Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Greed is good

Borders Books, once a somewhat contributing member of downtown Saratoga Springs, has now taken its rightful place among the greed-hearty stalwarts of corporate America, the ones hell-bent on upping profits at the expense of local communities.

When company officials first pitched plans to open a Saratoga Springs Borders in 1999, local residents responded with mixed reactions. Some said having an unsightly box store didn’t fit in with the city’s character, while others feared that such a retailer would force many of the smaller locally owned stores out of business.

As a conciliatory offer to the city’s business and working class, Borders offered anyone with a Downtown Business Association card a 20 percent discount at the store. That meant anyone working for one of the DBA’s many downtown members could cash in on savings at the store.

While 20 percent might not sound like much given Borders’ annual revenues of more than $4 billion a year, for some lower-income workers the discount meant a bit of extra spending cash after a book or music purchase. Well, not any more.

With all that money just flying out the doors, the marketing geniuses at Borders decided to come up with a new plan; a more one-size-fits-all plan, so that even tourists can cash in on the savings. And with a hackneyed slogan like “Borders Rewards” attached to it, who could resist going on a frivolous book-buying spree.

The new discount card works a bit like the “advantage” cards offered by supermarkets: get the card, use it when making a purchase and voila, some random savings will be given. So the one-time 20 percent discount is now pursed out to thousands of people in the form of hundreds of thousands of mini-discounts.

All this may sound petty, but it’s a trademark move by a company only interested in channeling such discount programs. For the rest of the community, it means a few more local dollars going to some faceless out-of-town corporate headquarters that has no interest in the well-being of local business.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Slow news day?

There’s an age-old axiom in the field of journalism: there are no slow news days in the news industry, only slow news people. If that’s the case, then look no further than the post Memorial Day weekend headlines across the region to find a whole slew of slow news people.

Granted, there are always times when the news just doesn’t hum through the newsroom. And with every governmental agency shut down and many of those with political rank on vacation for the extended weekend, finding compelling news isn’t necessarily easy. Not to mention, concentrating on finding something newsworthy isn't an easy task with blue skies rolling overhead along with the essence of region embroiled in barbecue.

But there comes a point when news editors and reporters alike should put their heads together to find something that makes the expended 50 cents or 50 seconds worth it to the public. Largely this weekend, they failed. Among a mélange of prototypical parade reports, there were some true local gems that stood out, hands down, as the most futile attempts at making what would ordinarily be a blurb in the police blotter into front-page news.

Taking the cake as always was The Saratogian, with their stellar coverage in “All safe on the Hudson after two spills,” a gripping story of tragedy averted on New York’s main aquatic by-way. In other words, a handful of inexperienced boaters who, par norm each year, forgot that there are dams along the river –a no brainer for any area resident –and indeed, these dams have intake valves. An honorable mention to Glens Falls Post Star, which further dramatized an event that resulted in little else than one jet ski plumeting several feet over the dam.

For the worst feature printed Monday, The Saratogian also manages to take first prize, with their piece, “Dressage ball a success,” in which the writer should adopt the pseudonym, Heir Jordan, for blathering about the Spa City’s so-called stars –or as their more commonly known, rich folk. Another mention goes out to The Saratogian’s sister paper, The Troy Record, whose editors managed send a reporter to cover a woman’s 100th birthday celebration, but had to rely upon a television news affiliate for their coverage of a teen who died jumping into the Mohawk River Sunday.

In another Memorial Day weekend editorial fumble, The Daily Gazette decided the dead teen wasn’t worth a mention on the front or local page. Instead, they opted for an oversized headline about some postman caught with several disks of kiddy porn at his home, burying the drowning on the inside as nothing more than a headlined brief.

Kudos, guys. Way to ink a name for print media.

But any bashing of the print media must rehash some of the clear losers that made it into the world of broadcast journalism. Take for instance, the post-holiday weekend hangover that shined through Capital News 9's coverage.

As if renaming the Great Sacandaga Lake wasn't enough, the story “Staying afloat amid high gas prices,” attempts to solicit sympathy from the viewer for boaters who just can’t seem to make ends meet these days. Sure, it’s easy to feel bad for the working-class family trying to pull together some fun for the weekend. But the owner of a yacht that takes nearly 300 gallons of gas? Not quite.

Local News 9 also managed to squeak in a preview of this week’s oft-ignored state Democrat Convention in Buffalo, a pre-preview of a same-sex lawsuit in the state Court of Appeals, and of course, the good-weather-spells-rosy-outlook-for-business story, which many other news agencies in their lethargy neglected this weekend. Perhaps they’re saving something for Wednesday’s broadcast.

Yes, finding something worthy of public attention is difficult with skeleton crews and limited resources. But the bottom line is, a good news organization will understand this and find a way to get the job done, even if the sky isn’t falling.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Cracks in the pavement

With large swaths of pavement sinking into the substructure of the city-owned 45-space parking lot on the main drag on Broadway, it seems that Saratoga Springs' five-member council is taking a rather laid back approach to fixing a problem that could easily be viewed as serious.

And after hearing the years of panic over a lack of downtown parking spaces and the uproarious zeal to create a multi-million dollar deck on Woodlawn Avenue, one would almost expect the council itself to be underneath the lot with two-by-fours trying to prop the sagging structure back up. At the very least, one would think the closure might prompt the announcement of a special council meeting after the commisioners put down their Memorial Day beers this week.

Instead, the lot was ordered closed indefinitely by long-time Public Works Commissioner Tommy McTygue, who now claims there are “some real problems” with the structure. It’s almost as if there weren’t any serious issues before, when deep fissures formed in the pavement and a crew of engineers was called into to evaluate the integrity of the structure –all while a steady procession of vehicles continued to park there.

But when the four parcels comprising the lot are valued at $648,700 –an amount that could easily triple with any sort of commercial or mixed-use development –the alluring scent of money wafting around the flailing parking deck is clearly detectible, if not omnipresent. Not to mention, the thought of developing a parcel of land with more than 16,000 square feet of prime street-level real estate probably has area contractors salivating like a pack of starved jackals at a pig roast.

It seems saving the heavily used central parking deck is the last thing the Spa City’s leadership wants to do, given the potential windfall that could be gained by throwing the property back on tax rolls. Of course, local business owners will have to suck it up as usual. More than likely, they won't benefit this summer from having the nearby lot, a development which could proove to be the final nail in the coffin for many shopkeeps, spurring a new round of shuttered storefronts to appear on the already flailing Broadway streetscape.

To save face, the city council can claim the deck repairs will cost too much during the summer's construction frenzy and take too long anyway, outlasting any possible parking relief during the racing season. Then in September, when the last tourist files out of the city, they can move forward with plans to auction the property for development.

Perhaps even more troubling is McTygue’s description of the lot being old and in need of replacement only a sparse 30 years after being built. In that case, the city should start squirreling away some money to replace the Phila Street parking deck, which by this thinking, will need to be replaced in 2029. By that time, it’s predicted people will start calling asphalt black gold and start trading it at open markets like the natives once did with wampum.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Better safe than sorry

With close to 7,000 people expected to turnout for the National Scholastic Rowing Championships on Saratoga Lake Saturday, local law enforcement agencies braced for the big crunch. Or at least, that’s according to The Saratogian’s most recent attempt at producing news.

While many can find a passing interest in the sport of rowing, seldom is there an individual boring enough to find fancy with security at rowing events. And enough fancy, in fact, to pen an article solely devoted to it.

Yes, the lake water is still cool, probably around 60 degrees right now. And yes, there are some inherent dangers in cramming nine high school girls into a wafer-thin watercraft to row furiously across the drink; hence, the three ambulance crews posted at the event.

But there’s hardly enough danger at any reggata to suggest the need for nearly two dozen law enforcement agents from three departments along with the Saratoga County Sheriff's camper-sized mobile command and communications unit. That’s a security force tantamount to one that could be expected during a Megadeth-Anthrax revival concert at SPAC, but not to corall an attendance one veteran security guard dubbed as being “a good crowd” not prone to “rowdy behavior.”

Rescuers will also keep an eye open for a number of “strains and sprains” that are expected to be produced from anxious spectators, according to The Saratogian’s article. With all those dastardly uneven lake banks, emergency personnel fear the wayward rowing fans might not be able to maintain equilibrium.

If that doesn’t sound like enough safety, then perhaps spectators can revel in the thought that the state Department of Health decided to get into the mix, requesting that event organizers outline their emergency plans down to the last porta-potty. Now that’s world-class safety.

Disconcerting, however, is the fact that deputies from the Sheriff’s department will be water-bound during the regatta, something that organizers should have thwarted for safety’s sake. As history has proven, having deputies on the same lake with the young rowers often leads to the most drastic breaches in safety.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Back in Black

After ditching a deadbeat sponge like Herb Chesborough, it’s not surprising that the Saratoga Performing Art Center finally realized it’s first profits in nearly 15 years. Media reports indicate that SPAC posted an astounding $111,948 of profit in 2005, after loosing an average of $575,000 over the previous four years.

What seems like such a remarkable turn around really isn’t remarkable at all. In fact, given the previous years of wanton excess that is so often characteristic of the state's public benefit corporations, it’s more incredible that SPAC wasn’t able to ink even more black digits into their proverbial ledger.

Let’s do the math. Chesborough is kicked to the curb –well, not really –and Bruno Press Secretary Marcia White is brought in to take up the cause. Not factoring the seldom-mentioned sweetheart deal cut for the former director, that’s an annual savings of $160,000. And that’s just one salary. Figure in the loss of Kathy Chesborough’s whopping salary of $70,000 for being the right wife at the right time and SPAC now has roughly $230,000 of extra cash to play with this year, even before taking into consideration Team Chesborough’s thorough corruption and utter ineptitude.

Then there’s the deal with beloved media monolith Clear Channel Entertainment, formerly SFX now know as Live Nation. To most casual onlookers, Clear Channel’s annual fleecing of SPAC appears to be nothing more that a deal to bring in big name acts. However, the decade-long deal –now in its sixth year –basically gives Clear Channel every ounce of gate receipts, save for what is ultimately a paltry $1 million flat rate fee garnered by SPAC.

True, Clear Channel has managed to bring in some headliners and appear to have a strong lineup for the 2006. It should also be noted that Clear Channel supplies their own goon squads to harass concertgoers and takes care of booking concessions. But when tickets to simply sit on SPAC’s lawn cost upwards of $30 for many acts –and not even considering that amphitheater seats to see the Boss are listed at $93 –the cool million they receive each year seems lacking for some reason.

Of course, Clear Channel waves a $3-per-person carrot before the SPAC board of directors for each warm body they coax into the concerts after breaking an attendance of 200,000 for the season. Six years after inking that deal, attendance has only breached that number once, officials said. So who’s getting the short end of that deal?

For SPAC officials, however, the outlook is rosy, now that Hurricane Chesborough has blown out to see. Using language such as “back on track” and “sea of change,” SPAC officials decided to give themselves a nice long pat on the back for a job well done; perhaps Siena College would be willing to give them an award.

But praise is far from deserved for this bunch, specifically because the so-called good job under White's stewardship should have been done to begin with, long before $2.3 million worth of public money was flushed down the john. And truth be known, the board of directors today isn’t much different than the one that promulgated the reign of Chesborough. This proffers the million-dollar question, pun quite intended: how long until the old leopard shows its spots again, because as anyone with half a brain will tell you, it sure ain’t gonna change 'em.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Gonzo Journalism

After years of inking powerhouse columns –including such fan-favorites as "Leapin' lizards, these crawlers are creepy," "Getting away from the kids is well worth it," and "Scrapbooking a sentimental experience" – Managing Editor Barbara Lombardo allowed her college-aged progeny to pick up her pen and have a go at her weekly prattle on The Saratogian's Lifestyle pages.

And if there’s one thing to be gleaned from what ranks as David Lombardo’s third appearance in a daily publication, it’s that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Much like his mother, the young Lombardo feels the need to fill the paper with a long dragging piece lacking the depth and insight one would expect from someone who’s attending school at one of the state’s top public colleges.

There is, however, a reason to give the column a read, as it appears young Lombardo has yet to learn the valuable lesson of tempering one's language, especially while writing to a broad audience, some of whom might not be able to associate with the raving lunacy that often transpires inside the standard dorm on most weekends at SUNY Geneseo. It’s not that Lombardo admits to the carousing that most college freshmen are prone to. Rather, he puts an image in the readers’ head, which in the world of print media is sometimes worse than even a flat out admission of partaking in such activity.

Upon reading that Lombardo doesn’tcannon ball beers” in the family kitchen, “sniff lines of coke” in his parent’s bedroom or “wrestle strippers” in their living room, it’s not a far assumption that the young boy has at the very least been exposed to this type of thing. Although it should be noted that there is a prevelent thinking among some liberal circles that this exposure is good for someone in their later adolescence. Regardless, thrusting such words out among a very conservative readership isn’t a very good start for someone who seems to have a passing interest in mainstream journalism, unless of course, the aformentioned neophyte has kin going by the name of Raul Duke.

But the young Lombardo made a concious choice to ilicit these powerful images of bacchanalian sloth in a column that was intensely innocuous at best; at worse a column tantamount to his mother's typical boring drivel. Word of advice: save talk about exotic dancers, drug use and wanton alcohol abuse for a column that holds an ounce of gravity among readers.

And lord knows what relationship exsists between sniffing coke off a drunken whore’s leg in a kiddy pool filled with Vaseline and picking up dirty cloths around Casa Lombardo.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Book 'em, boys

In another trademark pandering editorial, The Saratogian has given an unabashed thumbs up to the state, county and local police for stopping hundreds, if not thousands of motorists on Route 50 earlier this month in a so-called “sweep."

In announcing the net, law enforcement’s top brass decided to make the traffic-choked route to sprawlville a new preying ground to cull cash from hundreds of generally law-abiding drivers. And from the high-and-mighty tone of the column, it doesn’t appear as though one of those drivers was Managing Editor Barbara Lombardo.

In general, drivers were netted for the standard speeding violations, according to The Saratogian. Others were cited for violations such as hand held cell phone use –something the city police can often be seen doing –following too closely and lane change violations, whatever that means.

Cops also had the nifty advent of a $20,000 computerized video surveillance system during the bust, allowing them to profile any drivers stopped within the past month without moving as much as a hand off the steering wheel. See, when a street cop logs a license plate into the state Department of Motor Vehicle’s databank, that tag remains flagged for a period of time. This flag is then picked up by the surveillance system, which alerts the officer to stop the motorist for whatever violation the cop can most readily spot. Sound Orwellian? You Bet.

Sure, there are plenty of bad drivers throughout the county’s roadways. One arbitrary crack down, however, especially along a heavily trafficked road, isn’t going to do much else other than line state and local coffers while further clogging a roadway that causes more congestion than the standard a sinus infection.

Were Lombardo to actually live in the world outside of the editorial page, perhaps she would have made note of the real problem along Route 50: there’s simply too many cars driving along it. On any given weekend, it takes roughly 15 minutes to travel this four-mile distance. And that’s during the off-season when the cops aren’t hassling motorists. Doing the math, that’s an average speed of 12 mph, which frankly isn’t that aggressive on a four-lane highway with a median.

But once the city gets the taste of the financial windfall of more than 100 traffic tickets being issued in a week, it’s likely that “aggressive driver sweep” will become the next big thing, perhaps replacing the late-night DWI checkpoints along the same stretch of road. After all, it’s probably better to catch some moron yapping on a cell phone rather than the tipplers pouring out of the city every Sunday morning like booze from a bottle of cheap liquor.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Black Eye

Perhaps it’s bit unethical for a blog to cover the transpiring of another blog, especially when the aforementioned blog is focused almost solely on the Saratoga Region.

Then again, not too many people in the news industry seem to think much of the ethics of blogs all together. Nevertheless, what may have prompted Monday’s disappearance of nearly two years of writing from one of Albany's most prolific daily posters seems more than worthy of note.

Since 2004, the Albany Eye has cast its “unflinching gaze” on the Capital Region’s media, prompting discussion among many circles in the news industry as to the poster’s identity and the role played by the Web site in the grand scheme of things. Lauded by some, castigated by others, the Albany Eye developed a reputation for being a tongue-in-cheek critic of the Capital Region media’s somewhat frequent failures. In fact, the Eye received enough local notoriety to make the fairly uncommon leap from the crowded blogosphere to the printed page, gaining mention in the Times Union, Troy Record and Metroland, to name a few.

And since that time, there’s been a veritable witch-hunt among journalists to ferret out who the somewhat anonymous poster might be. Well, one blogger Friday posted that he’s unveiled the identity of the Albany Eye, but, out of courtesy’s sake and for the continued success of the site, decided not to blow the lid of the poster’s cyber subterfuge.

Following this post, the all-seeing eye mysteriously closed Monday morning. When it reopened, years worth of posts were missing, replaced instead with a pairing of quizzical recipes clearly aimed at taking a pot shot at the national media’s recent infatuation with a lame horse.

While the promise at the head of the blog offers an expanded level of local content when the site comes back online next week, it’s not a far leap to speculate that the poster –who self-admittedly works within the media –has developed a sudden case of cold feet. It’s not to say this isn’t understandable given the tentative nature of many jobs in the media.

Maybe the poster is on hiatus, or indeed does have a plan to broaden the lens of the Eye. But if indeed the Albany Eye has at last been denuded, then the Capital Region has lost a well-versed, good-humored and much-needed editorialist to keep in check the savagery of local news publishers and producers.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Can't you smell that smell

Let’s face it. There’s a rotten smell wafting across Albany, and it ain’t the stinkin' landfill. Local and state politicians seem a bit too anxious to reassess the ground their standing on. Perhaps that's because its true value isn’t half what the real estate agent will eventually list it for. Or maybe it’s because every time they boost property values, it inflates this false economy that’s netting them beaucoup bucks.

Talking about assessments isn’t a pleasant task; it’s really quite boring. So boring, in fact, nobody really wants to discuss the remarkably convoluted scam that continues to proliferate at the state Office of Real Property Services.

In a rather large nutshell, the state has come down hard on the counties to ensure that all of their property is listed at so-called “fair market value.” If the state real property officials review their market data –numbers that could very easily be pulled out of thin air –and decide a given municipality is off kilter, they can lower the “equalization rate.”

Once a municipality’s equalization rate is dropped, the county is given the green light to offset the proportion of state aid. The lower the equalization, the greater the portion of school taxes landowners pay for each $1,000 of assessed value on their property. This is a situation that largely benefits those who either don't sell or drastically improved their properties over a long span of time. And for the most part, these are low- and fixed-income property owners who have no intention of either moving or putting a $50,000 addition on their homes.

So what’s in reassessing that benefits the state? Simple: to increase income tax revenues. See, low income people pay a paltry sum of income taxes in comparisson to the rest of the public. Poor people with property pay just as few taxes if their living off a property they bought for $20,000 in 1990. This is a situation that stymies every ounce of government from local supervisors to state senators. Less tax dollars mean less money to play with. And if said government official is at the top of the state legislature, this means less money for pork barrel projects, which win them votes.

Now, if the assessing department –egged on by both the state, county and local government –rolls by and quadruples the value of grandma’s two-bedroom ranch on an acre of rural land, she’ll likely have to either move to one of upstate New York’s flailing cities, where property values are generally lower, or move out of the state all together. Either way, her property will be marketed by a real estate agent for anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 over what's loggd as the assessed value. The agent will then generally settle for between $10,000 and $15,000 beneath what's listed as the price. Once the sale is made, the trusty assessor can swing by and up the value again by whatever was reported as the price, perhaps even more depending on who’s moving in.

Bottom line, the person who purchased grandma’s land will need to be of an income level to pay the local taxes. That income level is guaranteed to be far greater than what the old bag was netting even before all of her greedy little senior and low-income exemptions.

The new owner becomes New York’s cash cow, upping the ante for the state general fund through whatever is paid in income taxes. And with increases to what’s frequently referred to as a cost-of-living, that property owner will start buggering his or her boss for a raise and thereby add even more shillings to the tax pile.

What’s even better is if grandma moves into a rented apartment in the inner city belonging to a wealthy real estate magnate, perhaps even the same one who bought her property and cut it up into eight bite-sized parcels in order to build a development of eight houses, thereby allowing eight new higher-level incomes to sprout up amid the Legislature’s cash crop.

Plain and simple, real property services is a capitalist-driven scam that’s making a few people very rich and a few others very powerful. But for the rest of the state, it's the proverbial middle finger.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Urge overkill

Everybody loves a happy ending, when the hero rides off into the sunset after giving the bad guys their comeuppance. But there’s a point when telling a good story becomes a tool for pandering to the hero’s supporting cast, who really just sat to the periphery while the day was saved. As usual, it’s The Saratogian that has again managed to cross the line between good story-telling journalism and poorly balanced diatribes .

John Regan is going to jail for what District Attorney John Murphy has called the “maximum sentence” under state law for attempting to pull 17-year-old Lindsey Ferguson into his van while parked in a school parking lot and as the girl left cross country practice on Halloween last year. Although he hasn’t been sentenced and Murphy swears there was no plea bargain, all published reports have Regan serving 12 years in prison without parole, once he appears before County Court Judge Jerry Scarano next month.

While a certain degree of backslapping is necessary in this case, the true hero is Ferguson, who herself managed to kick away Regan, then scream for help. An honorable mention goes to the young runner’s two high school coaches, who not only logged the attempted abductor’s license plate, but also followed the man as he fled and alerted police of his direction of travel.

The Saratogian, in a report from what appears to be the majority of the staff working at the paper Friday, has managed to use the story as a way to again congratulate Murphy and a veritable laundry list of other public officials on a job well done, even though E. Stewart Jones, Regan’s defense attorney, basically characterized the case as a can't miss for the prosecution.

Among the congratulations given by The Saratogian –including segments attributed to both the managing and city editor –were praise for the city police, praise for the district attorney’s office, praise for the victim’s advocate, praise for the Lyalls for some reason, and of course, praise for Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and his fellow Republicans. All this praise and they managed to squeeze it into an article of no less than 1,810 words, which totaled roughly 56 inches of news copy in the paper.

And amid all this congratulating and well wishing, The Saratogian failed to explain why, if no plea deal existed, Regan isn’t poised to get the maximum penalty under state law, which they reported last month as being 15 years in prison. It’s strange how passing days can erase such minutia as three whole years in a state prison from the minds of reporters and editors.

Even more strange is the blatant editorializing crammed into the bottom graphs of the prattling article, basically lauding the state Republicans for their efforts to push legislation know as Suzanne’s Law, while chiding the Assembly Democrats for not rubber stamping it.

Having penned an editorial on Suzanne’s Law just a scant four weeks earlier, most news editors would have recognized such a breach of journalistic ethics and removed it from the article. But then again, it is The Saratogian, which seems perfectly content to violate a whole host of ethics when it comes to reporting the news, including gross bias. Just ask 20-year-old Matthew Brady, the man beaten within an inch of his life by the doted son of U.S. Rep. John Sweeney.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Damn beavers

One need not look much further for the failings of television journalism than Thursday’s beaver dam “failure” in Greenfield. With reports of floodwaters cascading down Daniels Road and the National Weather Service issuing warnings, nearly every broadcast station cut in with the big panic. While the initial reporting varied from station to station, the message was clear and alarming: one of those dams everyone’s been talking about lately has burst and destruction is imminent; head for the hills.

Truth be known, beavers constructed the dams that broke. This is not to say that millions of gallons of water rushing through the rural areas of the county didn’t cause alarm or damage. But there’s a big difference between a beaver dam breaking and say, a breach of the Gilboa Dam in Schoharie County. And while one must marvel at the earthen and wooden structures created by nature’s furry little creatures, it’s a pretty far stretch to refer to any one of them as the Beaver Dam, as if someone had named it.

Suffice to say and despite the weather service specifically referring to the breached structure as a beaver dam, the networks broke into their broadcasts and largely misreported the event. As usual, it took print media to straighten things out the next day, leaving some initially confused as to which dam actually broke.

Even then, there were some interesting, if not humorous passages that made it into print, as the event was further dramatized by some. For instance, leave it to The Saratogian to quote the Saratoga Police calling into question why a beaver dam wasn’t identified and included in the city’s federal dam safety plan.

Breach or no breach, the event again highlights what is sometimes thrown into the mix of otherwise decent local reporting on the count of these beaver-brained network producers. Then again, beavers can build dams, which is a task that greatly eclipses the cognitive functioning of most television journalists.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tags for Rags

It’s no secret that print media is having a tough time making a go at the television networks; sales are down across the board and many small newspapers are struggling just to keep in the black. But the management at The Saratogian has a plan to change all this. In vain attempt at giving their waning circulation numbers a proverbial shot in the arm, they’ve cooked up an overly elaborate gimmick in which participation seems more akin to switching one’s registration down at the local DMV.

With the “Tags to Riches” competition, subscribers or buyers –lets not call them readers –are prompted to fill out a contestant form found only in the paper or at The Saratogian’s main office that supplies the paper with their license plate number. Every day until late June, the paper will select at random and publish three of these “tags” for prizes ranging from $50 to $250.

Simple? Not quite. Prize recipients must contact marketing director Lynn Flanagan –who herself might actually be a former DMV employee –between the convenient hours of 8:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on the day their license plate appeared in the paper. Then to claim their prize, winners must appear at the Lake Avenue offices in person between the hours of 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. armed with their notarized auto registration, as well as picture identification matching the name(s) listed on the aforementioned registration.

If all these procedures aren’t met to a T, their prize money gets added to a jackpot drawing to be conducted at the end of the contest. This is in addition to another raffle for the big payola, a brand new car –no manufacturer name included –valued at more than $20,000.

In total, the paper plans to relinquish $36,400 in hope that potential buyers and subscribers, frenzied with the scent of money and free car, will frantically eat up the otherwise lackluster Saratogian, so that circulation numbers will be inflated in time to net a slew of new summer advertisers. In reality, however, this competition is nothing more than a sham; a desperate ploy for the paper as circulation threatens to dip below 10,000 for the first time since the Journal Register Company bought the paper in 1998.

What the wayward Saratogian leadership has failed to realize, however, is that a paper’s circulation is indelibly linked to its reputation, which is something that doesn’t improve for any sustained period of time with zany contests and quick fixes. Despite what some ad directors might foist as truth, content and presentation ultimately determines who lays down 50 cents for a paper; simply put, people don’t buy newspapers to read advertisements or to win quick cash.

And when the average neophyte reporter at the Saratogian earns roughly $20,000 annually, the money the management seems fit to give away in less than two months could purchase the salaries of nearly two new writers in the newsroom. Better yet, that prize money could be used to hire an experienced journalist in addition to giving the existing news staff a nice raise.

But wait, that’s right. Employees of The Saratogian and its subsidiaries aren’t eligible to participate in the “Tags to Riches” competition.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Speaking of a redesign...

The Saratogian, which for many years has kept the same boring Web format, has made some updates to their online addition. Unfortunately, many of these changes seem aesthetic at best, with the trademark royal blue bordering used by many Journal Register Company publications being switched to a darker hue. Also, it appears as though some of the content may have been shifted a bit, although this change is a bit subtler.

To usher in this new design, the editors on Lake Avenue have apparently decided it would be best to simply not post any of the local content in today’s paper, something that has become a recent trend as of late for the small-and-growing-smaller paper.

Once, there was a time when the Saratogian aggressively tackled the challenges presented by the World Wide Web, even presenting a better package than many other regional papers of larger circulations. Daily photos and column mugs were uploaded, in addition to a “Web Mail Bag” and generous amount of local content.

But in the past five years, the competition, for the most part, has outpaced Saratoga County's so-called hometown paper. The Post Star switched from a pay-subscription format (akin to The Daily Gazette) to a limited Web content page, and finally to a limited Web site with frequent updates and “online special” articles. Likewise, The Times Union has aggressively tried to keep pace with television news crews, sometimes posting articles even before the Capital News 9 van can roll up on the scene. Editors at the TU have also launched an online appeal to Web readers to get their comments about the direction of the paper.

But as the Internet balloons and other papers grapple with how to meet the challenge of waning circulation coupled with declining advertisement, The Saratogian appears to have tossed in the towel, with nearly all of their initial online amenities trimmed from the site, save for a smattering of local news and a new feature boasting "top read articles."

Using an analogy, the advent of the Web was akin to unexpectedly shoving all print news agencies out of a soaring plane, each with a parachute; some have since learned where the ripcord is and are trying to pull it, while others continue to watch agape as the ground comes perilously closer. And after taking a good feel around, it seems as though The Saratogian has given up the search and is instead focusing on how the once little trees are seeming remarkably larger.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Your tax dollars hard at work

City Hall has ditched the stogy Web page of yesterday, for a new sleek design aimed at “opening a dialogue with the community,” according to Accounts Commissioner John Franck.

By adding an on-line assessment database –which wasn’t working Tuesday morning –a nice two-tone green hue and the promise of a system where people can pay parking tickets via the Internet, city officials feel they’ve moved one step closer to figuring out how the public thinks; what makes them tick.

And to think, all it took was $72,981, paid to Xonitek Systems for upgrades to the on-line system. Sound like a lot? Don’t worry, everything was paid for via a state grant, as both the Times Union and Saratogian have lauded.

For that kind of cash, one would think that the city would now be brandishing a world-class Web site, which virtually finds information for users. Sadly, however, the new design appears just as difficult to navigate than the old format, where at least all of the information was on one page.

More importantly, it seems as though the city government, like many municipalities across New York, see legislative grant money as the tax-free honey pot they can dip their greedy paws into at will. Sure, it’s arguable that this money is going used up by some governmental entity. But this money comes directly from taxpayers one way or another; there is no magical money tree creating this cash for frivolous spenders.

So while people are screaming over property and income taxes paid to the state, county and local government, perhaps they should start making some noise when a municipality spends more money in six months than many residents make in a year to do a job that a high school intern could have completed in half the time.

Better yet, how about some of these so-called community newspapers or radio personalities making some noise? There’s not much sense in listing the television media, because they’re probably still trying to figure out how to get onto the Internet.

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