Released to the public two weeks ago, the New York Times’s 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.
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.