Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Portland Press Herald is Bad at teh Internetz.

Photo:                    Permission: Copyright Holder  

Here is a very basic summary of a thing that happened:

Reporter Steve Mistler (and it bears saying that Mistler isa seasoned and respected journalist, a feather in the cap of the Portland Press Herald which spent the better part of the past decade running its credibilityand relevance into the ground) got a tip for a story, along with a link to a Flickr account that contained photographic evidence supporting the tip.  It’s unclear how close to deadline he got thisinformation but the story ran in the August 7 edition of the paper along withphotographs from the Flickr account.  

The owner of the Flickr account, Audrey Slade, was unaware of the use of her photos until a friend sent her a link to the article.  So here's where the dispute starts.

One of Slade's main contentions is that the paper never tried to contact her prior to publication, a contention that seems reasonable given that she never heard a word about it until after the piece went to press.  

The PPH has a rather more Clintonian approach to the word "tried."  Their position appears to be that they looked at the flickr page, didn't see a link that said, "This page belongs to Audrey Slade, click here if you're the Portland Press Herald and would like to contact her." That's maybe the snidest possible way to put it, but pretty close to the spirit of the paper's response which was that they were unable to figure out who the page belonged to and how to contact her by deadline, so they seized the photos marked "All Rights Reserved" (that, by the way, is the link for "how to request use of Flickr content) under the Fair Use exemption of copyright law and called it a day.

I have zero interest in examining the Fair Use claim.  I have no legal expertise and copyright law is an endlessly complicated field, particularly where the internet is concerned.  But I do care deeply about journalism, and newspapers specifically, so I will take issue with the procedural and ethical questions at hand.

So then. The claim that it was impossible to determine ownership/contact info because of deadline constraints would be laughable, if the paper wasn't doubling down on that assertion, behaving as though the legitimate questions raised by the photo's owner and others aren't worth their consideration.  In an op-ed response today, they let fly some of their pent up contempt. In response to criticism that they'd failed at a simple task:
"However, we neglected to click the message button on Flickr, which presumably would have sent an email to the account holder."
Allow me to translate, "Ugh, yeah, we GET it, there WAS an obviously marked link to contact the owner.  You just can't understand how much BIGGER our concerns are than your stupid 'process.' 'Presumably' we could have contacted her by clicking the envelope on the Flickr page, but how could anyone know whether, 'send a message' would send her a message?"  Riiiight. PPH is bad at teh internetz. Why don't you go write a twit about it or something?

Welp, PPH, you may not have sent a message on Flickr, but your larger message that we should sit down and shut up is coming through loud and clear. But I just can't when you're being so all-fired ridiculous.

Look, even if a message on Flickr went to an account the owner never checks, it would have constituted a reasonable attempt to contact her.  But fine, let's suspend disbelief, pretend it's reasonable not to do that, and go back to examining the apparently inscrutable nature of identity on the internet. Let's point out that the pseudonym on the Flickr account, the one that apparently stymied them (I picture fact-checkers in the newsroom closing the phone book with a thump: "Nope. No JadeFrog_01 in here!") is the SAME AS HER TWITTER HANDLE.  Close to deadline or no, Mistler wrote enough words to buy them time to send a tweet.

But all of those are red herrings, because they absolutely knew who she was.  They cited her by her job title while at Husson, "the former administrative assistant to Rodney Larson, dean of the School of Pharmacy," so the claim that they couldn't identify her is not only silly as noted above, but completely, utterly, unapologetically false. Unless they're as bad using Google as they are at Flickr...or, um, at asking that guy what his assistant's name was.

The bottom line is that the Press Herald knew they were in the wrong but didn't expect any pushback, or, just as bad, it didn't cross their minds that this was an issue.  Since they tell us they did try to contact her, it appears it was the former. 

What galls me at least as much as the initial breach has been their response.  Their first response was to insist that they weren't malicious, just incompetent, and when it was pointed out to them that no one is that incompetent, they dropped the "aw, shucks" routine and went straight for the "you people just don't understand the importance of the work we're doing."

From today's response:
Lost among these comments is the media's obligation to inform the public on matters of vital public interest.
Okay, fine.  But let's get real about the burning importance and timeliness of this particular story.  Rev. Bob Carlson is dead.  If this piece had waited one day while they contacted the owner of the photos, it would not have meant that Carlson was free to roam the campus for another day. William Beardsley is now the former president of Husson.  If this piece had waited one day while they contacted the owner of the photos, he would not have had one more day to make inept policy decisions.   The only reason that this story worked to this deadline was for the gratification of the PPH breaking it.  That they did it at the expense of reasonable, responsible journalistic procedure, made themselves look like incompetent buffoons in their excuses and continue to a) leave the picture up despite being asked by the owner to take it down (it's online, guys, you can link to the Flickr account if you want, but you can't pretend it's yours) and b) pretend that their position is reasonable is pathetic.

Several years ago there was a quiet discussion among professional photographers I know about the Press Herald's tendency to use their photos, particularly in listings, without notice, compensation or credit, and I recall the paper's response being a similarly disingenuous, "Golly, mister, is that yours?  I just found it on the ground on the internet."

If the PPH wants to distance itself from its reputation lo these past many years as ideal for housebreaking puppies and wrapping fish and not much else, they're off to a rocky start.

EDIT: Speaking of journalistic ethics, I should mention in the spirit of full disclosure that I did two freelance concert reviews for the PPH back at the dawn of time, which is to say in my early twenties.


  1. I am so glad you wrote this. I've had Ms. Slade's blog entry open in my browser for days, trying to think of what to do about it. You solved the problem. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for reading. I can't describe how much this stuff burns me.

  3. Well said. And it needed saying. Kudos.

  4. Fun fact: PPH has now deleted the Response it wrote, as well as the 42 comments condeming their actions. We have it saved in a cache though..

  5. Unbelieveable. I have to admit that I laugh every single time they make a move now because it seems so impossible that they're so tone deaf!

    I fully intend to harp mercilessly on this until the stop acting like petulant, confused chimpanzees.

    I think though, that there's more at stake for them here than saving face where you're concerned.

    A quote from professional photographer Jay York on Facebook today: "Another Sunday and two more of my photos used without being credited to me. I'm not asking for money only the professionalism I expect from the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald. The newspaper refuses to ask contributors who made the photographs even though their policy is to make every effort to properly credit the photos they use. Go figure?"

    Admitting fault in your situation means having to deal with dozens and hundreds of situations in which they've failed to meet their own standards.