Back in the mid-1980s, I read an article by Alex Heard in the Sunday magazine supplement of Washington Post that introduced me to the concept of “hathos,” that icky, creepy, combo of hatred and pathos that compels us to consume popular culture that horrifies us in vaguely embarrassing, borderline nauseating ways. Marcia and I use the word all the time, and I’m somewhat surprised that it has not come into wider usage, since it seems the perfect way to describe how most readers consume pathetic contemporary idiot celebrity culture of the Kardashian-Miley-Bieber-Snooky variety.
I avoid that crap like the plague, but I will admit to one hathotic obsession: since being driven off of the Albany Times Union blog portal back in the Fall of 2010, I have regularly returned there like a dog to vomit, feeling pity for friends who still play in that cat turd-infested sandbox, but also relishing its steady collapse into a black hole of bilious reader comments, irritatingly invasive advertisements, extreme religio-political screeds, and vapid pop-fashion-style commentary. It’s so bad, but I just can’t look away, lest I miss the point when it goes supernova, destroying an entire region’s news management system in the process.
I was reminded today, though, that the target of my hathos does exact a human toll, when I read a post at the Times Union by an online friend and fine human being, Roger Green, entitled Seven Years Since Times Union Employees Last Had a Raise. As an unpaid community blogger, Roger ponders his complicity in this unfortunate situation — which, I think, is actually even worse that he notes, because many Times Union employees have not only missed raises, but have instead been laid off, during that seven-year period. It would certainly seem that professional journalists are viewed as less valuable to the newspaper on a return-on-investment basis than the infrastructure that supports these free blogs, which have expanded apace for the past seven years.
I had pondered these points, too, in some articles I wrote at the Times Union back in 2009 and 2010, so I commented on Roger’s post, while also noting that in my own experience, community bloggers can be treated just as badly as paid staff, if management was poked hard enough. Here’s my comment (lightly edited), with links to related older articles:
I don’t believe in regret, conceptually, since all that we are is all that we were . . . but if I was prone to wishing the past were different, then my participation in the Times Union (TU) blog portal is definitely one of the things that I would undo, since I think we all have unequivocally played a role in the diminution and ultimately destruction of daily newspapers, at the expense of the trained journalists who work for them.
At one of the very first TU Community Blogger gatherings, the one at St. Rose, I expressed my concern to the panel that we were all engaged in the act of killing newspapers, and got a brush off from the TU representative on the panel. I wrote two pieces about this phenomenon while still actively contributing to the TU, one in 2009, and one in 2010. Links to them follow:
The Newspaper Junkie Speaks (March 2009)
The Newspaper Junkie Speaks (Again) (April 2010)
I left when I realized just how mercenary and mercantile supposed former friends and members of this “community” were after political advertising popped up on my page. I asked that it be removed (perhaps unreasonably), then I deleted my blog when my request was not accommodated . . . only to watch the TU staff put most of it back, just deleting the anti-TU posts that explained why I left. It’s all still on their website, held hostage, because I apparently signed away all rights to everything when I agreed to blog there. All of you have done that, too. Here’s my thoughts on that:
Good Riddance to the Times Union (September 21, 2010)
I generally don’t talk about this any more, because it’s easy for people to point at me and say, “Well, yeah, sour grapes” . . . but the treatment of in-house career journalists and volunteer bloggers is truly loathsome at the TU.
So, yes, I believe 100% that you and me and all of the other bloggers here, past and present, bear some responsibility for the maltreatment of the TU staff, because we undercut the value of their work as writers, and we continue to provide advertising revenue to the paper’s management every time we arrive at the portal and click on a link.
I’m doing it right now, yes, I know. I accept that responsibility and feel bad about it. I’m glad to see at least one current blogger here considering the issue, too, and hope others reflect on this as well.
Of course, when you leave, all of your words and pictures will be held hostage, too, and will continue to feed the advertising monster . . . so it may be too late for any of it to matter, honestly.
I killed a newspaper in Albany, I’m sorry to say, as part of a self-aggrandizing gang of online egotists who effectively destroyed a centuries-old professional sector in our home community in a matter of months. I originally set up Indie Albany (the predecessor to this website), as a reaction to this sin, a place to “do no harm” for creative folks who just wanted to share their writing online, free from advertising pressures and without rendering our journalistic friends irrelevant. It was nice, in theory, but of course it really didn’t make a difference, and I let that sort of ideological bent go when I replaced Indie Albany with Indie Moines in 2011.
Since moving to Iowa, I’ve watched our once-esteemed daily Register rapidly go down a similar path to the Times Union, once the 2012 Iowa Caucuses were over and the political staff were scattered to the winds. Huge swaths of the paper now are just reprints of USA Today articles, providing nice economies for corporate parent Gannett, I suppose. I cancelled my subscription there in late 2012, which means I’m playing a part in killing a newspaper in Iowa, just as I did in New York.
It’s sad, I hate it, and I’m grateful to Alex Heard for giving me the word “hathos” to describe the obsessive revulsion that daily newspapers’ desperate need to please the lowest common denominator (“Were You SEEN In Body Paint Darting A Bear in a Tree at Coachella?!?) have inspired in me over recent years. I also am saddened by and hate the fact that a journalism degree seems like such a bad career choice for young people at this point, when people of all ages are willing to write for free for commercial media companies, all for the promise of exposure. But you can die from exposure, right?
Oh well, not sure what to do about it all, except to go back over to Roger’s post and click “refresh” a few times to see if anybody has responded to my comment. I prefer my hathos with a side of hypocrisy and slice of irony, you know . . .