Thursday, March 15, 2018

Lite PD Promises Post-Dispatch Readers 'the Parodic Bliss That Is a Usable Website'

Posted By on Thu, Mar 15, 2018 at 10:33 AM

click to enlarge FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
Update: Lite PD was dismantled this afternoon. See our update at the story's end for the very latest.

Original story follows:

Attorneys for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch are demanding that a local man end "Lite PD," a creation that allows users to read the newspaper's online stories without the usual photos, videos and long load times. And while the man insists his creation is a parody of the Post-Dispatch's website, he acknowledges that it is a parody only in the sense that Lite PD is not a stuttering, browser-crashing mess. The stories are all the paper's.



The man, an IT consultant, agreed to talk to the RFT but wouldn't provide his name. We'll call him Hacker Man.

First, here's how Lite PD works: Open any story on stltoday.com, change the URL from .com to .site, and then hit "enter." That's it. Thanks to Hacker Man's magic, the browser should navigate you to the PD Lite version of the story, offering plain text in a mobile-friendly format.

click to enlarge On the left, a story on Stltoday.com. On the right, the same story on Stltoday.site. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • On the left, a story on Stltoday.com. On the right, the same story on Stltoday.site.

It's an ingenious hack, though it does have its limits. As Hacker Man notes, Lite PD can't be used as a tool to browse the newspaper's content; there are no tabs for sections or a search bar. You must always start with the stltoday.com version of a story.

Beyond that, clicking the Lite PD home page will bring up a message that asks users to first buy a subscription to the newspaper, adding, "This is not intended to be a discovery tool but rather a service that allows you to visit a speedier less buggy version of the P-D after you've hit one of their articles you like."

An avid reader of the paper's journalism, Hacker Man says he got fed up with web pages stuck in infinite load times, repeated browser crashes and a mobile experience that he says not only crashes his browser but, unforgivably, redirects him away from stories and traps him on outside pages.

"I’d open it a story on Twitter, I’d hit the page, wouldn't touch anything, and it would it would kick me to some ad that it thought I’d clicked on," he says. "I couldn't read an article for two days straight."

And he wasn't alone. The tipping point, he says, came after he saw a February 28 tweet from Richard Callow, the president of the Public Eye public relations firm and a longtime information-broker among city journalists. Callow had run into similar problems with the Post-Dispatch's website, and that day he'd tweeted at the newspaper, "Yes, @stltoday, I would pay more for a version of you that just had the news, didn't auto-play video, and didn't crash my browser every 2 hours."

The tweet got Hacker Man thinking.

"I figured, this is the guy whose job it is to schmooze with journalists and be nice to them, and even he is OK with kind of giving them trouble about this," he says. "I knew I wasn’t alone, and I was like, 'Alright, let's do something about this.'"

Days later, Lite PD quietly launched. But just a few days after that, Hacker Man got a stern letter from the newspaper's attorneys at Lane & Waterman LLP.

Sent by email to the Lite PD site, the March 8 letter claimed that Lite PD was violating the newspaper's intellectual property rights and that its illegal use of the Post-Dispatch's trademark is tricking consumers and "unfairly capitalizes on our client's goodwill and reputation."

The law firm demanded that Lite PD transfer the domain name stltoday.site domain name to Pulitzer Inc., which owns the Post-Dispatch, and to remove "all infringing material from the website."

Hacker Man then replied with a letter of his own. Lite PD, he wrote, was actually a parody that existed because the Post-Dispatch website couldn't get its shit together. "The only reason for a user to access stltoday.site after visiting stltoday.com," Hacker Man quipped, "is to experience the parodic bliss that is a usable website."

The letter also laid out some of Hacker Man's technical critiques of the performance of the Post-Dispatch's website, particularly its slowness and lack of security.

From the letter:
As of the latest visit to stltoday.com, it took 13.75 seconds to load the page and the website made 221 independent requests, many of which are to different servers all around the world, to compile the webpage.

In contrast, stltoday.site makes 7 requests and loads in approximately .4 seconds. This is all delivered over a secure and encrypted https connection whereas the stltoday.com site is insecure. This massive discrepancy in site performance and security is laughable and parodic in nature, satirizing the sad state of affairs that is your client’s digital offerings.

In recent days, we've seen Post-Dispatch journalists argue on Twitter that the best way to get a better experience is simply to buy an online subscription. At that point, they claim, the user gets a version of the site that skips the Google surveys and loads more quickly.


Tracy Rouch, a spokeswoman for the daily, made it clear that Hacker Man's complaints are not going to lead to the paper backing down. "We take all infringements on our intellectual property very seriously. We will continue to pursue this matter through the legal process."

And Hacker Man acknowledges that his site is potentially a problem for the newspaper, which needs revenue from digital ads to pay its journalists. But he contends that he's ultimately providing a service: He's calling attention to the fact that the website is in dire need of improvement.

The problems, he says, should concern potential advertisers regardless of the parody tool he's built.

"I think that the way they have their website set up currently is hurting them more than it's helping them. It's providing a bad user experience," he says. "Quite frankly, I don't think their advertisers would be happy with the results they're getting."

Update:

Today, Hacker Man got another letter from the Post-Dispatch's lawyers. This one threatened damages for willful copyright infringement, including "statutory awards of up to $150,000 per infringement (per article) as well as costs and attorney's fees."

This afternoon, Hacker Man took down the hack.

Editor's note: We revised this post after publication to clarify Beth O'Malley's point. She didn't promise a "bug-free" experience for subscribers, but rather a better one. We regret any implication otherwise.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com

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