News

Artist Claims New York Times Co. Isn’t Giving Him Credit He Deserves

by Mostafa Heddaya on August 7, 2014

nytchronicle_v_schwartz08

Top: New York Times ‘Chronicle’ graph (2012–4); bottom: Tim Schwartz ‘NYTimes Data Grapher’ (2008). Note that the scales do not exactly align and that the ‘Chronicle’ graph is truncated to match the 2008 endpoint on the Schwartz x-axis (screenshots via nytlabs.com and timschwartz.org)

Released to the public two weeks ago, the New York Timess Chronicle graphing tool has been at use within the paper since it was developed in 2012 by the company’s “Labs” research-and-development department. But the first such program graphing the use of language in the Times archive was developed in 2008 by the California-based artist Tim Schwartz, Hyperallergic has learned. Schwartz, then an MFA student at the University of California, San Diego, created the tool using publicly accessible data from the digitized New York Times archive. The artist’s precedent work, presented at a Times conference and acknowledged in emails with Times staff in 2009 reviewed by Hyperallergic, is unmentioned in the public version of Chronicle, raising questions about the practice of attribution in non-journalistic settings at the newspaper.

The programmer-artist corresponded with several Times staffers regarding the work in 2009, demonstrating the software and a related sculptural installation at the Times Open conference in February 2009. Attended by 140 people both internal and external to the company, the event was covered by Harvard’s Nieman lab blog, where a video of Schwartz presenting his graphing program led the post and earned a mention in the writeup.

command_center_detail

Detail of Tim Schwartz, “Command Center” (2008) with analog gauge indicating use of term “insurgents” in the New York Times (image courtesy Tim Schwartz)

Upon seeing his work unacknowledged in the public version of Chronicle, Schwartz sent an email to a senior developer at the Times on July 28 that allegedly brought the following reply: “I had forgotten about your earlier work in this area … to me it’s entirely possible that nobody currently in R&D was aware of your prior work.” Schwartz also emailed Chronicle’s creator, Alexis Lloyd, but received no response.

Queried about the similarities between Schwartz’s work as demonstrated to the Times in 2009 and the present iteration of Chronicle, Abbe Serphos, executive director of corporate communication at the New York Times, wrote in an email to Hyperallergic: “Ms. Lloyd is not familiar with the work Mr. Schwartz mentioned in his email. Beyond that we are not planning to comment.”

Schwartz finds the explanation unconvincing. “It’s really disappointing that such a large media organization that holds itself to high standards of journalistic integrity doesn’t do their research and forgets about attribution in their R&D lab … it seems ridiculous to me that an institution this large can have such a short institutional memory,” he said in a telephone interview.

The artist says he does not believe that the work is plagiarized, and only asks to receive written acknowledgment on the Chronicle website for his prior work. Indeed, slight discrepancies in how different terms are graphed suggests possible variations in methodology, among other structural differences. (For example, in Schwartz’s version, which is still live on his website, a maximum of five terms can be selected from existing menus, while Chronicle allows free input.) And Schwartz and the Times are certainly not alone in their interest in lexical graphing — most notably, Google released its Books NGram Viewer in 2010.

Michael Connor, editor and curator of digital arts organization Rhizome, noted that in such scenarios, ethics are not the only consideration that could be driving hesitant attribution practices. “If the Times was aware of this project and made the conscious decision not to reach out to him and attribute to him one could understand that as being motivated by our overly onerous intellectual property regime, but it’s still very bad manners,” he told Hyperallergic over the phone.

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  • http://www.christopher-howard.net/ Christopher Howard

    Can you explain what “credit” means and what that would look like or where it would appear? What does it mean to be acknowledged, mentioned, or attributed? Is there a legal matter at stake? Did someone do something wrong and, if so, what exactly is it? I’m not even sure what the issue is here.

    • Alexis Shakas

      Perhaps credit would be as simple as mentioning Tim Schwartz in the “About Chronicle” link on the bottom right of the Chronicle website. It only seems logical that the person who came up with the idea and first developed this tool, four years ago, should be acknowledged.

      • http://www.christopher-howard.net/ Christopher Howard

        Tim Schwartz deserves no recognition for the New York Times project because he contributed nothing to it. (If he did, let’s see the evidence.) He does deserve full credit for creating his own, similar project before the New York Times created its project.

        • Alexis Shakas

          Similar project? So I could take a Venn diagram, change the colour of the lines and call it my own invention? Someone just copied his project, four years later, and gets credit for it. Thats pretty much the sum up of this situation, whether you like to accept it or not.

    • M. Heddaya

      Christopher — Given your responses that follow, it’s clear you have made up your mind about this story, which is fine, but the factual answers to these questions are right there in the text: (1) There is no legal issue, other than the possibility of one that could arise if he were given credit (see Connor’s quote at the end) (2) Schwartz is asking for written recognition for his prior work, which given its links to the Times seems like a claim substantiated enough to be worth reporting: (“The artist says he does not believe that the work is plagiarized, and only asks to receive written acknowledgment on the Chronicle website for his prior work.”)

      MH

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