Last week IndieWire editor Kate Erbland discovered that her review of Hustlers had been published in Cascadia Weekly, a paper in Bellingham, Wash., without her consent and without payment. The technical word for this is “theft.” Knowing that an act of content theft, like a cockroach, is seldom alone, Kate did some searching and found that many of our other colleagues had also had their work stolen. With only occasional exceptions, all the reviews the paper has run since it launched in 2006 have been written by people who were not affiliated with Cascadia Weekly and presumably didn’t know they were being published in it.
After Kate told Twitter about this and we all started searching the CW archives for our names, someone at CW started removing the reviews from the website. Carey Ross, previously credited online as “Music & Fim [sic] Editor,” had her title changed to just “Music Editor.” The film section was removed from the site. Then some of the reviews even started to disappear from the pages of the PDFs of back issues. I would not be at all surprised if a CW representative was sent around Bellingham to retrieve print copies from the stands.
Sneaky way to deflect liability for this. “No, your honor, I was the FIM editor.”
— Robert Ham (@roberthamwriter) September 11, 2019
Meanwhile, Cascadia Weekly said nothing publicly. Once its Seattle counterpart, The Stranger, got wind of the story, CW publisher Tim Johnson said he would address the matter in the next issue of the paper.
Here is his statement. If it had stopped after the first paragraph, it would have been an excellent mea culpa. Instead, he went on to rationalize and justify and lie, as people who have been caught doing something bad for 13 years often do.
Allow me to comment. I assume Johnson won’t mind my reprinting his article entirely here, since after all I have kept his name on it and am only trying to promote his work.
“Cascadia Weekly has published feature film reviews without permission of their authors. The responsibility for this rests with me, the publisher, and I apologize and am available to those authors for cure.”
It’s good that he accepts responsibility. He’s the editor and publisher (the journalism equivalent of being both director and producer, and a hint at the small size of the paper); the buck stops with him. But accepting sole responsibility isn’t the same as accepting sole blame. Erstwhile music & fim editor Carey Ross was involved, and it’s hard to believe arts & entertainment editor Amy Kepferle didn’t know it was going on, too. They may not have been in a position to contradict their boss, but they had to have known it was wrong.
“All feature reviews were bylined and sourced,”
Here’s where the lies begin. The reviews were NOT sourced. “Sourced” would mean that, in addition to the writer’s name (the byline), it would also say where the review originated (the source). That’s what “sourced” means. I should not have to explain this to the editor and publisher of a newspaper. The stolen reviews just had the writers’ names, no source.
“and our intent was never to deprive or defraud these authors of credit for their work.”
We didn’t pay them, but we gave them what writers want most: credit.
“Cascadia Weekly received no revenue or remit [sic] from these reviews, which were offered as service to readers.”
This is so disingenuous I half-expected to see Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ name on it. As a free newspaper, Cascadia Weekly technically receives no revenue for ANY story it publishes, but through advertising. (Even newspapers that aren’t free are sustained almost entirely by ad revenue.) So, no, Cascadia Weekly didn’t receive any revenue for those reviews specifically, any more than it made money from any other specific stories it ran. Sean P. Means at The Salt Lake Tribune (which does not steal reviews) observed that it seems like Johnson is saying, “We would have gotten paid the same no matter what we put on the page, so does it really matter WHAT we put on the page?”
“These were licensed products for which we did not hold a license. Cascadia Weekly publishes a number of syndicated features, and — were such services readily available for the indie film industry — we would leap at the opportunity to secure available syndication for feature film reviews. If licensing services are available for the small independent press, we do not know of them.”
Now he’s pleading ignorance. This is a bad thing for a newspaper editor to plead. It’s the same general idea that Carey Ross espoused in her email reply to a writer who complained about their work being stolen. The writer posted it to Twitter and later deleted it, so identifying details are redacted.
(Note the “apologies again” despite not having apologized the first time. This is an advanced weaseling maneuver with a very high degree of difficulty.)
The paper’s official position is basically: “We want to run reviews of independent films, but we have no idea how to get them! Please help us, our family is starving.”
Now, this is just off the top of my head, but one way to get a movie review is to write one. That’s usually what I do. Indie films in particular tend to be made available to local press before they play at the local arthouses, but even if no screener is available, it is possible to see a movie after it has been released and still write a review.
Random side note, apropos of nothing: Carey Ross is a projectionist at one of Bellingham’s indie theaters and has been since 2001. Said theater undoubtedly receives screeners of movies to be shown there.
Another way to get a movie review is to buy one. This is almost what Cascadia Weekly did, but they omitted a crucial step. Are there “syndication” options for movie reviews? Yes! Many freelance critics sell their reviews to alt-weeklies! I myself sometimes contribute to another Washington paper, Spokane’s Inlander (which does not steal reviews), as well as City Weekly (which does not steal reviews) in Salt Lake. I know of others who do the same for various outlets. There’s no formal network of freelancers to draw from, but the writers are out there. Ask Twitter if anyone’s willing to write a review for fifty bucks (heck, for twenty bucks) and see if you get fewer than 50,000 replies. This seems like an instance of CW having a problem and, instead of looking to see if a legal solution existed, going straight to crime.
“Our sin was promotion; and in particular promotion of the many fine, small-distribution independent films of limited circulation that arrive each month at our arthouse theaters, and that deserve attention in our community.”
We wanted to promote these great films (we hadn’t seen them, but we assumed they were great), so we had NO CHOICE but to copy and paste reviews we found on the internet. Who among us wouldn’t do the same thing??
“Perhaps no single area of arts-&-entertainment publishing has witnessed more change over the past several years than that of new film releases. Their distribution has increasingly consolidated and has tended to focus on major releases. Screening opportunities have narrowed, and particularly so in small communities like Bellingham. Our advance deadline of Tuesday additionally constricts our capacity to secure permissions for feature reviews for limited distribution films. Even our ability to present screen times is constricted, as that information is now seldom released by the major theater chain until after our press deadline.”
Blah blah blah, newspapering is hard, we are also victims.
“None of this excuses our actions, but is submitted to explain our motives.”
Our motive: We wanted to promote good movies. Our problem: We were lazy and dishonest.
“The simple truth is, rather than surrender to the evident realities of distribution and provide little information at all on these excellent films, we chose to publish feature reviews without securing permission from their authors. We were wrong to do so.”
Our only crimes were:
1) Loving movies TOO MUCH!
“Over time, we grew indiscriminate in sources and careless in purpose. On several occasions, we published feature reviews for a major motion picture release without license or permission, which violated any original purpose — however misguided — to point reader attention to smaller release films. Wrong became routine. Of all our failures, this last point is our most egregious.”
No, your most egregious failure is still stealing people’s work, then covering it up and lying about it. But I guess mission creep is a sort of failure, too.
For the record, issue #10 of Cascadia Weekly had John Hiscock’s London Daily Mirror review of an obscure indie film called The Da Vinci Code; issue #11 had Michael Rechtshaffen’s Hollywood Reporter review of Sundance darling X-Men: The Last Stand; issue #13 had Charleston City Paper’s Joshua Tyler talking about a barely seen animated title called Cars; and issue #14 had both David Edelstein’s New York magazine review of An Inconvenient Truth AND freelancer Emanuel Levy’s review of The Lake House. (For added insult, they misspelled Levy’s first name.) We can’t say definitively that all of these were printed without permission, but the paper definitely strayed from its “steal for the indies” policy pretty fast.
“To authors and their representatives who request or demand remedy, we will of course respond promptly and appropriately to each request.”
Here’s what The Stranger said about that: “Depending on whether or not the stolen work was registered under copyright, IndieWire and other outlets may be entitled to statutory damages, which, under federal law, range from $750 to $30,000 per violation. And if the paper is shown to have willfully stolen this work, they could be held liable for up to $150,000 per work” (emphasis in original).
No, they didn’t steal any of my reviews — and I am pissed!
Johnson admits the work was stolen “willfully” (as opposed to, say, a misunderstanding about which wire-service features the paper had a license to use). Not every issue had a feature review, and I don’t think anyone has gone through the whole 13 years’ worth of PDFs to see exactly how many were swiped. But if they stole, say, 40 a year, that’s 520 reviews. At $150,000 per work, that would be $78 million, enough to wipe out almost any paper in the country. Even at the very low end of $750 per work, it’s $390,000 — probably more than Cascadia Weekly has.
“Regarding content that has been removed from our archives: This is not a cover-up. This is part of the requested remedy.”
This is plausible. Kate Erbland sent the matter to IndieWire’s legal department, and it’s entirely possible that they (or another complaining writer) asked the paper to take the reviews offline.
“For the present, and until licensing issues are resolved, we will no longer publish feature film reviews. This is as much an acknowledgement of the realities described above as it is our reduced page counts at a very challenging moment for the newspaper publishing industry. Film shorts, which are original to Cascadia Weekly and provided by staff [anonymously — there are no bylines], will continue to appear in our publication.
Again, my apologies to all we have failed.
—Tim Johnson, Publisher”
It’s one thing to have a lapse in judgment and do something ethically wrong once or for a brief period of time. There may be consequences, but most people won’t hold it against you forever if it’s a one-time thing that you acknowledge was a stupid mistake and you’re sorry.
Doing something ethically wrong for 13 years, week in and week out, involving other staff members, is something else. That’s not, “Whoops, my bad.” It’s not even, “You’re right, that was dumb, I knew it was wrong as soon as I did it, I’m sorry.” It’s, “I need to return to journalism school and be retrained in the basics starting at the five W’s.”
It is hard to imagine Johnson or Ross ever working in journalism again. This is the kind of thing that will and should dog them for the rest of their careers. A complete fessing up and no-excuses apology (plus remuneration, of course) might mitigate the fallout, but it might be too late for that now.
• • • •
Stories like this make me angry, but they also make me nervous. It’s for the same reason: I was fired from a newspaper in 2003 for an ethical violation. (Not plagiarism or anything like that. That would be my supervisor, who was canned a few weeks after I was.) I covered a news story that I had a personal connection to that I did not disclose, either in the story or to my bosses, and indeed I downplayed the connection in the article. I’ll tell the whole story someday (it involves other people whose consent I would need), but this editorial written by the managing editor after my firing is essentially true.
At the time, I tried to save face by only admitting to what was undeniable and obscuring everything else. I was loath to acknowledge to my readers (not to mention friends and family and whatnot) that I’d screwed up so badly. The quote from me in that editorial makes me wince now, the pridefulness of it. And of course it was pride, arrogance, and complacency (I wish I could say youth but I was almost 29) that had led me to make that error in judgment in the first place.
I mention all of this for two reasons. One is to preempt people who disagree with me from throwing it back in my face. The other is that the consequences of my actions had the effect they were supposed to have: They humbled me! Not right away, but over time, as I cooled off and got over the embarrassment and leveled with myself. And it made me more vigilant about rooting out this sort of thing in journalism, especially when it’s not a one-time instance of reckless behavior but an ongoing pattern of deceit.
Would my excoriation of Cascadia Weekly’s leadership have more weight coming from someone who’d never done anything wrong himself? Probably. But right is right, regardless of who said it. And to the people of Bellingham, Wash., I suggest you start reading The Bellingham Herald (which does not steal reviews). Cascadia Weekly probably won’t be around much longer.