a profile I wrote on 83-year old Marion Kenzies of Redlands, advice on inspirational music, a quiz for which the answer was Wilhelm Canaris, a story on network effects and what looks, fifteen years later, like Reader DNA: a story of human rights abuse in Columbia drawn from reporting by Human Rights Watch and the Los Angeles Times which encouraged readers to email support to a brave Columbian military general and reformer.
When I’m feeling like I don’t want to go into the reasons very deeply as to why I started The Reader I will respond with “I needed money”. Although that is partly the truth, my motivations– thankfully– were deeper than this. I loved the prospect of influencing people’s thinking, which came from witnessing decades of my dad’s dignified enthusiasm teaching elementary, high school and community college students (a career that lasted 55 years). I loved the idea of getting to create a physical news object, and the mind-blowing potential impact that represented, a vision partly inspired by my mom who, starting in the 1960s, earning probably $2 or $3 an hour, was the executive secretary to the founder of World Vision, at the time a tiny office in Pasadena which she helped grow into what became one of the largest humanitarian organizations on earth. In truth, I started The Reader because it appeared to be a way to pursue all of things I was pretty good at– being an entrepreneur, making things other people liked, words, communicating, and art. How else my experience influenced my decision to start The Reader is found, here.
So, although I had no idea where I might go with The Reader when I began, I had high hopes for what it would become from what I knew was possible. Even though The Reader was only twelve pages–most of it advertising– and reached only one city, I hoped that it would– eventually– positively and profoundly impact culture.
As the years past I poured my heart and soul into building the publication. I visited thousands and thousands of small and mid-sized businesses in the east valley area of the Inland Empire and grew the circulation to sixty thousand households (about 195,000 people). In 2005, Hajnalka Hogue became the first employee, working first for free and later for a very low salary. Through her organizational and operational skills– she had with her a Ph.d in organizational development– The Reader’s circulation and revenues continued to grow.
A Choice We’d Make Again
On September 17, 2011, the wave of discontent that had begun as the Arab Spring reached North America as the Occupy Wall Street protest. I was thrilled by it. It seemed to me that it was the natural and unavoidable response by people who knew that the system– which was supposed to be their system– was rigged against them. It thrilled me because I believed that people marching in the streets was the only thing that could change the system for the better. We all had to know, see and remember that the people ultimately hold power. This was the greatest part of Occupy Wall Street to me: it was peacefully redefining and re-empowering the idea that people rule. To me, the protestors were giving voice not to radical sentiments but to conservative yearnings for the restoration of the rule of law– including equality under the law. What struck me were the YouTube videos of the brutal treatment the protestors were receiving in New York and Berkley, California.
I saw protestors were doing what Americans had to do in order to remain free– exercise their constitutional rights– and they were being beaten, pepper-sprayed and arrested. I began to write about what I saw and felt, starting with What Silence Means Now. The violence and intimidation against protestors moved me to want to stand with those standing up for sacred rights, which as a new father of two little boys, Max and Alex– one three and the other fifteen months old– I felt was my duty. The Reader we were working on from September through November 2011, was focused on the discontent the Occupy movement was bringing to the surface.
I had subscribed to an Occupy Wall Street media email and on the morning of October 14, I received an email with a photograph of a letter that stated that the Mayor of New York and the CEO of Brookfield Properties were ordering the Occupy protestors to vacate Zuccotti Park, and that any who did not leave voluntarily would be forcibly removed.
After reading it, I sent emails to Michael Bloomberg and Richard Clark, the CEO of Brookfield Properties. Here is part of the email I sent to Richard Clark, which was similar to my email to Michael Bloomberg:
I own [The Reader], mailed to 390,000 people from all possible political backgrounds. We will be immediately informing all of those who receive our publication of your attempt to trample on constitutional rights of assembly, that are…sacred to the cause of freedom… [and we reject] your… attempt to hinder freedom of expression under the guise of championing safety.
I don’t know if my messages had any impact in their decision later that day to hold off forcibly removing protestors. My intention was for both men to understand that the protestors’ right to peacefully assemble had institutional and economic support– from people and media institutions as far away as three thousand miles.
Within a week and a half of writing those emails, I was contacted by Erika Fry of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), an entity which had never contacted our publication over the ten years we had been in existence until then.
A day before her deadline, Ms. Fry contacted The Reader from a gmail address with a list of ten or twelve questions. Given the timing and tone of her email, not knowing for certain if she was actually from CJR, and the little time we had to respond, we chose to not respond.
On October 28, 2011, an article by Ms. Fry about myself and The Reader Magazine appeared online called Plagiarism for Profit. As I read it, I recognized that she accurately and correctly identified some mistakes we had made in the past. What was also clear was that she failed to report or write her story in any sort of way that would allow a reader to have a complete– and thus truthful– picture of myself and The Reader Magazine.
Today, I see now that some of my initial disgust and anger about the article came from it shining light on our need to practice journalism with a higher level of integrity. The Reader could have been and should have been more rigorous in how articles were sourced leading up to the article that Ms. Fry wrote.
However, what was unmistakable was that the article was arguably libelous and defamatory, inarguably misleading, and underhanded. Just like any other company and person, The Reader and myself deserved to be written about in a fair manner. Otherwise, what is really happening is a sort of attempted murder of a person’s character, in the sense that a journalist is reducing them to a sum of convenient parts for a story that has no semblance with reality and with who they are. What does that mean for the person’s present, future, family, professional career? That’s a pretty big deal, a pretty big transgression, in my opinion.
Fairness requires a journalist to tell the whole truth, to not hold back information that will create a positive, more complete impression of the subject s/he is reporting on in the mind of readers.
With respect to Ms. Fry, I learned that a year or two before she wrote about The Reader, she had courageously reported on the plagiarism of a high-ranking minister in the Thai government, bravery that resulted in her brief incarceration.
Ms. Fry did not, it seems to me, exhibit this same strength of character with respect to her reporting of The Reader, in which, without providing any statistical evidence to support the assertion– she alleged that The Reader engaged in plagiarism as its business model. The truth is that plagiarism was not (and is not) the business model of The Reader. It is true that over ten years, things made it into print which should not have, and some of those mistakes were incorrect and missing attributions. However, every media entity of comparable size makes mistakes like this. Ms. Fry could have properly contextualized her reporting. Instead, she created a caricature of The Reader and myself as outliers from mainstream journalism.
A Failure of Basic, Routine Journalistic Practices
Ms. Fry, who is now a reporter with Fortune Magazine, centered her article on The Reader’s use of content from Yes! Magazine. Ms. Fry did not inform readers that all the Yes! content used by The Reader was designated by Yes! as Creative Commons content, which meant we were free to use it. Ms. Fry did not inform readers that Yes! Magazine’s website stated at the time (and still does):
“We want you to pass along the work of YES! Magazine”, and “You are free to use any graphics or illustrations marked as ‘YES! Magazine Graphic’…”.
Why did Ms. Fry simply leave out that Yes! Magazine’s own, stated policy regarding what they wanted people to do with their content? Why didn’t she state the content was designated by Yes! as Creative Commons content?
Ms. Fry’s practice of omitting important information and not doing basic reporting (such as not interviewing any Reader Magazine advertisers or readers) surfaces throughout her article. Here is how Ms. Fry introduces me in her article:
“Though Reader Magazine founder Chris Theodore says his publication is 10 years old, only issues dating to 2008 can be found at his website.”
At the time Ms. Fry wrote her article The Reader was in fact 10 years old, which she could have learned doing basic reporting. Rather than doing this work, Ms. Fry took the occasion–made possible by her not doing basic, routine reporting– to imply I am untruthful. Later, she wrote:
“Doug Pibel, Yes!’s managing editor, says that Reader lifted at least 11 pieces”.
This was, in my opinion, her lowest moral point in her article. Apparently, her insinuating a falsehood by raising doubts about the age of our publication– which she could have verified, but simply couldn’t be bothered with– wasn’t enough. The Reader, according to this sentence– steals. How does a publication “lift” Creative Commons content? How does a publication lift content that the source has encouraged others to use? Since this isn’t possible, either Ms. Fry made up editor Pibel’s use of the word “lifted”, or he misspoke, which she should have corrected.
Weirdly, throughout her article Ms. Fry failed to distinguish between her allegations of copyright infringement and allegations of plagiarism. How people view allegations of copyright infringement– particularly today– is dramatically different than how people view allegations of plagiarism. Ms. Fry, with a graduate degree in journalism, was certainly aware of this and had a responsibility to make the difference clear in her article. Instead, she blurred the allegations and used them as if they were interchangeable, successfully confusing readers and reducing her article, at times, to nonsense.
In truth, we used content from Yes! for the same reason Yes! Magazine uses content from other sources. When we’ve found organizations and individuals whose voices deserve to benefit from The Reader Magazine’s ability to make their voice heard louder, we’ve used our platform for this purpose.
A Painfully-good Learning Experience
Several months after the article appeared, I was advised by James Lafferty, Executive Director of the Los Angeles National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and Jeanne Mirer, President of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers– of which at the time Nelson Mandela was President Emeriti– Ms. Fry’s articles were defamatory.
We asked Ms. Mirer to represent us and she agreed. In 2012, Ms. Mirer wrote to Erika Fry and CJR to request that the articles be removed, a request that was not granted. As a result, Ms. Mirer filed a complaint in New York against Erika Fry and the CJR in October 2012. Over time, I came to learn that to wage a legal battle with CJR meant I would be fighting the unlimited financial and legal resources of Columbia University, a battle that would keep me from growing The Reader Magazine, a battle I would likely lose despite the actual nature of the article written about The Reader and myself.
Ultimately, the experience has been positive. It definitely made The Reader grow as a company. We instituted more rigorous policies regarding how we source content which has made The Reader a stronger, more credible and relevant publication. Unequivocally it has been, at times, depressing and painful to know that some people’s entire or dominant understanding of The Reader, something I have devoted fifteen years of my life to building, comes from an article, most likely written over the course of a weekend, that is arguably defamatory, and possibly the result of blowback from our doing the work a media company is supposed to do. And yet an aspect of the experience that I relish is its underscoring of the truth that none of us are in control, and we can only do our best, which is a very valuable truth to recognize on a day to day basis.
For additional facts about The Reader and source material, please request this information from The Reader by contacting Ms. Hajnalka Hogue at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are no other issues we feel we need to address at this time.