Ink Stained Stretch

Back in local TV marketing land, we never went after the competition directly. Oh, it was tempting, and once or twice I even produced promos that weren’t allowed on the air because they took shots at WRGB. Instead, we stuck with advertising that put the spotlight on our own attributes.

This is not a universally accepted practice.

Last week the Times Union started running ads taking aim at the Daily Gazette over their local news coverage.

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This is hardly Hearst versus Pulitzer stuff from the newspaper wars of the 1890s, but by today’s standards, it’s an aggressive position.

The headline:

Award-winning local news from local journalists.

OK. powerful message, accompanied by photos of four unnamed people who are presumably award-winning local journalists. It continues:

When you read your local newspaper, you should expect local, staff-written stories, not just wire stories.

Fair enough! And then:

The Times Union consistently writes more local stories by local reporters compared to the Daily Gazette

Ooof, that’s bold — but in fine print below, it says “Stats are attributed to a survey taken Aug 1 to Aug 31 comparing local stories in the Times Union vs Daily Gazette.” What? All that tells me is that they wrote more local stories in August 2020, not “consistently.”

The message isn’t the only thing that’s sloppy. The ad also contains a pretty huge layout error in the bottom paragraph where some copy is repeated. Mistakes happen, but if you’re going to do an ad about how much better you are than the competition, let’s have somebody proof it, OK?

So, why are they suddenly going attacking the Gazette? These are sophisticated people who don’t do things on a hunch, so I’m guessing that they saw some research they didn’t like and this is a knee-jerk reaction.

It’s fair to compete for readers, but today the stakes in that competition are higher than ever. Winning this swim race isn’t about going faster and finishing first, it’s about holding the other guy’s head under the water so he drowns. There’s no second place anymore.

Senior Superlatives

If there a place where there’s greater pettiness and stupidity than the high schools of America, I’m yet to find it.

Back in 2017, Susan Parsons, faculty advisor for the Wall Township High School yearbook was ordered to have the name “Trump” Photoshopped off some dumb kid’s senior picture. She probably figured, “Ok, not my call,“ and went along with the orders. That was fine until the kid’s equally dumb parents raised a stink and the whole thing erupted into a gigantic mess, described in the NY Times as, “a national firestorm over free expression and political opinion.”

The school superintendent, looking for a scapegoat, chose to blame Ms. Parsons, and she was suspended from her teaching position. Now, Parsons has been awarded $325,000 in a settlement with the district over the grief they caused her.

It brings back memories.

When I was in high school, I saw the administration harass and intimidate the advisor of our school paper over things the students wrote. As editor, I was personally targeted by several teachers over an editorial — and another time, given a ton of shit for going to the superintendent’s office and asking for a copy of the school budget. I will say, I never got in trouble as one of the yearbook editors. Yes, I was a huge nerd.

The school could have saved themselves a lot of trouble in this yearbook thing by just having some guidelines for senior pictures, like prohibiting branded clothing. No, you can’t wear a shirt with a slogan. Why? Because we say so, that’s why — schools do that stuff all the time.  Or – and this is a stretch – they could have just ignored the whole t-shirt situation because it’s so meaningless and ridiculous. But that’s never been the way of school administrators.

I wanted to love this story, but alas, one tiny snippet of copy spoiled it: “Ms. Parsons, who said in court papers that she had voted for Mr. Trump in 2016…”

Oh, well. No winners here.

Eyes Wide Shut

So, I finally put a bullet in the head of Albany Eye. It was a long time coming.

Albany Eye was a blog I wrote about local news and the media from 2004 to 2006. Its tart and snarky posts attracted a fairly good-sized audience before it came crashing down; what began as a lark got out of hand and nearly cost me everything.

The blog has stayed up online since then, but it’s effectively gone now. While it still exists, the site is restricted to invited readers only. And there won’t be any. I didn’t have the heart to delete the whole thing.

This came about after I received an email from someone I wrote about in Albany Eye long ago. They’d gotten in some trouble with the law, and I penned a couple of cheeky posts linking to news stories where they were named. After years of my stuff popping up in Google searches, the person reached out this week and asked me to take down the posts. I did so immediately.

That’s when it struck me that maybe it would be better if none of the Albany Eye blog posts were still out there.

I wrote some shitty things in that blog. I can’t change that now, but erasing it from the web is a small step in the right direction. In retrospect, I never should have started Albany Eye, and believe me, it was never anything but trouble.

It’s not possible to apologize to everyone I poked fun at, so it will have to suffice for me to say that I feel deep remorse for the way my actions affected people. Much of it was harmless, but sometimes the posts I wrote hurt people’s feelings.

Yes, one or two of them richly deserved it, but they were the minority.

In related news, the Times Union finally relented and took down the blog I used to write on their site. I always hated that they claimed ownership over my writing, and after a decade-long battle, it’s finally gone.

So here I am, pushing 60, and slowly vanishing. We can’t erase memories, but it’s not such a bad thing to clean up some of the little messes we leave behind.

You Can Leave Your Beard On

Brandon Fellows was having an awesome 2021. He got to to participate in the historic riot at the Capitol. Had his picture taken sitting on a police motorcycle. Was interviewed on CNN. Sat back and took a smoke in a U.S. Senator’s office. And it didn’t end there. Bloomberg News did a big feature on him a week later, giving him plenty of space to air his views.

Yes, it may have been his best year ever — until he was arrested on federal misdemeanor charges* for his role in the the January 6 insurrection. So much for having a moment.

You’d have thought we were done hearing from Mr. Fellows — but then WNYT got the chance to interview him on February 13, and boy, did they make a fucking mess of it.

For some reason, they allowed Fellows to appear in the same Yukon Cornelius-looking disguise he wore on January 6 in Washington, with a knit hat, sunglasses, and an absurd red beard made of yarn.

Sometimes there’s a very good reason to allow an interview subject to hide their face. It’s not uncommon to shield the identity of whistleblowers, sexual assault victims, and witnesses of crimes who may be harmed or intimidated — but someone who’s been criminally charged after such a high-profile incident? Not that I’ve ever seen. At that point, you’re sort of a public figure.

If Fellows insisted on wearing that getup, WNYT reporter Dan Levy could have ended things right there, but he didn’t. Actually, he didn’t even bother to explain in his story why Fellows was disguised. But what do you expect? Levy also didn’t press Fellows on his claim that he and other Trump supporters were being persecuted, “just as Hitler did with the Jews.” Hey, Dan Levy — were you even listening?

All I can figure is that since this story ran on a Saturday, the people who should have stopped it from airing had the day off.

But hold up, what am I thinking? Making Brandon Fellows take off his disguise or asking a tough question might have ruined the chance to have a “First on 13” exclusive, and we can’t allow that to happen.

*Since this was published, Fellows was hit with five more charges, including a felony obstruction count.

Blaxploited

The Times Union came under fire for an email pitch to Black-owned businesses on sponsoring its Black History Month coverage.

It’s not clear what the email said, or the precise nature of the complaints, but some of those who received the message felt it was inappropriate. How inappropriate? Well, so inappropriate that the paper published an A1 apology from publisher George Hearst. That’s very (very) inappropriate.

The Newspaper Guild — never fans of the TU’s management — described the situation as follows:

“The community criticized the Times Union for exploiting Black History Month to make a profit, and for charging Black business owners exorbitant prices to place advertisements in a predominantly white newspaper during a month meant to celebrate their community’s successes and legacies.”

Well, duh. That’s what they do.

Special content is not usually created because a media organization cares about a topic, but because they can sell it. Every time you see something above and beyond what they normally do, you can bet someone has asked, “Can we sell this?”

Look, newspapers, TV, and radio are, first and foremost, advertising delivery devices. It’s not uncommon for sales teams to target advertisers who may have an interest in a piece of content. A special section of the paper, a show on a certain topic, a series of stories — they can bring in money. Doing something about education? Try to sell some ads to colleges and universities. Special insert on health issues? Go hit up those deep-pocketed hospitals. Black History Month series? Offer it to black-owned businesses.

Whatever they said obviously touched a raw nerve, and this at a time when it’s more important than ever to be culturally sensitive.

Oh, by the way — I’d like to announce that I’m offering sponsorship opportunities for my St. Patrick’s Day coverage. After some drunken shenanigans, many of our readers might like to read blog posts about soda bread, potatoes, whiskey and ceili dancing. At least those who haven’t already been carted off in the Paddy wagon, that is. Contact me for more information.

Cremains of the Day

A local funeral business ran an ad on the obituary page over the weekend promising cremation services that “do things the right way” with “no short cuts or compromises.” And what’s all that supposed to mean? The  bottom line is that they promise “peace of mind that the cremated remains you receive are those of your loved one.”

Ah — so this is a big problem, getting the wrong remains returned?

Mistakes and intentional abuses may happen in the funeral industry, including the mishandling of cremated remains — but there is no evidence that this is a widespread occurrence. It seems especially unlikely in New York, where the business is heavily regulated.

But these people are planting the idea in your head that instead of receiving the remains of your loved one, anybody or anything could be in that urn. Since I was curious, I went to the advertiser’s web site and looked at the FAQs. They include this passage:

“Since it is illegal to perform more than one cremation at a time, and the vast majority of crematories can only cremate one body at a time, it is next to impossible to receive the incorrect remains.”

Ok, so which is it: We should be worried about mistakes, or it’s next to impossible to receive the incorrect remains?

I hope that the nonsense in this ad doesn’t raise irrational fears in people. There’s already enough to worry about when someone dies, and it seems unfair to throw one more uncertainty into the mix.

But what the hell, death is a business like everything else. Somebody’s gonna get the client. May as well be you.

A Little Dash Will Do You

A priest I know enjoys laying it on really thick when people step up on Ash Wednesday. Some walk away so sooty that they look like they’d spent the afternoon sweeping chimneys. It’s one of the odd customs we Catholics cling to — and today it may be more poignant than ever. It’s a way of boldly declaring your faith at a time when many people have turned away from the Church.

But just the pandemic has changed everything, it’s changing Ash Wednesday.

This year, instead of receiving a vaguely cross shaped schmear on the forehead, ashes will instead be sprinkled over the heads of the faithful. That sounds unorthodox, but Father Anthony Barratt, director of Prayer and Worship in the Diocese of Albany, told the Evangelist that it’s in line with tradition. “There is a very ancient, biblical and scriptural way of having ashes for repentance (and) to have them sprinkled on your head. Its roots are deep in Scripture.”

My wife has described this like a sprinkling of fairy dust, but a Twitter friend came up with a better comparison: it could be like Emeril Lagasse, slinging the ashes at your head and yelling, “BAM!” You gotta admit, that would be pretty great.

So, what about having people impose — that’s the word the Church uses, not me — the ashes on themselves, or have someone in their social circle administer them? Lay people may apply ashes to each other as long as the ashes are blessed. And as for doing it yourself? That would certainly result in the funniest As Wednesday ever, unless we have people do it in from of a mirror.

Gone for Good

First, sorry to bore you with another blog post about blogs.

This week, the Times Union quietly began informing bloggers that their pages are coming down on February 5. By “bloggers,” I mean local people who contribute their work for free. This doesn’t include blogs by employees, like those written by Steve Barnes and Kristy Gustafson Barlette.

Times Union Editor Casey Seiler told one blogger that the paper could no longer devote resources to managing the blogs and the problems that come along with them. In a story published on January 29, Seiler says, “Having these blogs operate on what was effectively an honor system created considerable concerns and periodic controversies over posts that exceeded our guidelines.”

Can’t say I blame him.

Back in the early 2000s, the biggest buzzy thing in media was user generated content. Newspapers thought that their readers could be anointed to serve as journalists, photographers, and bloggers. It was going to build local interest and engage more readers, and it was THE FUTURE, dammit  — but ultimately, these experiments failed.

The Times Union’s “citizen blog” page remained a vestige of the user generated content craze, and it puttered along for years. Some of the blogs were pretty good, but often they sat fallow once people lost interest. It was like walking through a second hand store. You’d find some gems in there, but you also a lot of stuff you don’t need.

It seems the Times Union’s, “I don’t have time for this shit,” moment came when Rep. Elise Stefanik got her panties in a bunch over a blog post poking fun at her. The paper finally gave up, which is understandable. The economics of newspapering ain’t what they used to be, and every moment spent dealing with something stupid — like a blog that doesn’t bring in any money — is a moment that you could have spent making your product better.

There will be a lot of hand wringing over this by current and former TU bloggers. I get it, but folks, this is what happens when you hitch your wagon to somebody else’s horse. And remember, it’s not personal. It’s strictly business.

This One’s for the Bloggers

Dear Times Union bloggers,

You probably think that you have a nice relationship with the paper — and why wouldn’t you? They give you space to publish your work and access to readers, and they pretty much ignore you and let you do your thing. If you care about having an audience, it’s not a bad gig.

But watch what you write.

This week, TU bloggers Lale Davidson and Peter Marino came under fire from Rep. Elsise Stefanik over this passage in a satirical work aimed at the local lawmaker:

“I myself am childless because I am a rising star in the Republican Party, and family planning is possible by way of the contraception paid for by my excellent taxpayer-provided healthcare plan.”

I’d link to the post, but it’s gone, because the Times Union took down their blog page, replacing it with the simple message, “This site has been archived or suspended.” In my opinion, the piece would have worked just as well without that idea included, but you know what they say about opinions.

This is not the first time the paper has deleted posts or eliminated entire blogs when controversy erupts. The worst example of this was when two bloggers bravely shared the stories of their #metoo experiences, but writers need not broach sensitive topics to be targeted. One time they went after a blogger who made a harmless joke on April Fool’s Day.

But that has nothing to do with you, does it? Those people should have read the terms of service when they started blogging for the Times Union. They broke the rules and deserved to be punished. Right?

Look, the paper can do whatever it wants, and frankly, they have enough headaches without those that come with an unruly bunch of bloggers. And let’s not get into free speech, not after you’ve completely signed over the rights to your work. But here’s the thing: it’s like the Times Union has a pocket full of change and you’re one of the pennies. To them, you’re blog isn’t worth anything and they wouldn’t even notice if it disappeared. They aren’t going to take your side in an argument.

My advice? Save copies of your work, and then go into your Times Union WordPress dashboard and delete everything you ever wrote for them. You’ll lose your audience, but keep your dignity.