Population Ecology Theory in Real Life: How The Globe and Mail Misunderstood its Environment

This week the Internet has been alive, at least in my part of the world, with the unfolding drama of Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente’s alleged plagiarism. Since one of Ms. Wente’s favorite targets is university professors, who she characterizes as grossly overpaid and lazy, and not teaching anything that’s relevant to the real world, I thought I’d use population ecology theory – one of the allegedly irrelevant topics in my Organization Theory course – to analyze why her and her employer’s real-world responses to the plagiarism issue have been so ineffective.

Many theories of organization look at organizations’ relationships with their environment as one way to try to understand why organizations act as they do. Population ecology theory*, for example, says that organizations exist within a population or field of similar organizations, and that the organizations which survive are those that respond appropriately to their environment. That can be the external environment outside the field, or the internal environment of the other organizations within the field, or both. Newer members of the field initially survive by copying the field’s dominant or successful organizations – not only because those organizations’ strategies obviously work, but also because if the new organization acts like the dominant organizations, it will likely be perceived as more legitimate and thus be able to gain the resources it needs.

However, newer organizations have an advantage over older organizations in that they can usually adapt to the environment more quickly; older organizations are usually larger and slower, and are probably more committed to continuing what has worked for them in the past. Organizations can get into serious trouble if they misinterpret what their environment consists of, if they misread the environment’s signals, or if they understand the signals but choose to deviate from them, and the environment doesn’t accept the deviation. (If this is starting to sound like a theory about something else, you’re right  – the underlying concepts of population ecology theory are borrowed from evolutionary theory in biology.)

So to frame the Wente plagiarism issue in population ecology terms, The Globe and Mail, as one of the oldest newspapers in Canada, and as one of two Canadian newspapers that claims to be “national”, is clearly both dominant and successful in the population of Canadian media and/or Canadian newspapers. At the start of 2012, the Globe appointed a public editor, which could be interpreted as a response to its competitive and reputational environment; its major regional competitor has a public editor, as does an American newspaper which is widely distributed in Canada. And over the past summer, there have been several well-publicized cases of journalistic plagiarism, which might have heightened the environment’s general awareness of or sensitivity to journalistic errors.

The current flare-up in the plagiarism situation involving Wente started on Sept. 18 with a post on a blog authored by Carol Wainio, an artist and a university visual arts instructor. The posts described seven incidents of alleged plagiarism in Wente’s columns and included the quotes from the source material for comparison. The post caused a huge response on Twitter and other online forums, with many commentators demanding that the Globe respond to the allegations. On September 21, Sylvia Stead, the Globe’s public editor, posted a column on the Globe’s website stating that she had investigated the situation and found the allegations to be baseless.

These actions could be interpreted as the Globe actively defining its environment by treating the complaints as coming from outside the environment’s boundaries – from a lone blogger whose professional expertise wasn’t in journalism. The Globe apparently felt that its secure position in its field was thus not threatened, and it could safely deflect the allegations and continue operating as it did in the past.

These extinct trilobites are examples of what can happen if changes in the environment are ignored or misinterpreted. (Credit: Creative Commons)

However, the Globe‘s response did not satisfy its environment. The blogger then made another post revealing that she had communicated her findings to the Globe prior to posting them on her blog – and had received a response from the public editor not only dismissing her concerns, but also calling her allegations “defamatory” and “misguided”. This information inflamed the online world even further, with increasingly loud demands for Wente to be fired, and the story was picked up by media outlets in the UK and the US, as well as several other Canadian media outlets. Interestingly, nothing about any of this appeared in the print edition of the Globe and Mail (at least in the Western edition that I get), which could be interpreted as the Globe attempting to control the responses from its environment by restricting the distribution of the controversial information.

On Sept. 24 and 25, online and in print, the Globe further attempted to take control of its environment through:

  • A news story saying that Wente had been “disciplined”, but not specifying what the disciplinary action was;
  • A column by Wente responding to the allegations; and,
  •  Another column by the public editor, admitting that the investigation of the plagiarism allegations had not been as thorough as it should have been

These responses to the environment, in my view, demonstrate that while the Globe has jumped wholeheartedly into having a major online presence – thus choosing to define its environment as including Internet-based media as well as print media – it has seriously underestimated the significance of another part of this new environment. And that’s the power of social and online media to investigate stories and to circulate information, without a news media source doing it for them. The Globe has chosen to be part of the population of online media organizations, but it apparently has failed to realize that it can’t operate in the same lofty isolation that it did among the population of print-only media.

A look at the volume and tone of the comments on Wente’s response and the comments on the public editor’s second column  give a pretty good idea of Globe readers’ opinions on how the Globe has responded to its environment on the plagiarism issue – which is to say, not well at all. The Globe has since published a commentary by another journalist suggesting that journalism’s new problem is originality, not plagiarism. The choice to publish this article might be interpreted as another attempt by the Globe at environmental response or control, but this too has apparently been unsuccessful, as the article has received comments that are just as scornful as those responding to the previous articles.

As of today (Sept. 29):

While the Globe and Mail is clearly not in any immediate danger of completely succumbing to the changes in its environment and becoming extinct, I suspect that population ecology theory will continue to be very useful as an analytical tool to understand how the Globe decides to respond to readers and commentators in the near future. The environment has clearly spoken to the Globe on the plagiarism issue –  and the Globe runs the risk of serious damage to its reputation and credibility, and its dominant position in the field, if it doesn’t respond appropriately to its environment.

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*So as not to commit the same offense that Wente is accused of committing, I’ll note that my explanation of population ecology is summarized from the very excellent discussion of that topic in the textbook I use for my course.

11 comments

  1. You kind of lost me at “The plagiarism situation involving Wente started on Sept. 18” – Carol Wainio has many blog posts, going back at least as far as May 2011 about Wente’s plagiarism. And it looks like the documented cases of Wente’s plagiarizing go at least as far back as 2009.
    Just out of curiousity, what does this analytical approach say about the lack of hyperlinks in the Globe and Mail reporting?

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’ve made a revision to indicate that the situation I’m discussing is the most recent episode in this story, as I don’t think there was a great deal of awareness outside media circles about the earlier allegations.
      As for the lack of hyperlinks, in my view that would relate back to the idea of controlling the environment and maintaining a position of dominance in the field. Hyperlinks could represent a perception that the G&M relies on other sources for information and credibility – which doesn’t fit with its image as a leader. And on a very practical level, hyperlinks might take viewers away from the site – that’s a loss of resources, which organizations in populations are all fighting to maintain or increase.

      1. Hmm, good points. There is a consensus though among media experts that authoritative articles, and institutions that want to be leaders, should have hyperlinks. But I think you’re right to say that the experience of the Globe and Mail audience is different than the experience of media experts. But given this difference, I wonder if we could predict when the Globe and Mail will make a move to including hyperlinks in order to maintain their image as a leader?

        Right, I just reread your article and I see how the G&M failures to understand their new environment, that you point out, might actually be similar to the hyperlinking issue.

        I wonder how we would measure the damage to their reputation around the Wente situation? You don’t have to try to answer that, but it makes me so curious.

      2. That is a really tough one. The problems are defining a reliable measure of reputation, and then being able to demonstrate a change in that measure that’s directly (and accurately) attributable to the Wente situation. It’s easy to measure losses of subscribers/readers who explicitly say, e.g. “I am cancelling my subscription because….” but that’s not a clear measure of institutional reputation.

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