For the first time in 38 years, Albany-based alternative newsweekly Metroland will not publish a new edition this week, following the seizure of its offices and property by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. Having just read Paul Grondahl’s interview with Metroland Editor and Publisher Stephen Leon, I’m not seeing any likely scenario where the once vibrant paper is going to be making a return anytime soon in anything approaching its historic editorial and aesthetic configuration.
That’s sad news for me, since I have a deep history with the paper, and I owe Steve and many members of his team a debt of gratitude for allowing me to become part of the Albany cultural community in ways that would have been largely closed to me without my Metroland bylines and connections. While the left-leaning, sometimes sanctimonious paper was certainly not universally loved in and around Albany, it had wide distribution and extensive name recognition, and it was the go-to resource for the region’s cultural calendars for years before the internet rendered it irrelevant.
My history with the paper actually pre-dates my time in Albany. Marcia and I both worked on media and press relations for the Naval Reactors program in Washington, DC in the late ’80s, and Metroland was a thorn in our side for its nagging, niggling coverage of a series of whistle-blower based incidents at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna. While I can’t discuss the details or merits of those claims and Metroland‘s coverage thereof, I can tell you that the paper was doing its job from a journalistic standpoint, raising questions and covering angles that the larger daily papers were often missing at the time.
It was my job with Naval Reactors that later brought us to the Capital Region after a stint in Idaho, and through a fortuitous series of personal network connections (thanks, Paul Rapp!) I found myself as one of the new music critics for the paper in 1995 — hot on the heels of a financial meltdown and recovery that ousted the original ownership group and replaced it with Stephen Leon’s team. My first two articles were reviews of records by The Roches and Foetus, and I oscillated between such extremes throughout my time with the paper, eventually branching out into travel writing, interviews, think pieces and other feature work.
I freelanced for Metroland for nearly a year while still working for Naval Reactors, keeping a low profile (beyond my bylines) on both fronts, given the awkward history between my full-time and part-time employer. I rarely went to the Metroland offices during my first year with the paper, which helpfully allowed me to remain largely unrecognized and unknown in the local music community when I started covering it, thereby providing a degree of safe objectivity as I lurked in the shadows at concerts. Even the other Metroland writers had no idea what I looked like or who I was for much of that period, and a former editor once told me she was shocked when she met me, as she expected me to be a leather-garbed, long-haired, heavily pierced rock n’ roll rabble-rouser, based on my writing style and interests.
When I resigned from Federal service in 1996, Steve put me on a steady weekly retainer, which was tremendously helpful as I made the transition from government to nonprofit service. I’m still grateful to him for that key opportunity at a key time. I ended up with over 750 bylines in Metroland between 1995 and 2003, plus probably another couple of hundred pieces that ran without credit, e.g. the “Noteworthy” columns of key upcoming concerts. The first incarnations of my personal website included a lot of these pieces, way back in the days before Metroland itself had much of a web presence. The exposure I gained from my work with the paper directly contributed to my involvement (eventually as on-air host) with Time Warner Cable’s Sounding Board music television show, along with many other freelance writing assignments over the years. It remains a great item on my professional resume.
I stopped reviewing live music for Metroland when I started booking shows at the Chapel + Cultural Center in 2002, as I considered it tacky and unprofessional to fill both roles within the same market. I later asked that my name be removed from Metroland‘s masthead during the early days of the Iraq War, as I was uncomfortable with some of the positions and tone that the paper took with regard to the soldiers, aviators and sailors (and their families) who served at the time, and did not want to imply my approval thereof in any fashion. It was a good run, and I mostly enjoyed it all, except at the very end.
All that being said: even back in 1995, it was something of a running gallows-humor joke among the freelancers that remuneration for our services was going to be neither quick nor efficient, and the lag-time between submission and payment for works often grew to six months or more during my time with the paper. When I was writing every week, this didn’t bother me all that much, since I eventually got to the point where I had a paycheck every couple of weeks — even if it was for work that had run months before. But for those who depended more heavily on these paychecks than I did, it was certainly a burden, and it apparently got worse after I left, when I heard tales of bounced checks and even longer lag times.
I suppose, then, that it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the tax man was treated no better than the creative types who made the paper possible. It’s a slippery slope once you decide to forsake timely payment of obligations, and once you get away with it, it’s a hard habit to break. Still, though, it’s a rotten ending for a business enterprise that made a difference in its own ways. I hope that Steve and the current staff and freelancers (plus their families) will be okay once the dust settles — though I suspect that will be a long, painful process along the way, and that once it’s done, Metroland will either cease to exist, or will become a captive faux alternative arts and culture advertising broadsheet for one of the region’s daily newspapers.
End of an era, either way.