Martin Amis and the Decline of Print Media

Forgive me while I carve a rather meandering path to my point, but it begins last spring when I received in the mail a flyer from the Humber School for Writers. It indicated that Martin Amis would be the headliner, the star instructor, at Humber’s summer workshops for 2009. Martine and I both wondered what exactly that would entail; after all, the Humber School has an impressive curriculum and engages writers of very high calibre as instructors, but the instructors are drawn almost entirely from the pools of Canadian literature. Martin Amis is a big, big gun, but he’s from across the pond. We were both of the opinion that he’d probably fly in for one 90 minute lecture and be done with it.

But no! Mark Medley, a writer for The National Post, was hot on the Martin Amis trail, and he reported in a National Post article dated July 17, 2009 [Update: see Mark’s correction in the comments.] that Amis was there all week, conducting classes like any other instructor. Medley also reported that Amis was quite approachable (when you could find him) and was rather nice.

Now hang a left as we begin to meander. (Or perhaps we’re now coming back to the main trail — I was always bad at orienteering.) Loyal readers of this blog know that I’ve been messing with the blogging media for almost a decade. This blog alone (one of several I have on the go at the moment) has almost 600,000 words scribed into more than 1600 posts. With a blog resumé like that, I could be categorized as very much a fan of all things blog.

So you might think, and if so you wouldn’t be far off the mark. I like blogs for many reasons, including all the standard stuff about democratization of the public blah blah blah, plus it’s nice to see what my blogging friends are up to without having to lift the dreaded telephone, etc. But one thing that has sorely disappointed me when it comes to the blogging form is that most blogs provide only a mediocre reading experience.

There are indeed a few sterling blogs that can be read for the sheer pleasure of the prose, but they are rare. Most blogs are about (a) laffs, (b) straight-up information, or (c) personal gushing and whinging. As a result, most people read blogs to “get a fix” of info or gossip and not for the pleasure of reading.

Print media, on the other hand, can be wonderful. There are, of course, entire forests’ worth of printed tripe and trollop, but the respectable editors and publishers of the world go to great lengths to shape and sculpt their writers’ work into text that doesn’t just inform and entertain, but enthralls with its own beauty.

Put another way, blogs are like street food. Salty, greasy, of questionable hygiene, often overcooked, but cheap and plentiful and in their own way very tasty. But the printed word from a respectable publisher is like the fare from a high end restaurant.

Unless, that is, you live in the 21st century, where even respectable publishers have been slimming their budgets by cleaving off the fluffy unnecessaries such as proofreaders and copy editors. After all, we’ve become so used to reading sloppy web-based text that it seems entirely reasonable to assume no one actually values the good stuff. It’s salt and grease we want, not painstakingly executed sauces and finely crafted plats.

In this I pity Martin Amis, as he’s still alive and has to put up with this decline in the respectable press. I doubt he ran squealing to his local news agent in London when word of Mark Medley’s National Post article came out, but if he did he was probably reduced to tears.

That’s because Mark Medley’s article suffered from a distinct lack of editorial oversight. To wit:

Yo, that long, repetitive sentence (highlighted in yellow) never would have passed Go on my editorial board. And hey, nice typo!

Then there’s this:

Missing sarcastic editor’s note: “as articulate as this?” That long sentence needs to be trimmed, or broken up into two or more sentences in order to be articulate.

It goes on:

Hello, online newspaper! Nice sentence to nowhere!

To be clear, none of this is Mark Medley’s fault. Writing is hard, and very few writers went so unedited in the antediluvian world before blogs. If I had see those errors in a blog post I wouldn’t even have blinked. But this is The National Post!

In a professional context we used to rely on editors and proofreaders to find and correct these problems. But what happens when we start treating newspaper content the same as blog content? (As in, raw, unedited, unpolished.) We get stuff that lacks clarity and focus, carries little authority, and fails to inspire.

Blogs and other forms of so-called “citizen journalism” have an important role to play in our information culture, but it’s a role both in opposition to, and complementary with, the establish mainstream press. But we need both for that dynamic to mean anything.

Ripped Off?

A week ago Tuesday, I popped over to CTVmontreal.ca and happened upon a story about the Montreal Metro. Blah blah blah, whatever, and then I noticed the thumbnail image at the top of the story. Not a huge picture, just a stock image that they use for Metro stories when they have no story-specific images. It was a “photo illustration” of a moving Metro car overlaid with a photo of an exterior Metro sign.

The background part of the image looked familiar. Then I realized; holy crap! That’s my picture!

What I found on CTVmontreal.ca.

I had posted the original version of the image on the Monday Morning Photo Blog five years ago (January 17, 2005). I have never sold reproduction rights to it, nor has anyone asked me to use it for any purpose. And it is not a Creative Commons image (why it is not is a subject for another day.) Written very plainly on the page where the image appears is the text “All photographs taken, and copyright owned, by Ed Hawco. Please ask if you want to use any of these images for any purpose.

My original copyrighted image.

Clearly, this was a rip off. But what kind of a rip off? Possibilities include:

  1. CTVmontreal.ca as a corporation clearly and callously lifted the image from my photo blog without asking for permission.
  2. A specific half-wit at CTVmontreal.ca, bucked policy by clearly and callously lifting the image from my photo blog without asking for permission.
  3. CTVmontreal.ca obtained permission to use the image from someone other than me; a third party (person or agency) who stole my photo and is selling it as their own.

There are other possibilities too, but those are the most likely. I decided against number 1, which is the possibility that most knee-jerk reactors pounce on. My reason is simple: CTVmontreal.ca is not a thinking entity; it’s a corporation made up of people, and in all likelihood they have a policy against ripping off copyrighted work. Thus, if it was taken without permission, it was most likely a function of one rogue graphics dude who is too lazy, arrogant, or incompetent to go by the rules and ends up putting the company at risk by doing things that are stupid and illegal.

The situation described in number 3 is certainly not unheard of. In fact, that happens way more often than you probably think. However, I settled on number 2 as the most likely explanation.

Thus settled, I immediately sent an email to the managing editor and informed her of the situation, letting her know that I was not angry but she needs to know she’s using copyrighted material without permission. And by the way, permission for such an image used in this context is astoundingly cheap.

The managing editor emailed me back within a couple of hours to apologize, and to inform me that the image has been removed from the web site. She told me that 80% of the photos they use are taken by their own photographers, and the other 20% are used with permission. She doesn’t know how this one got into their database, but she would look into it. (Judging by some file data I extracted, it looks like they’ve been using the image for at least seven months; it was put in the database on my birthday last June.)

I replied by thanking her for addressing the situation, and I reassured her again that I wasn’t angry. I told her that the price for usage rights was in the range of “lunch money.”

She emailed me back later to apologize again, and to reiterate that they take these issues seriously. She also informed me that she has escalated the issue to the head office in Toronto to ensure that everyone is aware of the rules and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. She never brought up the possibility of paying. (But why would she when she has a ready store of free images? Although it should be said that the image they replaced it with is dead boring.)

The reason why I’m telling you this is not because I want to slag CTVmontreal.ca. (In fact, I commend them for their quick and decisive reply.) Rather, I want to make the point that in this hot-tempered atmosphere of copyright sensitivity, at a time when the world is neatly cleaved into the old-school copyright defenders and the new-school “free sharing” enthusiasts, each side should relax a bit and not get all Balkanized. Each school of thought has merit and there is room for both.

Specifically:

  • Copyright defenders should not get all paranoid that every bit of file sharing and “creative commons” material represents some crazy communist plot to rip the very cash from their pockets.
  • Free sharing enthusiasts should recognize that not all creative effort is a gift to the world and that some people need to make a living this way.

And that, dear readers, is my oversimplified view.

It’s just a starting point really. In my various travels around the web I am constantly shaking my head at the paranoid, silly, reactionary, and just plain stupid thinking of people on both sides of the fence. Yes, the world is changing! Adapt!

We need to find a way to keep both approaches in play and in balance. By not overreacting (as a few people who I told this story to on the day it occurred did), by understanding that (a) in this context the image doesn’t have much monetary value, so I’m not really out anything, (b) the “perpetrator” is a big corporation that probably has very strict rules that were broken by one rogue, (c) there’s no point in getting all hot blooded over it, and (d) by telling this story here, I am doing my little bit to calm these choppy waters and to find my place in a world where most creative work is cheap, but that cheapness opens up other possibilities.

Samaritans

Quick quiz: what is a “Samaritan?”

If you answered “a person who selflessly does a good deed,” you are wrong. A Samaritan is simply a person from Samaria, a mountainous region of the Holy Land between Judea and Galilee — more or less what we now call the West Bank of Israel. The ancient Samaritans had a lot in common with the ancient Jews, but they weren’t on the same team, so to speak. Or perhaps it’s better to say they were on the same team (the Abrahams) but were on different shifts.

Put it this way; when the Parable of the Good Samaritan was written in the first century A.D. the idea of a Samaritan doing a good deed for a non-Samaritan (in this case a Jew) was a bit unusual. Those were very politically, culturally, and religiously loaded days in the Holy Land (not unlike today), so there was not a lot of trust between people of different tribes. So one of the key points of the parable is that one should do good deeds for everyone, even those who are “others.”

In that case, the Samaritan was an “other,” and he did a good deed for a Jew. Jesus, himself a Jew, told this parable as a way of illustrating that even those questionable “others” can do good deeds. But the Samaritan was not a “Samaritan” because he was good. It was because he was from Samaria. The fact that he was good made him a good Samaritan, which does not exclude the possibility of there being loads of bad Samaritans.

It’s as if I wrote a parable about a New Yorker doing a good deed for a Quebecer. It would be the Parable of the Good New Yorker. Naturally, that parable would not imply that every New Yorker is good. More importantly, it would not imply that any good person should be referred to as a “New Yorker!”

And yet I see and hear, on a regular basis, people referring to someone who does a good deed as a “Samaritan.” I hear things like “I had a flat tire and a Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” Really? A Samaritan — a person from the Levant, a old biblical guy in a robe and sandals — came along and fixed your tire?

I think not. However, if you said “I had a flat tire and a Good Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Good Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” then you would not be making an error. People would understand that by “Good Samaritan” you mean someone like the man in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But when you just say “Samaritan,” all you mean is some dude from Samaria!

Parable of the Good New Yorker

Ho for the holidays (part 3)

Back in 2003 I blogged a little screed against Bratz dolls, titled “Ho for the holidays.” A year later I brought you “Ho for the holidays, (part 2),” in which I linked to someone else’s “Ho for the Holidays” post where he complains about the tartenization (my term) of Tinkerbell.

Well, it’s 2009 and the holidays are a ho-ey as ever. This CBC report (from 2006) sayst those ho-like Bratz dolls are made in China (hey, these days what isn’t?) by workers toiling up to 94 hours a week. They are (or at least were) paid about 17¢ per doll, which retail for about $16 US.

So there you go. Not only can you buy your kids a whore for Christmas, you can buy them a cheap whore!