Sunday, May 26, 2013

Journalists Learn They're for Sale on eBay: Teeth-Gnashing, Hand-Wringing, Pearls-Clutching Commences!

 Early in this Memorial Day Weekend, I was confronted with a uniquely 21st Century "First World" development: I learned that I am up for auction on eBay. Well, my 30 year-old self is, in the form of my official staff photos from my years at The Miami Herald. Opening bid price: $32.88. The McClatchy Company, owner of The Miami Herald, had made a deal with a third party company to sell most of the photo archives. Part of the deal included the acquiring company agreeing to digitize much of the photos, and, apparently the right to offer up the newspaper's historic photos for auction. Since those of us who worked at The Herald in Editorial had semi-regular photographs made (for press passes or columns that appeared in the newspages) there are presumably hundreds of these photos now up for sale by the group that purchased the images from McClatchy. After learning of this development from a friend and former Herald staffer who phoned me Friday night (she was moderately upset, two clicks below "outraged"), I didn't immediately give it much thought. But after she'd sent me the link to the location at eBay where our photos are being auctioned under the rather tacky banner of the ROGERS PHOTO ARCHIVE (sic), I took a look.

Journalist's Photos for Sale on eBay -- What Am I Bid?

Honestly, it is creepy to see my long-ago self in this location, and in such a context.


Not only is my first press pass photo on auction but so is the second staff photo that was made during my years at the Herald ('93-'97), a picture from '95. In both, I have expressions of youthful optimism, though I was 30 years old when I joined The Miami Herald staff. In the first, from '93, my hair is braided, and pulled up into a top-knot. I am wearing a light-weight checkered blazer, and smiling rather fetchingly, if I may say so. In the second photo, my hair is shoulder-length, loose, and I appear to have picked up a few pounds in the two years since the '93 image was made. I am smiling there, too, though it seems there are fresh lines around my eyes.

After gawking for a few moments at those long-ago versions of me, I went from that eBay page directly to Facebook, and checked in at The Miami Herald Alumni group. Yep. A robust conversation has been boiling away there for several weeks now about the auctioning of staff photos. Considering the high public profiles that many of the Miami Herald alumni now have -- Herald alumni occupy leading positions in academe>, nonprofits and media -- no wonder. And in these wacky times of Internet-enabled identity theft, "catfishing," and Lord knows how many other digital scams that unfold by the second, I don't think it is unreasonable for some of us with former staff photos now up for auction on eBay to be "concerned." All the same, I do also recognize the irony -- if not hypocrisy -- of this sentiment.

Who Are We to Protest?

In the 20 years since I first joined the staff at The Herald, many journalists have embraced (however reluctantly) the nascent yet wide-spread theory that news people have to "brand" themselves. This means that, whether one practices the trade independently or on the part- or full-time payroll of a news or news-ish organization, one must endeavor to craft a "public persona" that includes distinctive photo portraits in various social media channels. One is also now expected to score as many television appearances as one can, along with maintaining a personal or company blog or author books and/or magazine articles, and, assuming one has not dropped dead from exhaustion or pissed off any remaining loved ones who wonder if you've become a totally self-absorbed asshole, one is also expected to score as many speaking engagements, broadcast radio appearances, and ribbon-cuttings as one can reasonably handle.

This frenzy of self-promotion has accelerated in recent years, distinct from an era (not very long ago!) when journalists existed pretty much behind a "fourth wall:" Unless you wrote a weekly column, news reporters' images were rarely published in the outlets where they worked. At The Herald, the local news section where I was first assigned (in the Fort Lauderdale bureau), had a regular feature called "Target" in which beat reporters were provided a regularly-scheduled front-of-section report (which jumped inside to a full 'double-truck" two page spread) in which to publish a deep-dive report on a topic from their beat.

These "Target" pages were devised in part by the Herald's marketing team, and their publishing schedule and locations in the various local sections were designed to gin-up reader and advertiser loyalty. The photo I've posted at the top of this column is my first press photo, but it also doubled as the photo that published with my "Target" reports. In the days after the first appearance of this photo in The Herald, I vividly remember an uptick in mail addressed to me in the Fort Lauderdale newsroom, and phone calls at my desk (our street address and phone numbers were also posted in these "Target" reports, a precursor to the point of contact information that reporters and columnists offer today -- email addresses, links to past work, AND direct phone numbers.) I began receiving letters at my desk from local readers in Broward, which actually was a boon.

Readers seemed to appreciate having a face to go along with my byline, a form of "personalizing" that did, sometimes, lead to fresh ideas for stories or even actionable tips on breaking news. But I also began receiving mail from guys doing time in various prisons around the state -- a not-so-fun innovation that was a direct result of my photo appearing semi-regularly in the newspages. Obviously, reading the prisoner's letters was an odd experience, mildly upsetting. Considering that they were a "captive audience" only went so far to soothe concerns that I also felt about the potential negative fallout of the new "transparency." So, yes, this brand new news that my former Herald staff photos are now up for auction at eBay carries a frisson of that 20 year-old anxiety, along with a decidedly postmodern element -- Internet wariness.

Out of Context: Who Controls My Brand Image?


On one hand, I am somewhat comfortable with this dynamic, likewise with the tools of producing and managing my own online "brand." I most certainly am more knowledgeable about these matters than I could have imagined back when those Herald photos were first made.  From my Senior Class photo, which I have posted on my Facebook profile each May since 2010, to images that live in the archives at Beacon Press and Grove/Atlantic Press, my book publishers; to the images of me that were made by the terrific DC-area photographer Steve Barrett and which are easily accessible on several social channels, I do not object to my photo appearing on the Internet. I object to not having control over when and where images of me appear.

Since resigning from The Miami Herald in 1997 and setting myself up as an independent writer, I have very deliberately crafted a public, professional persona based on my expertise in Communicating -- reporting, researching, writing and expressing informed opinion on topics that interest me. In this context,  I have equally deliberately attempted to maintain control over my work and my image. For the past decade, I have tried to manage any release of photos of myself on the Internet. I have done this in part because I am a parent but also because I am aware of the viral nature of the Web -- and also because I am wary of the shadowy unknowns bound up in all the accessibility of the Internet.

The fact that I do not have control over my former staff photos is problematic, since the company's choice to put it out to bid took place without my knowledge or consent.  The fact that a price is being attached to my image, too, is problematic, mostly for issues of ego rather than safety or privacy. Why are my images going for $32.88 -- why not a cool $33...or $40? We've been joking ruefully in the Herald alumni Facebook group about which reporter's or editor's photos are being auctioned at what price. Like -- who at the third-party outfit that is selling these images decided what price to set as opening "bid" for our images?

Hey Scribe! Think You're Famous? What's Your Going Rate on eBay?

What are the metrics for deciding the price? Why, for example, is the legendary crime reporter, author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning former Herald staffer Edna Buchanan's photo listed at $28.88 -- four bucks less than the cost of my image? How about former staffers who are now well-known "thought leaders" in media on one topic or another, such as Dexter Filkins? Less amusingly, at least one staffer is ticked off that a photo of himself and some of his family members -- taken long ago during a company event -- has also turned up for sale on eBay. This staff member's family members never worked at the Herald, nor presumably did they sign any kind of legal release for those images. Shouldn't the have some measure of protection from this?

Glenn Garvin, a current staffer, legitimately raised the question Sunday in the alumni group Facebook page that few of us carping in that space about the sale of the staff photos appear to be concerned that images of thousands of "civilians" are also being auctioned without their consent or knowledge -- where is our concern for their privacy rights? 

I suspect that the McClatchy company (the current owner of The Herald though its long-time owner was Knight-Ridder) in all likelihood didn't consider these kinds of nuances when it made the deal to sell or license its photos. Yet the deal does strike me as merely another iteration of the larger, troubling trend toward what web pioneer-turned-Internet critic Jaron Lanier calls the "decontextualzing" of creative output (books, music, film), the removal of the "person" who created the "content" from the content itself.

The utopian (if also naive) idea that "content wants to be free" that has sped the demise of the old economic model that once supported newspapers like The Herald informs this cavalier selling of our images. With a few exceptions such as LinkedIn, tech companies that are increasingly becoming "media companies" are not to date led by individuals who appear to have very much respect for news practitioners, or for the practice itself (see Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's recent comment post-Tumblr acquisition, that "there are no real professional photographers" any more thanks to smart phone cameras and online distribution services. She later apologized... sort of.)

The cheapening of "content" that has drastically, swiftly dropped the stock of all trained, professional journalists is a touchy subject. It is a cold new reality rife with cultural, economic and political implications. I do not profess to have all the answers, not for this eBay auctioning of our images, nor for the larger issue. But I do know that it sucks to see oneself so abruptly "decontextualized" -- not to mention put up for bid for less than the price of a good Sushi dinner.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Notes On the AP vs DOJ: Where's the Public Love?

Thanks to the Internet, millions of Americans don't seem to know that the Associated Press was our first Internet.

It's important to note this now,  as the AP is in the news (rather than just covering it) for a serious matter involving the First Amendment and government intrusion.  We know that Journalism itself has been under siege for some time now from an increasingly disaffected audience, and that some of the unhappiness with the current state of the American press is valid. But the relative absence of outrage about the U.S. Department of Justice's sweeping intrusion into the AP says to me that the press in America is held in even lower esteem than I realized.  It also points up the growing need for intensive media literacy efforts by news organizations and institutions of higher learning to aid the public's understanding of the crucial role of the legitimate news-gathering organizations, and of the press's watchdog mission.

I'm on the record as indicting the leadership of many of the nation's legacy and emerging news organizations for their stubborn inability to make their enterprises more representative of America's population by hiring,  retaining and promoting more Latino, Asian and black journalists and producers, as well as practitioners from low-income or working-class backgrounds. But this news of the AP's situation, and the absence of public outrage about it, hints at a bleak future in terms of the Fourth Estate's ability to prevail in the court of public opinion and possibly in regional and Federal judicial settings. The AP hasn't been immune from economic challenges or from complaints over decades from some staffers frustrated by the same monochromatic issues (lack of class, gender race inclusion) that exists at other news organizations. All the same, the AP is the Timex of American Journalism, and it deserves respect.

A PR offensive by the AP in the midst of its current challenge may help rouse the public. Any such initiative would need to be broader than simply defending the institution in this particular fight with the DOJ.  I am familiar with the Semper Fi culture of the AP, which is to say it has historically avoided the kind of preening and show-biz commercial measures undertaken by its print and broadcast counterparts, even in recent years when marketing and promotions have become flashy and crass, owing to corporate and shareholder pressuring news brands to more strongly differentiate themselves.  The AP is boring, necessarily so. But were I advising the group now, I'd recommend a strategic campaign that emphasizes the "S-word" element of the current DOJ fight -- "S" for "shame," not for "scandal;" and also arrange for some of the company's top Correspondents and Photographers to engage in a barnstorming tour of advocacy groups, colleges and the like, to remind us of the AP's history and of it's reliable, vital work in an increasingly partisan and sloppy media ecosystem.

On Sunday, May 19, Gary Pruitt, CEO and President of AP, gave his first television interview since news of the DOJ's action broke.

Characteristically, Pruitt appeared on the least sexy Sunday political news program on the air, the venerable "Face the Nation" at CBS. (I link to the clip of Pruitt's interview above -- alas it doesn't render if you're viewing my column on a mobile device. Here's the URL: And not surprisingly, Pruitt used clear, blunt language in describing what he believes was the DOJ's "unconstitutional" action.

This is not a small thing, people. I am lately having to concentrate extra hard to stay abreast of this shameful situation amidst the rising cacophony of coverage on the supposed "Obama Administration scandals" that dominates the news cycles.   (Yes, I am discerning, as well as fortunate to have developed over the years a highly-attuned "noise filter."  But it is important to say that many news consumers don't have such skills. I'm not saying that audiences are "dumb," I'm saying that civilians are overwhelmed daily by such a firehose of images, data and partisan screaming that it is a big challenge to ascertain what's truly important. It is a paradox: As Americans become more "media-savvy" thanks to the over-saturation of channels in the Web and on TV screens, the surfeit of news and news-ish outlets is not, in fact, creating consumers who are better informed about legitimate Journalism.)

Pruitt and other members of the AP's leadership might view the idea of a disruptive PR campaign unseemly. Yet handled appropriately, such a strategy at this time actually stands a good shot at elevating the AP's message above the noise.  Americans tend to love a crisp narrative involving historic institutions that started small, grew big over time, and managed to hold fast to their values through the decades. That is the story of the AP.

But how many Americans know it?

AP is funded by individual news organizations and staffs bureaus across the US and the globe.  It was founded in 1846 by a group of five New York newspaper companies who banded together to support a pony express route that would enable their papers to speed news of the Mexico War to their readers faster than the US Postal Service.

I have worked in news organizations that contribute to the AP, and can report first-hand that the AP houses some of the best writers, editors, visual journalists and producers in the world. Its immense brick and mortar footprint -- as in, bureaus large and small strung across the globe -- are hugely valuable to working journalists worldwide.

In 1992, for instance, when Los Angeles lit up in flames following the acquittal of white police officers who had been charged with beating a black motorist named Rodney King, the AP bureau in the City of Angeles hosted dozens of out of town journalists who rushed to the city to cover the conflict. We were literally sheltered by the AP in LA , and provided quality equipment and resources in what can only be described as urban warfare conditions. I was moreover during that week stunned to look up from a desk I'd found off the main newsroom of the AP in LA to find that another person had joined me at an adjoining desk, a local AP reporter named Linda Deutsch.

Even at that neophyte stage of my career, I knew that Deutsch was a legendary legal affairs reporter and a mainstay of LA journalists.  She was friendly, helpful and mildly salty, as we made small talk for the rest of the afternoon that I shared that space. I knew that Deutsch had covered some of the biggest trials and criminal cases in LA for many, many years. Her work had filled column inches in newspapers across the globe for decades with straightforward, tough dispatches.  I'd always aspired to writing dailies and long-form stories that were "colorful," but I certainly understood and appreciated the ability of Deutsch and other AP staff correspondents to hew closely to the "Just the facts, Ma'am" style that is the AP's hallmark (although its correspondents also produce terrific feature writing, sports coverage, and also in recent years, video reportage.) They tend to be fly-on-the-wall reporters,
not peacocks.

The AP's reach historically represented a ubiquity that is now replicated (albeit in a vastly mutated, accelerated form), by the Internet.  It concerns me that upcoming generations of news consumers don't seem to know that the blogs they read, the sports sites, the fan-pages are largely seeded by work from AP writers worldwide.  If you take a moment to think about it, then take another half hour to actually mount an organized search, you'll easily see that without the AP, a whole lot of "content" would vanish from the Web.  And by "content," of course, I mean "news and information."

Finally, a word about AP's CEO Gary Pruitt.

He is from Florida,  has a law degree from UC Berkeley, and is probably one of the last news company Chiefs who genuinely believes that the mission of a news corporation is to support an open, transparent democracy, not simply rake in big profits for owners and shareholders.  Pruitt was for many years a top lawyer at the McClatchy Newspaper Company in California, and then CEO of that Company.  During my time as a Fresno Bee staff writer, Pruitt moved from Sacramento to Fresno to serve as publisher, and pretty quickly implemented a policy of transparency as well as structural innovations that the FresBee sorely needed at that time. Of all the editors, publishers and owners that I encountered in the many years that I've worked in news and information, I can say without hesitating that Pruitt is easily the brightest, most genuine, and emotionally intelligent that I've met.

He's also a crafty, tough negotiator -- and an expert in the First Amendment and the Constitution.  I anticipate the AP's dealings with the Department of Justice from here out will be highly instructive, with or without a flashbang PR campaign.