EXCLUSIVE: Orange County Press Club President Defends Himself Against Accusations of Plagiarism

At a special Orange County Press Club emergency board meeting convened last month, president Christopher Trela was asked to explain three alleged incidents of plagiarism committed in December and January at the Newport Beach Independent. He then left the room and those present voted unanimously (8-0, with one abstention) to keep him on as head of the organization.

Among the many strange twists in the OC Press Club’s investigation of Trela’s transgressions is the fact that the efforts to determine exactly what transpired in the pages of his community newspaper encompassed a board member, Roger Bloom, who Trela succeeded last November as editor of the Newport Beach Independent.

Trela was kind enough to share with FishbowlLA the notes that he used at that special board meeting. The first alleged incident of plagiarism was a December 18, 2012 item about the Fashion Island mall shooter titled “Suspect to be Arraigned Today for Firing Weapong in Fashion Island Parking Lot.” At issue was the fact that Trela cut, pasted and then tweaked press release copy from the D.A.’s office. Per Trela’s notes:

The news group editor for [parent company] Firebrand Media forwarded the D.A.’s press release to me about the arraignment […] I posted the release, but cleaned it up because I thought some of it was not well written. It was posted under my name – when things are posted to the [Independent] website, there is a drop-down menu of contributor names, and you have to select a name to attribute the article to. I thought that was the proper procedure.

On January 29, […] I was told this was a post that was being questioned as possibly being plagiarized. I went online and read it, and immediately realized that it was not properly attributed to a D.A. press release, and as posted made it appear as though I had written the post as an original piece of content. I added proper attribution, removed my name, substituted the name Newport Indy Staff, and that corrected post is the post currently on the website.

I did not intend to take credit for writing the story, it was the first time I had ever posted a press release from the D.A. and did what I thought should be done. As soon as it was brought to my attention, I corrected it. Had it been brought to my attention sooner, I would have corrected it sooner.

Right around that time, another article went up January 28, “Man Shot and Killed at Medical Office in Newport Beach.” In this case, the sequence of events was a little different. From Trela’s notes:

On January 28 at 5:30 pm, I emailed Sara Hall (our full-time reporter) and told her the OC Register and Daily Pilot were reporting a doctor being shot in Newport […] I saw the Newport Beach PD press release when I returned around 9:30 pm and posted it to the Indy website soon thereafter, using the same procedure as the D.A. press release.

Sara emailed me at 10:45 pm to tell me she posted something, and would be updating it as more info came in, but I did not see her email until the next morning. At 9:59 am on January 29, I told her via email I had posted something at 10 pm the night before and did she take my story down. She replied that she took it down and updated her story. My post was up for less than 12 hours […] Again, it was not my intent to take credit for the story, I just wanted to get the info up on the website, and then have Sara do the follow up, which she did.

Finally, there is the matter of another December 18 item, a slightly longer feature-ish piece titled “Your Indy Guide to the Christmas Boat Parade.” In this case, the source material also connects to a lengthier Chamber of Commerce promotional booklet. Once again, from Trela’s notes:

Prior to writing the boat parade story, I was contacted by the PR company contracted by the Newport Beach Visitors Bureau to help promote the boat parade. They sent me subsequent press releases and other info, and we had phone conversations about the boat parade, and me using material from the releases as well as using the parade route map, for a feature guide to the boat parade. Several sentences that appeared in the article were indeed very similar to the info from the press release.

Additional info came from Indy columnist Skipper Steve, and also from a boat tour he gave me of Newport Harbor where he pointed out all the best places to watch the parade.

Trela, whose background is mostly in PR, reaffirmed to FishbowlLA via telephone that he thought at the time that using material from a press release in this manner was not plagiarism. He also recalled finding a Poynter Institute article by the president and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (of which Trela is a member) stating that using material from a press release without citation was not plagiarism. Nonetheless, Trela said he is now being very careful with all such editorial matters.

FishbowlLA contacted a number of other Press Club board members for this story, but they all either chose not to respond or asked that their comments be kept off-the-record. As it currently stands, a confidential statement of resolution was entered into the minutes of that special emergency board meeting. The Press Club also provided FishbowlLA with this official separate statement this morning:

“After lengthy discussion, the Board of Directors of the Orange County Press Club acknowledged problems regarding president Chris Trela’s non-attribution of press releases but accepted Chris’ apology. The Orange County Press Club expects all members to adhere to the highest journalistic standards.”

Trela is hopeful the Press Club board, moving forward, will consider his suggestion of putting together some “Best Practices” regarding the proper way to source and cite press release material. The next regular board meeting is currently being scheduled for later this week or next week.

Trela has been on the board of the Orange County Press Club since 2008 and organization president since the fall of 2010. When he became editor of the Newport Beach Independent last fall, he handed over the daily operations of his Arts PR agency to a VP colleague. He adds that none of the firm’s clientele is located in Orange County.