On the cover of the March issue of The Walrus, Death makes his merry way through a meadow, killing everything he touches. It’s a story of saving the world for the living by dissolving the dead, with the power of nature.
While the story was written by staffer at the magazine, a freelance writer says she pitched the idea first. Pitch stealing is a serious charge, one not far below outright plagiarism.
Ann Silversides emailed a pitch to the magazine to write a story about the facility in Smith Falls, Ont., on July 6, 2015. Three weeks later on the 27th, she received a rejection letter from the magazine saying the magazine was already working on a similar story. The next day, July 28, Graeme Bayliss was out reporting the story, according to an email he sent at the time.
Silversides was out of the country, but when she returned to Canada in May of this year to see a very familiar story gracing the cover of the magazine, she was taken aback. She sent a letter to the Walrus, asking for an explanation.
When confronted with the accusation of possible theft, Walrus editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay promised to look into the matter, in an email to Silversides sent in May. Kay said if her pitch was stolen, the magazine would pay her $1,500, the usual fee for a story of its nature.
From: Jonathan Kay
Date: 18 May 2016
Subject: Re: The Walrus calling
To: Ann Silversides
I am investigating this. I am going to give everyone involved a chance to give me their side of the story.
If we determine that your idea was stolen, I will pay you the amount of money I would have paid for a finished draft of your article — which in this case would be $1500.
At this point, publisher Shelley Ambrose took the reins. In a long email to Silversides on June 2, Ambrose said she had spoken with staff and looked at prior research and concluded the pitch was not stolen.
The key paragraph (the full text can be found below*):
“I have now been able to not only talk to current and former editorial staff — including our editor-in-chief [Jonathan Kay], as well as the author of the Dissolving the Dead’ [Bayliss] and I have gone back to look at research timelines and more. And, although Graeme Bayliss did not actually do the interviews or write the story until much later, he did, in fact, pitch it — in June 2015 — to the then managing editor — a month before your pitch arrived. He had also – inspired by a short article he had read — done some early research (I actually have seen the dated Google records) in order to pitch the story internally. So the response you were given to your pitch at the time — perfunctory as it was, was the simple truth. We did, in fact, have a story about that very thing in the mix already, so we cannot agree that your pitch — excellent as it was — was the basis of ‘Dissolving the Dead.’ ” We all agree, however, that your pitch was timely and that the idea was obviously a good one.
There was a problem with this explanation. The managing editor at the time, Kyle Wyatt, has since said he did not know about the pitch before Bayliss had gone reporting the story. In a comment on Story Board, a news site run by the Canadian Media Guild frequented by freelance writers. Wyatt says the first he heard of the story was when Bayliss sent him an email saying he was off to report it.
The content of the email, which CANADALAND has seen independently, reads [emphasis ours]:
From: Graeme Bayliss
Date: July 28 2015
Subject: Out of office Thursday
To: Kyle Wyatt, Jonathan Kay
“Just a heads-up that I’ll be away Thursday, driving out to Smiths Falls to report on a story. (Kyle: I pitched a story to Jon while you were away; broadly, it’s about a new bio-cremation facility. The man who runs it has offered to give me a tour and an interview. The drive is about four hours each way.)”
Ambrose did not reply to requests for comment, nor did she provide any of the evidence that cleared the magazine. Kay, the editor-in-chief, said he was unable to speak on the record, and directed all questions to Ambrose. When reached for comment, Bayliss said he could not talk about anything that happened during his time at the Walrus, as he had signed a non-disclosure agreement.
This is not the first time Walrus staff have been accused of using a freelancer’s work in house. Last year, freelancer Alex Gillis said the investigative work he did for a story on cheating in universities was entirely reworked into an essay written by Wyatt. The writer, Gillis, received part of his fee when the story was killed, and an apology from Kay.
In her email to the freelancer, Ambrose said the magazine had done a poor job communicating with Silversides, and should have been more forthcoming with the writer.
“The editors who read your pitch should have called you or written to tell you exactly what was on the [schedule] here and involved you or even assigned the story to you,” Ambrose wrote. “Instead the managing editor at the time decided to stay on the course he was already on. However frustrating this may be in retrospect, it was his prerogative.”
Reached by phone, Wyatt confirmed his involvement in the story was limited to receiving Bayliss’s email and processing a car rental receipt, echoing his early Story Board comment.
Silversides wasn’t satisfied with Ambrose’s response. Despite promises to improve communication with the writer, Ambrose did not reply to an email from Silversides asking for further proof last June.
She’s still waiting.
—With files from Jane Lytvynenko
*The full text of Ambrose’s email to Silversides:
From: Shelley Ambrose
Date: 2 June 2016
Subject: “Dissolving the Dead”
To: Ann Silversides
I am. Shelley Ambrose here. I am the publisher of the magazine and the exec director of the Walrus Foundation. Jon handed your correspondence on to me and I want to apologize for the length of time (i am on the road with The Walrus Talks) it has taken me to thoroughly check it out. We took this accusation of story stealing very seriously and can absolutely see how you might come to the conclusion that that is what occurred and so I wanted to turn over every rock.
I have now been able to not only talk to current and former editorial staff — including our editor-in-chief, as well as the author of the “Dissolving the Dead” and I have gone back to look at research timelines and more. And, although Graeme Bayliss did not actually do the interviews or write the story until much later, he did, in fact, pitch it — in June 2015 — to the then managing editor — a month before your pitch arrived. He had also — inspired by a short article he had read — done some early research (I actually have seen the dated Google records) in order to pitch the story internally. So the response you were given to your pitch at the time – perfunctory as it was, was the simple truth. We did, in fact, have a story about that very thing in the mix already, so we cannot agree that your pitch — excellent as it was — was the basis of “Dissolving the Dead.” We all agree, however, that your pitch was timely and that the idea was obviously a good one.
We also all agree that our communication with you was woefully inadequate. In fact, the editors who read your pitch should have called you or written to tell you exactly what was on the sced here and involved you or even assigned the story to you. Instead the managing editor at the time decided to stay on the course he was already on. However frustrating this may be in retrospect, it was his prerogative.
I am copying Jon Kay on this because I know he, too, wishes the response to you at the time had been very different. Again, your pitch was excellent and we very much hope you will give us another chance. I know Jon is eager to talk to you about a few stories he is assigning and is also eager to hear your ideas. I can promise you that he will be very forthcoming with details of what we are currently working on, what is in our mix, and where all the possibilities for future stories lie and that all future communication will be much more, well, helpful and detailed.
Truly — Shelley