By Michael Miner
Road Hog on the Info Highway
Until just a couple of years ago the relationship between the Chicago Tribune and its 2,000 freelancers was unsullied by those demeaning scraps of paper known as contracts. But relationships built on tradition, honor, and civility are fast going the way of the Petrarchan sonnet, and it occurred to the Tribune that while a handshake might be fine, sometimes a hammerlock is even better.
Freelancers were told they’d better sign and send back, unchanged, a contract ceding “publication rights” to the Tribune of all “material” they hoped to publish there in 1995. By publication rights, the Tribune had in mind “the right to use and reproduce all such material and derivatives of it in various databases, and in conjunction with any other products, including, without limitation, microfilm and CD/ROMS.”
Wally Podrazik, a Tempo freelancer who found the contract “very convoluted and confusing,” suggested modifications that would spell out everyone’s rights more clearly. The Tribune wouldn’t budge. “What it came down to is they just wouldn’t consider–‘they’ being the Tribune hierarchy–any alterations to the contract, even correcting the misspelled word I found. They ran my piece, but before they would issue the check I had to sign the contract.”
Late last year Tribune contributors received the ’96 contract. The scope of publication rights had been significantly enlarged. It now encompassed “microfilm, online services and CD/ROMS.”
The Tribune, if it pleased, could put the freelancers’ stories on-line, and they wouldn’t receive a penny in return. And the Tribune pleased. Unlike the public library, where the same stories are also accessible, America Online and the Chicago Tribune Online are commercial operations. On weekdays the Tribune Archives, which contains every Tribune story going back to 1985, costs a stiff $1.25 a minute to access. Money leaving our pockets isn’t reaching the writers’.
To the National Writers Union, the advent of on-line publishing has introduced a new inequity into the forever unequal relationship between writers and publishers everywhere. Until very recently all a newspaper or magazine ever thought to buy was the right to publish something once. A self-employed writer was free to sell his or her work again and again–and usually had to to survive, rates being what they were. From the NWU’s perspective, an on-line service is a kind of secondary publisher that’s (1) infringing on copyrights, (2) getting something for nothing, and (3) undermining the old resale market.
In Chicago Sue Telingator, a former Tribune freelancer who chairs Local 12 of the NWU, protested to Joe Leonard, the paper’s associate editor in charge of budgets, technology, and administration. Judging her conversation with him a failure, she followed it up late last December with a letter.
“When I brought to your attention the fact that the Tribune has several of the stories I wrote for it online without my permission…you told me that the Tribune was a ‘newspaper of record’ and that you make the paper available in its various forms for this purpose. When I reminded you that the online service is a commercial venture and that the Tribune derives income from this service, you again stated that the Tribune was a ‘newspaper of record.’ When I told you that I own the copyright to my stories, you stated that the Tribune owned the copyright to the paper, which is true. However, according to the U.S. Copyright office, you, as the publisher, own the copyright to the [Tribune] but not to my individual work. The copyright protects the newspaper as an issue, not the articles within. The Tribune has published my articles online without my permission or any remuneration. When I asked you to remove my articles from the electronic databases, you said you couldn’t do that. When I asked you what you could do, you said we would have to agree to disagree on this issue.”
Leonard has never answered the letter. He told me the Tribune is on-line and will stay on-line because readers want it on-line. “We have to be able to put the Tribune out there for our readers in any way, shape, or form they want it.” The idea of a Tribune stored electronically, he rightly argues, becomes meaningless if it’s stored in bits and pieces because various contributors refuse to play ball. He reduces the argument to compensation, and as he sees it it’s every man for himself. “The point of negotiation is between the writer and the section editor,” he told me. “They have the right to negotiate with the section editors based on what their wares are worth.”
These have been lean years for everyone but stockholders at the Tribune, where editors wrestling with budgets have felt like pigs in the bellies of anacondas and freelancers report little more pay for their piecework than they got ten years ago. Why would those editors, assuming they could lay their hands on extra money, give it to contributors on behalf of an on-line service those editors have nothing to do with? Freelancers I’ve spoken to recently suspect that to the Tribune they’re a dime a dozen; the pittance one rejects the next will snatch at. Leonard’s response isn’t evidence to the contrary.
The electronic transmission of writing without recompense preoccupies the NWU. In late 1993 president Jonathan Tasini went to court over the copyright issue, filing suit with other plaintiffs against the New York Times Company, Newsday Inc., Time Inc., Lexis/Nexis, and University Microfilms. “As of 1992,” the NWU announced when the suit was filed, “more than 3,000 publications were carried on electronic databases….In a few years, it will be a rare periodical with significant circulation that will not be accessible electronically.”
Although Tasini v. Times remains in the courts, the last several months have been eventful.
Last summer the NWU created the Publication Rights Clearinghouse in collaboration with UnCover, said to be the world’s largest database of magazine and journal articles. Whenever UnCover faxes an article to a purchaser, a portion of the fee is funneled by PRC to the article’s author. The arrangement puts UnCover’s new owner, Knight-Ridder, in the curious position of seeming both enlightened to the NWU and benighted–as the owner of a chain of newspapers that are typically recalcitrant on the subject of on-line payments.
But the subject’s so new that everyone’s feeling his way. Last November Times Mirror Magazines agreed to pay freelance writers an extra 10 percent whenever articles bought by either Ski or Skiing magazines were posted on the new World Wide Web site SkiNet. Times Mirror Magazines is a division of Times Mirror Inc., which owns Newsday, a defendant in Tasini’s suit.
Copyright infringement was Tasini’s objection, and the New York Time’s apparent solution was to leave its writers with no rights to be infringed on. The Times announced last August that from then on freelancers would be workers for hire, surrendering any claim to their material. “The paper’s position on this is unambiguous,” said an internal memo. “If someone does not sign an agreement, he or she will no longer be published in the newspaper.” This, said the memo, putting a progressive gloss on repression, would “give us the flexibility later to create new digital publications that we cannot even imagine now.”
A statement issued by the NWU, the Authors Guild, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors and signed by Nicholas Lemann, Erica Jong, Garrison Keillor, Barbara Kingsolver, Isabel Allende, David Halberstam, Garry Trudeau, Alice Walker, and dozens of other writers denounced the edict as “unfair, unnecessary and harmful to the livelihood of freelance writers.” The Times has enforced it only fitfully.
The First Lady was so tired when she got home that she started to take off her coat before she remembered she wasn’t wearing it. She’d left the courthouse coatless so she could impress the reporting scum waiting outside with her bounce and vigor. Now she felt sick.
“Hi, honey!” said her hubby from the sofa. “Just saw you on the news. I hope you didn’t lose that coat. Remember, we’re on the verge of bankruptcy, so I can’t afford to buy you a new one.”
“I’ve had it,” said the First Lady. “I’m going to bed.”
“Why don’t you watch Leno with me at least till the monologue’s over?” said hubby. “It’s the usual poontang jokes at my expense, but you’ve got to admit he’s pretty funny.”
Ever since the chief of naval operations had introduced him to the salty “poontang” he’d sprinkled the term recklessly into his conversation. It was his way of demonstrating that he’d adapted comfortably to the role of commander in chief and that the fecklessness he might have shown back in the difficult 60s was a closed book. Let Leno do his worst. The image of an insatiable stallion wasn’t the worst image to have.
“No, I’m bushed,” she said.
“Well, it’s been some week,” he said. “I give a magnificent speech reminding everybody Dole’s such a fossil that he fought in World War II, and then the editorial pages jump all over him for ingratitude.” His voice turned deep and earnest. “And not least, I was able to stand before America and salute my wonderful wife.”
“I’m glad you had a good week. I’m getting crucified.”
“Not without reason,” he reminded her. “And not by everybody. Remember, there was that lovely young columnist in Chicago who asked you how you’re able to cope.”
“She was sweet,” the First Lady agreed.
“A very sexist interview, if I may say so. Nobody ever asks me how I’m able to cope! But it was nice of you to mention the Carly Simon CD. When I went to Borders I told the girl, ‘I’ve got a wife I love very much who’s about to be subpoenaed. What do you suggest?’ And she said, ‘Say no more.'”
“I’m off to bed,” said the First Lady.
When she closed her bedroom door something interesting happened. The ghost of Pat Nixon appeared.
“I certainly never expected to be back here again,” said the ghost. “I hated this place. But the girls insisted I come.”
“This is awkward,” said the First Lady. “Not only because you didn’t knock, but because I once tried to impeach your husband.”
“You and everyone else,” sighed the ghost. “But once you’ve crossed that lonesome valley things like that don’t matter so much anymore. What does matter is sisterhood.”
Uh oh! thought the First Lady.
The ghost read her mind. “Up in that special place in the sky where first ladies go everyone is cheering for you. Florence Kling Harding especially sends her best. She asked me to be sure to tell you that you weren’t the first first lady ever to be tormented by compromising documents that mysteriously showed up in the White House living quarters. In her case they were love letters to Carrie Phillips.”
“I understand perfectly,” said the First Lady. “The billing records are the least of it.”
“They kept falling out of her husband’s shirt,” said the ghost. “Warren was so dismal. Which brings me to why I’m here. All the first ladies who died and went to heaven–and that’s pretty near all of us, because we were all so pathetically charming and forebearing–sent me here to tell you we back you all the way.”
The First Lady was deeply touched by this unexpected expression of support. Like most educated Americans she enjoyed the company of dead people and often wished she’d had the chance to know more of them better.
“None of us up there understand Whitewater any better than anyone down here does,” the ghost went on. “But so far as we can tell, you made out pretty good. As Mamie Eisenhower put it, ‘When Sherman Adams hooked up with Bernard Goldfine all I got out of it was a migraine.'”
“This goes deeper than boodle,” said the First Lady. “I’m being vilified for bouncing the entire White House travel staff in what’s called a naked display of cronyism and power mongering.”
“Falsely vilified?” asked the ghost.
“Not necessarily,” said the First Lady.
“So what!” said the ghost. “Flo Harding swears she’ll spend eternity wishing she could have given Albert Fall the bum’s rush. I swear to God I don’t know why I didn’t just shoot John Mitchell. Half the talk up there where the first ladies go is about SOBs who played our husbands for idiots that we saw through in a second. The self-promoting coat holders and flimflam artists who sucked up to the poor dears and wound up walking off with the silverware. You know who our hero was–before you got in? Nancy Reagan. When Don Regan got too big for his britches as chief of staff she ran him right out of there.”
“I’m not sure the travel staff were flimflam artists. They were nice people who had to go, so we sicced the FBI on them.”
“And now who’s complaining?”
“Republicans, the press,” said the First Lady.
“It’s to be expected,” said the ghost. “Those quarters hold nothing more sacred than the little man’s right to secure employment.”
I reported last week that the Sun-Times settled for an AP-written obit on famous mob lawyer Sidney Korshak. But the story in the last edition of the Sunday, January 21, newspaper was staff written. I missed it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Bruce Powell.