Friday, February 6, 2009

UPDATED X2: Chicago Reader's Rogers Park Issue

I was upset with the Chicago Reader yesterday. Since then, I've had some civil exchanges by phone and email with them. Before I continue, I'll repeat what I said to Mick Dumke, staff writer at the Reader, when he interviewed me a couple of weeks ago in preparation for their current "Rogers Park and West Ridge Issue." I told him that the Reader seems to be making great improvements in recent months. Those of us who have been reading the weekly publication since the late 1970's know that they used to do hard-hitting, often ground-breaking journalism. Then they got fat and lazy, and had none of their legendary mojo through most of the 80's, all of the 90's, and most of the current decade. The Chicago Reader, once great, sucked for about 25 years. It was common to hear people say that it was worth picking up a free copy of the Reader only for the classifieds and entertainment listings. But things are changing for the better. Over the past year, there seems to have been a sincere effort to put writing at the forefront again. Great writers like Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke, to name only two, have been crucial to that effort. Joravsky, for example, has earned himself a reputation as an expert on all things TIF and wasteful government spending. Dumke is one of the best interviewers on the scene and has put together many a fine feature, both political and nonpolitical. Both Dumke and Joravsky carry the Reader's "Clout City" column, which has become a go-to source for many writers at other newspapers, as well as political bloggers such as yours truly. This brings us to my spat with the Chicago Reader yesterday. I'd written a post on Wednesday evening, in which I said nice things about the current issue and urged people to go out and pick up a copy the next day, when it would be hitting the newsstands. The next morning, I added links (the issue did not go online until after midnight, 12:01 a.m. on Thursday). In doing so, I added a photo from Joravsky's article about Ald. Joe Moore. The photo, of Moore and Mayor Daley in front of a fire truck, was taken at the recent opening of a fire station on N. Clark Street in Rogers Park. The photo was taken by Mick Dumke, and I set it up so that it was linked directly to Joravsky's article. In other words, I was directing traffic, at no charge, to the Reader's own website. In effect, they had a free ad on this blog. An editor at the Reader, however, didn't like what I did, and she sent a chilly email to me. That set off the spat. Here's the deal. It is common practice for websites to use photos from other websites. There is a right way and a wrong way to do that. It's an unwritten etiquette, if you will, and I adhere to it strictly. That etiquette calls for attribution and a link to the source, whenever possible. In the case of my using the Dumke photo of Moore and Daley, I did just that. Nothing was "stolen." The Reader lost nothing by my action. If anything, they picked up a few more eyeballs for their website. Again, the editor didn't like that. I publicly complained yesterday that some things I said to writer Mick Dumke were off the record, and that something else was a misquote. I had a pleasant conversation with Mick this morning. He's a real gentleman and a pleasure to talk with. He apologized to me for using anything that may have been off the record. To be fair to Mick, I now apologize to him. Lord knows I have misquoted and misunderstood in the past. I've always corrected or retracted when I know that is the case, and having been in Mick's shoes, so to speak, I will give him the benefit of the doubt. I may not have emphasized that something I said was off the record, or it may have been an honest misunderstanding on his part. The bottom line is that Mick Dumke's article about bloggers in Rogers Park was balanced, well written, and captured the essence of what I said to him when he interviewed. I remain an fan and admirer of Mick Dumke. He and I have differing views on many subjects, but I know him to be fair and highly ethical. Back to that photo. Now and then, someone will use one of my photographs or graphics. I don't mind that as long as they link back to me, or at least give proper attribution. I lose nothing by that, and know that it could result in an increase in readership for my website/blog. On the rare occasion that I find one of my photos or graphics used without attribution, I let the offending website know that they should add an attribution and, preferably, a link as well. But I would never demand that they remove my work, for to do so would be the same as removing an ad for my work. The Reader does not seem to understand this basic principal of the electronic media. It is ironic that the Reader's current issue lists an article in Time Magazine with the title "How To Save Your Newspaper." Here's an excerpt:
Currently a few newspapers, most notably the Wall Street Journal, charge for their online editions by requiring a monthly subscription. When Rupert Murdoch acquired the Journal, he ruminated publicly about dropping the fee. But Murdoch is, above all, a smart businessman. He took a look at the economics and decided it was lunacy to forgo the revenue — and that was even before the online ad market began contracting. Now his move looks really smart. Paid subscriptions for the Journal's website were up more than 7% in a very gloomy 2008.
Note: I did not ask Time for permission to use that excerpt. Even if Time becomes aware of it, I seriously doubt that they would (a) care, or (b) send me a terse note demanding that I remove it. Why? Because they would probably understand that it (a) is not a loss to them, (b) is linking to their website and providing full attribution to them, and (c) does not violate the fair usage part of copyright law. I hope that the folks at Chicago Reader read that Time article several times. I hope they get it. I hope that, after reading it carefully, they understand that they need to jump into the 1990's and accept that we are now in the Age of the Internet. The Reader's website is not a subcription-only website. It's free. Anybody can view it at no charge, just as anybody can grab a print copy of the Reader at no cost. The Reader makes money by selling advertising. Advertising rates are based on readership. Links to the Reader on blogs such as this one increase their readership. The editor who sent me a note demanding the removal of that linked photo should kiss my derrier and thank me for the free plug, then beg me to reinsert it with full permission. She should further grant me, and every other blog and website that she's pissed off, future permission to do the same. Her advertisers would appreciate it. The newspapers and magazines and websites that Matt Drudge links to on his Drudge Report website understand this well. Drudge's site is mainly links to stories, but he frequently uses photographs and graphics that he did not create. He often publishes links to embargoed stories. However, the publishers he links to not only don't mind his fair usage, they hope to God for a link on Drudge because his site can literally drive hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of hits to a linked source. If your newpaper's story is linked on Drudge, you can bet that it will be seen by far more people than if not. Imagine Drudge posting that Reader photo of Daley and Moore, with a link to the associated story, and a Reader editor sending a terse note to Matt Drudge demanding that he remove it. Chicago News Bench, of course, is a speck of dust compared to the Drudge Report. While CNB can only dream of being able to drive a few hundred thousand readers anywhere, we do get anywhere between 500 and 1500 direct hits every day. "Pass along" readership applies to electronic media, too; CNB is heavily linked on other websites and is part of several blog networks. One link to one of our posts on another website could, potentially, indirectly send thousands of readers to another site (such as That's something to be desired. Nevertheless, the Reader's editors seem to think that free links, free publicity, free traffic to their monetized website is a bad, bad thing that must be controlled. That's stupid. For the editor to demand that I remove their photo is also a waste of her time. With the way that their website is currently set up, she can't possibly control all of the bloggers and websites out there who might crib one of their photos. Furthermore, it's interesting (and hypocritical) that the Reader editor who chastised me for using a photo "without permission" voiced no objection to excerpting some of their text, another common practice that is acceptable if full attribution is made. Many websites do try to prevent copying of any kind. I won't bore you with the technical aspects of how, but it's a simple matter to add a bit of code that would curb or prevent copying. On some websites, photos cannot be saved by the common practice of right clicking on them. Other embed a watermark in their photos. Still others set their sites up so that you can't even copy text by highlighting. Even those methods, however, cannot prevent somebody from making a screenshot of a photo, then using it without attribution, and anybody could simply type the text from an article instead of using copy-and-paste. As I said, the Chicago Reader needs to accept this new reality, jump into the 1990's, and be happy that people like their material enough to make reasonable use of it. They should certainly monitor outright theft, such as when no attribution is given or when the full text of an is used, but otherwise they should be happy that nutjobs like me are willing to direct more traffic their way at no charge. Chicago Reader's website, it must be said, is beautiful and organized very nicely. It is easy to navigate, has a clean layout and beautiful graphics. The staff there is relatively young and hip. These facts only make it more mysterious that they don't understand the etiquette of the Web, and that they don't recognize the advantages of attributed fair use of their content. Will the Reader editor also send an email blast to all of the Reader's subscribers admonishing them to not save any of their website content to their hard drives without permission? Of course not, but there's an irony there. When somebody saves a photo or article to their computer, it does not drive traffic to the Reader's website, nor does it encourage people to go out and pick up a print copy. When bloggers like me post the Reader's content with full attribution, however, it does. I humbly recommend that the editors of the Reader come to terms with that, and stop their self-defeating policy of pissing off bloggers.