Category Archives: media

Stranger Than Fiction

The Albany Smudge has been on my mind lately. One of the things I loved about the site’s satirical stories were the ridiculous quotes from clueless people with an overblown opinion of themselves.

In case you’re missing The Albany Smudge, don’t worry: sometimes real life is just as funny. Here’s Shenendehowa school board member Robert Pressly in a TU story about why superintendent L. Oliver Robinson gets paid so much:

“Our desire is to have a district where people can proudly state they’re from a certain school,” Pressly said. “We think we’re definitely on track with that in terms of what people say about us and perceive about us.”

Well, Mr. Pressly — I have a pretty good idea what people say and perceive about you, but it’s not what you think it is.

Ah, and the story had a pretty great headline, too:

Shenendehowa superintendent gets another raise

My italics.

O-Bits

What’s better than sitting on the back deck early in the morning with a cup of coffee and the obituary page? I’ll tell you what: having a cigarette while you do that — but I digress.

The obits are certainly one of those things that are better on paper. Something about the ephemeral nature of newsprint that matches our own brief shelf life. That’s pretty deep, if I don’t say so myself.

But today, obits live forever online — as long as you don’t mind them served up with a few ads.

I did a completely random check to see what ads appear on the obit page and here’s what I came up with.

OK, Natalie Merchant at Tanglewood. Personally, listening to Natalie Merchant would make me feel better if someone died. Some might say her music could make you feel worse, but if it takes your mind off your grief, that’s a win-win in my book.

And PODS? Well, moving is often a byproduct of someone’s death — or at least getting rid of their stuff, so I judge both of these ads to be contextually appropriate and useful in your time of grief.

What do obits cost? Here’s a rate card I got from the Times Union, and believe me, if you’re going to have an elaborate obituary, it will cost some money. A few basics:

The first 10 lines are free the first DAY that the obituary runs, the customer pays for those lines every time after that.

After the first 10 lines each additional line is $4.75 per line with an additional $16 service charge.

A line constitutes roughly 22-25 characters including spaces and punctuation.

So, they throw in the first ten lines, which is maybe 250 characters, or, less than two Tweets. Want a picture? That’s $47.50. Cash up front unless you’re a funeral home — and yes, they have procedures to prevent fake notices from being placed.

I advise you to write your own obituary. This will take a lot of pressure off your loved ones, and hopefully, they’ll publish whatever you leave behind, regardless of cost. Seriously, do you think your family is going to edit your obituary? I mean, I might do that — but remember, my edits are always to make your work better.

Smudged Out

“Chalk up this one up as a winner. A bright spot on an increasingly bleak and depressing internet.”

In 2015, that was my blub-worthy assessment of The Albany Smudge, the Capital Region’s own Onion-esque satire website. Yesterday the humor page posted some bad news: they’ve had enough.

Publisher “Burt Wilkersonn” explained why the site is ceasing publication in a story dated June 18:

“We decided to stop before we completely sucked. I mean, how many times can you make fun of doctors’ wives and their naturally gifted children in Bethlehem, or the underprivileged folks of South Colonie?”

Albany Smudge possessed a keen understanding of the area and knew the exact location of its soft spots. They mercilessly jabbed at cultural touch-points — especially our stereotypes of local towns and their inhabitants.

It’s sad to see it go, but easy to understand. It must have taken a lot of time to write the well-crafted stories they published. Their output was prodigious, putting out new editions every week since November 2014.

I can’t say if Albany Smudge every caught on in the way it deserved. There’s so much content for people to sift through today — much more than when I used to publish Albany Eye, more than a decade ago.

The most impressive thing about Albany Smudge may be this: even when it took sharp aim, it was never mean. These days, that’s saying a lot.

The Sound (Off) and the Fury

It’s the end of an era: The Troy Record and the Saratogian have killed their most popular feature, Sound Off. Here’s how Sound Off worked: readers called an answering machine and left anonymous comments, which the newspaper then published. They did it for years — as long as I can remember — since my earliest recollection of the Record.

As you can imagine, it was a cesspool of vitriol and rumor — and fun as hell to read. But now it’s all over.

Record and Saratogian managing editor Charlie Kraebel explained:

We want our readers to be able to express themselves and share their thoughts, but with civility. We don’t want The Saratogian and The Record to be complicit in a coarsening of public discourse that anonymity seems to encourage.

Bravo, Mr. Kraebel! It’s inspiring that after this decades-long experiment in free speech, responsibility wins out in the end.

Hilariously, Talk 1300’s Paul Vandenburgh — who makes a living putting anonymous people on the radio to say whatever they like — condemned Sound Off and applauded its demise. I guess he prefers the sort of free speech where you can turn off someone’s volume.

I’ve always been curious about how closely an editor looked at these Sound Off items. Some were pretty crazy — but not any worse than the comments that show up every day in Times Union blog posts.

The only people who should be applauding the death of Sound Off, are the poor schnooks who were forced to transcribe the calls. That must have been an awful job, most likely a task for interns or a staffer who pissed off the boss.

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.

Newspapermen Are Such Interesting People

Let’s recap: over the weekend the Times Union squashed an April Fools’ post in their blog section. Truth be told, they squashed the blogger, too.

But is there a double standard at play?

Chuck Miller wrote an over-the-top satirical piece about Kellyanne Conway being invited to speak at the University at Albany commencement in May. He also wrote, even more outlandishly, that the school was naming its journalism program for Conway. It was obviously a joke.

Meanwhile, blogger Rich Guthrie wrote a rambling April Fools’ post about how bird watchers are sapping birds of their color with cheap binoculars. It was an inspired bit of quackery. Pun intended. Like Chuck’s post, it was obviously a joke.

Miller’s post was deleted and he was blocked from using his account. Editor Rex Smith himself published a retraction and declared, “Even on April Fools’ Day, there’s no place for fake news under the Times Union banner.”

Well, I guess there’s a little room for fake news, because Guthrie’s bird post is still up. Here’s the question: what makes Chuck Miller’s blog post fake news and Guthrie’s post acceptable?

Maybe the outcome would have been different if the newspaper’s publisher served on the board of the Audubon Society, instead of the University at Albany Foundation.  Your guess is as good as mine.

April Foolery

Times Union blogger Chuck Miller posted something new every single day since August 2009. That streak was broken today because the paper suspended him and locked him out of his blog.

What happened? The area’s biggest newspaper didn’t like Chuck’s post for April Fools’ Day, an innocent prank that implausibly suggested that Kellyanne Conway was scheduled to speak at the UAlbany commencement. They deleted the item, but I was able to save it from my news reader if you’d like to see it.

And the TU didn’t just take his post down and suspend him, they issued a retraction, from no less than the paper’s vice president & editor, Rex Smith:

A community blog hosted by timesunion.com falsely reported Saturday morning that Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to President Trump, would be the commencement speaker at the University at Albany. As soon as we were alerted to the post, we removed it from our site and suspended the blog. We apologize to anybody who was misled by this post, which was not written by a Times Union staff member. Even on April Fools’ Day, there’s no place for fake news under the Times Union banner.

Rex Smith, editor

Fake news? That’s not just crazy, it’s Trump crazy.

Chuck’s had this sort of fun on April 1 for as long as I can remember — it’s sort of a tradition. I’m sure he didn’t expect this violent, knee-jerk reaction from the paper, especially not after serving them faithfully, without a penny of compensation, for so many years.

So what made this April Fools’ Day different?

I suspect that somebody, maybe even somebody at the University at Albany, got hold of Rex Smith and complained. Or — and this is very likely — it came down from his boss, who is president of the University at Albany Foundation.  For Smith to step up early on a Saturday morning and intervene in something so trivial is extraordinary — but so is a call from your boss early on a Saturday morning.

I’ve been critical of the way the paper treats its bloggers. Times Union bloggers get nothing for their efforts, even though they provide free online content to one of America’s most powerful media organizations, Hearst Communications. The paper gets clicks, the bloggers get nothing.

It’s not merely that they don’t pay, but they also have the bloggers sign an onerous contract in which they surrender ownership of their content. We don’t pay you, but we own your work forever. Nice deal.

When all this went down, Chuck decided he’d had enough and quit. He’s started up a new blog on his own, and while he won’t have the audience the Times Union provides, at least he’ll have his dignity.

Jumpin’ Jack’s Flash

I’ve made it very clear how much I hate the annual “Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive In is opening story” done by every local TV station and newspaper.

They will all show up today and do the exact same story as they did last year and the year before that, and the year before that. The theme: spring must be here, because Jumpin’Jack’s is open. They started early today:

How many times can you do the same %$#@ story? Oh, nevermind.

As a service to local newsrooms., here are a few new ideas to spark up your annual Jumpin’ Jack’s coverage:

  • Bring a nutritionist Jumpin’ Jack’s and do a calorie estimate for various combinations of food orders. Get lots of b-roll of fat people. Include cardiac disease stats.
  • Send some samples of Jumpin’ Jack’s food to a lab for bacteria counts. Follow up when results are in. Swab the doorknobs to the restrooms and condiment dispensers, too.
  • People who can stand on line at Jumpin’ Jack’s in the middle of the week are obviously unemployed. Find someone with a particularly bad hard luck story and hear how Jumpin’ Jack’s brings hope to their bleak lives.

See — if I could come up with three great ideas like that in two minutes, imagine what the incredibly smart and talented people in our local newsrooms could concoct? Right?!? Go for it producers and reporters — show us that your not followers, but leaders.