I Killed A Newspaper

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 . . .

11 thoughts on “I Killed A Newspaper

  1. Hi, Eric – there have been days before this week, certainly, when I pondered this. Frankly, that’s why I generally post to my own blog first (rogerogreen.com), if only because I’m claiming copyright. (oddly, not on that article re the TU, which, frankly, I thought they might take down).

    I didn’t ask to blog there, Huber asked me (more than once) ,and certainly, except for being able to plug my church/Friends of the Library stuff, it doesn’t much suit my needs.
    So I mulling over (mull, mull) .what to do.

    • I know you’ve thought about it, Roger, because I know of your deep commitments to justice, equity, and the good of your home community. I was one of the first 25 or so bloggers on the portal, having already been very successful with own blogs and websites. I felt like I was doing the TU a favor by jumping on board, not the other way around. But, obviously, then the blog portal exploded into something very different from what it once was, and it all went south for me.

      In re copyright . . . your terms of service agreement as a blogger (assuming they made you sign one . . . I do not ever remember doing so, and when I asked to see it, no one could produce it) waive any rights you established by posting on your own website. I had this conversation with Chuck, too, about his photos some years ago. The ToS is truly an onerous, unfair, one-sided document, and I can guarantee that if you do decide to go, they will lay claim to your words and keep them up as long as the portal stands, regardless of whether they were posted to your own website or not.

      I learned that the hard way, as much of what I put up on T.U. also existed elsewhere before it went there.

      It’s a tough conundrum . . . no easy answers . . .

  2. Interesting. I have no recollection of signing anything. Can’t say definitely that I did not. I assume they can USE whatever I post there – which is why the announcements I put there frankly I don’t worry about. Much of the REAL stuff, though, I hold back a lot. (I’ve posted every day for nine years on my blog.)

    I may have to limit myself to events calendar stuff, which is in MY best interest, getting something online that others cannot. Or maybe not even that, at which point that 7 year post could be the final bow.

    Arrgh. Thanks, Eric (I think)

    • Even if you didn’t sign, they have an umbrella ToS that says that by participating on the website, you will agree to their terms. Here’s the complete document:

      http://www.timesunion.com/termsofservice/

      And here’s the germane quote that they used against me:

      4.2 License. You hereby grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to Newspaper an irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free and fully paid, worldwide license to reproduce, distribute, publicly display and perform, prepare derivative works of, incorporate into other works, and otherwise use your User Content, and to grant sublicenses of the foregoing, for any lawful purpose. You agree to irrevocably waive (and cause to be waived) any claims and assertions of moral rights or attribution with respect to your User Content.

      Pretty cut and dried . . . and pretty onerous, especially given how hard it is to find the ToS on their website . . .

  3. I’m not sure that you or any other blogger can take the blame (or credit) for the TU’s slide into irrelevance. Blame, I think, lies with the descent into mindless feature/lifestyle reporting and the ever-decreasing amount of hard local news coverage. The Gazette is the only paper left in the region still doing a credible job reporting regional news, and that’s why they’re on my table in the morning instead of the TU.

    As far as the whole TU blog advertising misadventure, I agreed then with your position and I agree with it now: political advertising on your page was a problem, especially in your position at SUNY Albany. I know I’m old school: I remember when TV stations wouldn’t run political ads during newscasts to preserve an air of neutrality. Still, the whole episode showed a total lack of respect for someone who was providing high quality content for free.

    • Thanks, Jeff. To this day, what frosts me most was they would never acknowledge the validity of my argument that paid political advertising and paid commercial advertising are different beasts, and should be allocated to different spaces. They would not paid political advertisements on their editorial page in print . . . so they are capable of zoning and recognizing such distinctions, but refused to do so on the website, or to even accede that I had a point in noting the difference. Grrrrr. It still rankles. But the karma wheel turns, and it might be studded with spikes . . .

    • And, yeah, Go Gazette!! I had made the switch a year or more before I left, and was happy to have done so . . . it’s a real daily newspaper, and I look forward to it being the final survivor of the Capital Region Newspaper Wars, after the Times Union finally decides to be happy with running a junky website and doing commercial color printing for bulk and junk mailers throughout New England . . .

  4. Pingback: August Rambling: Deep dark secrets | Ramblin' with Roger

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