Monday, August 13, 2012

Missed Opportunities and The Portland Press Herald

Okay, I'm going to make one more lap around the track and then cease beating the sorry carcass of the Portland Press Herald for the time being.

The paper has removed Audrey's photo and replaced it with a link to her Flickr set, put a check in the mail for use of the photo in print, taken down their ridiculously insulting op-ed on the subject, failed to make any meaningful response to the lifted photo debacle, and missed a genuine and valuable opportunity to raise their professional reputation above the Podunk Weekly Bugle (motto: Now with 30% more Weather Hamsters!) status they've recently enjoyed.

All companies, newspapers and otherwise, have policies in place that sometimes seem opaque or unreasonable to customers.  I sympathize.  I spend an outlandish amount of time at work explaining to people why we do this or that thing, why something that seems simple and obvious to is, in practice, not feasible.  There are very often factors operating behind the scenes that customers haven't considered. 

Even so, when dozens of customers all cite the same reasons that they find your policy problematic and those reasons are clearly stated and easily enumerated, it's in your best interest as an organization to consider whether they might be on to something.  Even if you stand behind the position you've taken, it's absolutely worthwhile to consider that suggestions embedded in the debate that might help you clarify or improve the existing policy. And if you find that you have, in fact, substantively violated your own policy, the professional and responsible thing to do is acknowledge your mistake, examine ways to avoid that error in the future and let your concerned customers know that you have done so.

This would be an excellent time for PPH editorial staff to clarify the procedure for identifying ownership of non-staff work.  Perhaps they could outline a simple set of steps: 1) Attempt contact via messaging functions on the source site, if available. 2) Google any pseudonym associated with the material.  By delineating and practicing a concrete set of best practices, they'd create a situation where a good faith effort at contacting a source is clearly defined and either did or did not happen.  If there had been a policy like this in place, this recent debacle might never have happened.

A much bigger discussion that the Press Herald should be having right now concerns their photo-crediting procedure in general.  I might be inclined to be a little more generous about their failure to identify a non-professional photo by a pseudonymous author if I didn't know that they regularly fail to credit photos they receive through official channels, supplied to them by known sources who, if they aren't the artist themselves, know the artist's name.

Currently if, say, a band provides the paper with a photo for a review or event listing, they credit the photographer only if the band explicitly tells them the artist's name. Yes, it would be nice if the band thought to do that anyway, but they're not in the publishing or visual arts fields and in many cases it probably doesn't cross their mind.  A media company, one that publishes content for profit knows very well that this is an issue.  The onus is on them to make sure their use of that content is appropriately credited.  It should be part of the initial request: "Please supply a photograph of your band/event and the name of the photographer."  If the photo is received unsolicited in a press kit or the like, there should be an immediate request not just for the artist's name, but permission from the copyright holder to use the image in that commercial setting.

Here's a quick side-by-side:

I work for a photographer.  He did photos for a local band in advance of their album release.  The Press Herald ran his photo in association with an item about the band uncredited.  When he contacted them, they essentially told him to take it up with the band. They didn't volunteer that they would add the credit; He had to suggest it himself. 

He later did headshots for someone whose work appeared in Maine Magazine.  When the magazine received the photo, they asked who took the picture and immediately contacted the photographer to request a release allowing them to run the photo.  That is responsible behavior by a professional media organization.

I understand that there are time constraints facing a daily newspaper, but "we were really busy" is a lame excuse for failure to meet basic industry standards.  I recently read a comment by professional photographer Jay York on the facebook page of the Union of Visual Artists, noting that two of his photos were in the Maine Sunday Telegram uncredited this week and that this is a regular occurrence despite their purported policy of "making every attempt" to properly credit work.  Here, again, a simple, formal, consistent policy of asking for artist info on receipt of art would do a world of good, both for stymied photographers for whom credit is key to their livelihood, and to the Press Herald's reputation as a serious and professional publication.

At this point, Audrey still wants, but knows she's unlikely to get, an apology.  I want that for her, even though I only know her in the context of our exchanges during this debate. And here's the thing:  if they really believe using the photo falls under Fair Use, they shouldn't apologize for that.  They shouldn't be apologizing simply to appease the crowd. What they do need to apologize for is their failure to do appropriate leg work upfront, their failure to respond to her reasonable request to remove the photo from the web site, and the bizarre attempt to paint her with the wacko brush in their op-ed.  But that apology wouldn't be sufficient for me at this point.

Audrey's case has cast a bright light on a long-standing, systemic problem within the newspaper.  Professional photographers have run into this wall for a very long time, and I'm happy to see this issue playing out in front of a wider audience.  But the only resolution that I would consider truly satisfactory would be for the Press Herald to do some real soul-searching, clean up their house, and reach out to their readership with solid evidence that they are working to make their product serious, professional, reasonable, and responsive. 

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