It’s been about a year since I joined the editorial staff of AsiaLIFE HCMC, my first post at a real-life, in-your-hands magazine. With the job crunch caused by the recession back home, I think it’s fair to say that if I hadn’t moved to Saigon, my year spent educating myself and trying to break into publishing would have turned into three and a half. It’s afforded me a lot of opportunities. Back in May, it even fulfilled a lifelong wish: to be positioned at the nexus of controversy and torrid rumor.
The experience turned out to be less than what I’d expected.
Shortly after our Green issue came out, a local blogger and “brand provocateur” named David Everitt-Carlson posted an entry to his blog — The Wild, Wild East Dailies — alleging that AsiaLIFE ripped off New York magazine’s December 2008 cover. To support his claim, he made mention of AsiaLIFE‘s “new, New York staff.” Surely there was a connection. One had to lead to the other. What’s more, he had pictures.
Here’s the first problem: we had pictures too. No bones about it. The 2008 New York magazine cover was indeed our reference shot.
The concept, roughly, went like this: Expats are notorious for their love-hate relationship with Saigon, and one of the things we most often whinge about is the state of the environment. New York magazine is well known for its annual “Reasons to Love New York” issues (the theme has also been used by other city pubs). The cover to the 2008 installment became immediately iconic: a translucent red heart reminiscent of the “I Love New York” campaign held in front of a city street. The idea then developed. Everything we were learning about individuals and organizations fighting for Vietnam’s beleaguered environment represented a new reason to love Vietnam. Our photo editor went to pains to set up the shot so that people would immediately recognize it as a reference to the New York magazine cover, albeit with one difference: a green heart.
So what went wrong? For one, we changed the cover headline. The working title was We Love Vietnam, but I felt it didn’t sit right on the tongue. We Love Vietnam, Too? A New Reason to Love Vietnam? It all linked back to New York magazine’s concept and strengthened the reference, but it didn’t sound too slick. I suggested a placeholder, The Times They Are a-Changin’. Blame my Bob Dylan obsession. My creative director wasn’t sold (and quite frankly neither was I). As we struggled to finish things up with two of our six-person staff out of town, the issue went to print with the placeholder, an admittedly weak headline that contributes to opening us up to Carlson’s criticism: that we stole New York magazine’s cover.
Here’s the second problem with Carlson’s post: he never contacted us to for comment. Instead, he just assumed that, despite the fact that AsiaLIFE‘s designers have been praised for its covers since relaunch in April 2008, we simply got lazy and decided to poach from New York magazine. Apparently he was pretty confident in his hypothesis. He had the “new New York staff” thing, right?
Enter the third problem: we hardly qualify as some recruited bunch of publishing veterans. Since its relaunch, AsiaLIFE has been positioned as a place for ambitious young creatives to cut their teeth. While our staff writer has extensive experience as a freelancer and television writer in New York, this is his first post as a staff writer of a glossy city magazine. Our deputy editor comes from an HR and marketing background; this is her first full-time editorial post. I lived in New York City for 2 1/2 years after college and mostly worked as a contributor/editor for an online travel guide and as a freelance proofreader. Our origin is all coincidence; we were the right people available at the right time in a city not exactly brimming with journalists and editors. Not exactly a bunch of hired guns (but I am proud of what we’ve accomplished with AsiaLIFE).
And the fourth problem: some of the people he painted as guilty of dishonesty never even saw the cover before it went to print. Our deputy editor Ginny was on vacation throughout production. Tom didn’t see it either — he’s frequently mobile and out of office, and rarely sees design mock ups. Our art director was also on 3 weeks leave in New Zealand, as well.
In fact, I emailed David, not to debate the merit of the cover (he has a right to his opinion), but to let him know there were some holes in his logic and that some of his information was very much inaccurate. His response was a rather lengthy exposition on his history in the industry and some advise about not passing the buck. I wrote back thanking David for his thoughtful response, but noted that he hadn’t actually addressed the fact that he was knowingly leaving inaccurate information on his blog. So I elaborated on the mistakes he’d made. His next response was a bit pithier, and I think it’s fair to say, showed a bit of chagrin (perhaps what did it was telling him that if he was going to criticize a magazine for being lazy on design, he should hold himself accountable for what he publishes without so much as a fact check).
Is it unethical to disclose a summary of our personal conversation? I’m not sure, but David did put an addendum to the now-notorious post in which he quoted me out of context from that email exchange, stating that I had “been all over [his] email” (the sum total of my emails to him was 3 … 1 original and 2 responses). Which was curious, because he wrote this in his first response:
“You’re welcome to leave your objection in the comments section of the blog and I will print it, in tact – what I won’t do is post it myself because it is a private note to me and I do keep confidentiality on these things.”
Still, there was a lesson in there. Design and editorial now work much more closely, and we have better checks to make sure none of our work, if it does refer to another source, can be interpreted as plagiarism. While it was never our intention to rip off New York magazine, I recognize that we made production mistakes that led to a situation in which it was easy to assume that we had done just that. But “assume” is the key word there. In my opinion, David should have afforded my staff the same professional courtesy they afford others: to back up what they publish with real facts, having done proper journalism. Blogger, journalist, brand provocateur — we’re all responsible for the allegations we send out into the world.
In the end, I think the lesson is paying off. David did email me the other day and tell me the last two issues have looked great.