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.

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.

Bandwidth

There are some things about blogs that I hate, like when people allow their site to sit idle for months at a time.

I have become what I hate.

What I hate more is when people write about why they haven’t been writing. I’m always like, “Oh, shut the fu*k up and just write a post. We’re here to read what you wrote, not why you didn’t write something.”

I’m about to become that, too.

There was a time I could churn out interesting (in my opinion) blog posts on a regular basis. I’ve always figured that once was the minimum one should try to hit, and if you don’t have anything to say once a week, maybe you shouldn’t have a blog.

Based on that, I shouldn’t have a blog.

But best I can figure, this isn’t about interesting topics. I have loads of random ideas about things that could be a blog post, and in fact, I can usually take just a tiny thread of thought and make it into something sort of relevant.

So what’s going on?

I think it’s the thing my young management consulting friends call bandwidth. This refers to the amount of resources needed to complete a task, and in my case, I just haven’t had the bandwidth to focus on this thing. Extra demands at work and home eat up my mental energy in a way they didn’t used to. Things that were once easy now require more effort.

This is funny because I’m in very good physical condition right now, better than I’ve been in a couple of years. But my bandwidth? It just ain’t what it used to be.

The irony. I expected this to be the other way around.

Agitators

I wrote once that it’s pointless to get mad at Talk 1300 numbnut Paul Vandenburgh.

“Doing that would be like going to the circus and criticizing the clowns for — well, acting like clowns. That’s their job.”

I’m not here to lecture you on media literacy, but we all need to remember that some people are paid to be provacative. Columnists, commentators, opinion peddlers, pundits — and sometimes bloggers.

That’s what they do.

Let’s take as an example this headline seen recently in the Times Union blog section:

Good riddance to Grandma’s Pies

That’s how Times Union staff blogger Kristi Gustafson-Barlette titled a post about the closing of Grandma’s, a local restaurant and pie
shop.

She made it clear in the post that she was never a fan of the place, but I think the title was calculated to make people angry.

Not everyone bought it, like this person in the comment area:

Content-wise, your article captures the truth: Grandma’s had lost all  of what made the pies local favorites and it was time for a change. However, your headline implies your revelry in the closing of a local business. The disparity in tone between headline is clearly evidence of a lame attempt at clickbait – an insult to your readers.

But it worked. Her post rocketed to the top of the most-read list.

Whatever. Why are we so bothered about what’s in some blog or on a stupid talk radio show — especially when it can be argued that what you’re reading or hearing isn’t real, but cooked up to grow audience?

Probably for the same reason many of us can’t stop reading about Trump. It feels so good to be outraged.

Cat Tale

A reader asks:

Hi Rob,

I was thinking about starting up a cat rental business. How did that go for you? Did you run into problems?

Thanks,
Tim

Yes, more than nine years later, people are still inquiring about my fictitious cat rental business.

It all started with a goofy blog post in 2010 about offering my cats up for rent to control mice. It was just a joke: why go through the trouble of owning a cat when you can rent one to de-mouse your house? We had three cats at the time, which if you ask me, is two cats too many — but it would be great if they could bring in some income. Suddenly the litter boxes, vet visits, and pricey food seem more tolerable. OK, maybe not ha-ha funny.

All this time later, people still leave comments on the blog post and send emails about cat rental. Another comment came in today:

Maybe I’m just being played here, but if you search “cat rental mice,” the post does turn up high in the results.

Who knows. By the way, Mia — the last remaining cat of the three — has been a bit of a disappointment in the mousing department. She’s certainly not worth $100 per week.

On Their Own Terms

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein firestorm, two Times Union bloggers wrote brutally frank #metoo accounts about being sexual assault victims.

The newspaper took down the posts and suspended their accounts.

Yes, you read that right.

Chuck Miller, who had his own trouble with the Times Union, re-published the posts by Heather Fazio and Fran Rossi Szpylczyn on his blog. The paper put Fran’s post back up when she agreed to change the term “cock-tease” to “c*ck-tease” — as if that makes a difference. According to Chuck Miller, Heather Fazio has refused to change what she wrote.

Both bloggers were notified of their suspension by Tena Tyler, who’s listed on the masthead as “Senior Editor, Engagement.” Here’s how she engaged them:

Sorry about your sexual assault, but you violated our terms of service.

And what terms are those?

“You agree not to post, e-mail or otherwise make available content: – that is unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, lewd, defamatory, pornographic, libelous or invasive of another’s privacy or harms minors in any way”

OK, so a woman’s story about being attacked — in one case as a child — is “lewd” and “pornographic.” That’s fucking sick, Ms. Tyler.

Look, I’ve complained about the Times Union’s blog page for a long time, especially about the way they manipulate people and the one-sided relationship between the paper and the bloggers– but this is too much.

Any writer who continues blogging with the Times Union is out of their mind. Maybe you enjoy the opportunity to reach a large audience, but at what cost? A deal with the devil often seems like a good idea until the bill comes due.

What Closes On Saturday Night

Satire is tricky. You have to be broad enough for people to realize it’s a joke, but not so broad that it descends into buffoonery. Good satire requires no explanation as it delivers a sharp kick to the shin.

Having said that, there is no bigger fail than when you begin your satirical piece with a disclaimer that reads, “This is a work of satire.” Would  you get up before telling a joke and say, “This is a joke”? If so, you just lost.

Case in point:

This is a work of satire.

Oh, well. I guess I’d be worried to if I worked for people with no sense of humor.

A Thousand Words from the Editor

It’s nearly a month since the donnybrook over Chuck Miller’s April Fools’ blog post.

A quick re-cap.

Chuck’s piece claimed that Kellyanne Conway would speak at the UAlbany commencememt, and though it was up only a short time, it created a huge stir. In fact, within hours after it was posted, a group of UAlbany professors began mobilizing resistance to the Conway booking — something which brings new meaning to the word “gullible.”

In short order the Times Union deleted the post and blocked Chuck’s account. Chuck resigned and several bloggers protested, threatening to quit over the matter and demanding an apology from Rex Smith, the paper’s vice president and editor.

Rex Smith did respond, but one could hardly call it an apology. Aaron Bush, who quit the TU over the April Fools  incident,  published Smith’s response on his new blog:

A few key takeaways from Mr. Smith’s letter:

  • Smith believes that Chuck’s post was not just untrue, but a “irresponsible” and “unfair,” a “caper” that “threatened the credibilty of the Times Union brand.”
  • The Times Union blogs do not generate significant traffic or revenue.
  • The paper does not have the resources to properly manage the blog section.
  • Changes are coming to the blog page, including a “culling” that will eliminate inactive blogs — and perhaps also those that do not “focus on issues of greatest interest to the Capital Region.”
  • He regards the criticism he received over this issue as a personal attack.

I don’t like how the Times Union handled the whole situation, but it’s easy to understand why they did what they did. It will be interesting to see what happens next. If anything, I think we all can agree that there are some blogs over there that are ripe for “culling.”

But if the Times Union blogs are so insignificant, as Mr. Smith says in his letter, isn’t it strange that he made such a big deal over Chuck’s prank? It’s true that newspapers are weathering a storm of change, but rest easy. They still have the spunk to pick a fight that they can easily win.