Many of my local readers probably know by now that four days ago The Charleston Gazette-Mail, which has, in one shape or form, hosted this blog since its inception, declared bankruptcy. All 209 employees of the newspaper got WARN notices, which means they could potentially be laid off in 60 days.
I didn’t get one, because technically I’m not an employee. I’m a freelancer, and I haven’t billed the paper for more than seven years. They stopped paying me to blog almost ten years ago, and I was too stubborn (and was having too much fun) to quit. Essentially, in the hierarchy of Charleston Newspapers Inc. I rank somewhere below the substitute paperboy in terms of importance.
Don’t get me wrong. I have enjoyed my time here, and when reminded that I exist, the folks in charge are genuinely appreciative of what I do as a “community blogger.” There was a time when I was a bit higher up the ladder (but not by much).
In the beginning, I was a Gazz Blogger. The Gazz was the brainchild of Douglas Imbrogno, the man who first hired me to write for The Gazette. I spent fourteen years writing “Animated Discussions” with my now-wife Melanie Larch, and in 2005, when the Gazette stopped running locally-written movie reviews (which had become the main thing we did by that point), I was offered the chance to be one of the first Gazz Bloggers. In fact Doug came up with the name after he kept shooting down my suggestions (in retrospect, “Cool Stuff” was probably way too generic anyway).
The Gazz was a terrific idea, and had the paper been able to properly fund and implement Doug’s plan, it might have become a significant new revenue stream for the paper. Even in 2005, the future of print in Charleston looked increasingly bleak. Doug intended for The Gazz to be a multi-media presence comprising a website, a free weekly entertainment tabloid that would double as the Thursday entertainment section for the paper, and a collection of blogs covering a variety of subjects like beer, wine, dining, pop culture, and personal viewpoints.
Sadly, for whatever reason (but most likely a lack of funds) the Gazz never had a chance to live up to its potential. We never really had a dedicated sales staff, and the guys who did try to sell ads didn’t quite understand how to do so in the digital world. In 2008 the monthly blogger’s pay of fifty bucks was eliminated. Most of the bloggers quit outright Others cut their work on their blogs to one or two posts a month.
You can’t sustain a blog with one or two posts a month. In the world of blogging, one post a day, which I manage to do now, is still a bit on the low side. I kept waiting for ads to appear on my blog, but it never happened. PopCult, which has at times had a ridiculously high readership, has never generated a penny for the Charleston Gazette. Eventually the free tabloid was dropped and The Gazz simply became a regular newspaper entertainment section with a website that also was eventually absorbed into the Gazette’s site.
That’s symptomatic of what happened to the paper. The internet has changed the way we get our information, but it’s also completely altered the concept of advertising. Classified ads used to be a major part of the revenue that kept the newspaper business going. Now nobody needs them. If you want a job, look online. If you have something you want to buy or sell, join a Facebook yard sale group. If you want a car, check CarMax. Department stores and grocers put their weekly flyers online and have apps so you can look at them on your phone. The merger with The Daily Mail was a harbinger of what happened Monday.
The entire business model for print has been usurped. My fear is that this could strike a fatal blow to our free press.
In my career at the Gazette, I have been proud to be associated, even if only tangentially, with the legacy of Ned Chilton and with writers whose work I admire like Jim Dent, Ken Ward, Eric Eyre, Phil Kabler, Fanny Seiler, and many other colleagues, most of whom didnt even realize that I considered myself a colleague. More than once I’ve introduced myself to a Gazette writer only to be met with, “Really, we have blogs? That sounds cool!”
I’ve not always been proud of management’s decisions, but such things are now informed by the knowledge of the juggling act that kept the paper going as long as it has. Last year, when they eliminated the print edition on Monday’s, the writing was on the wall. Something had to change.
My heart goes out to the writers, editors, press people, office staff and everyone else who is going through a major life-changing event for the second time in three years.
In 2015 when the Charleston Gazette merged with the Charleston Daily Mail, it was horrid to watch from the sidelines as workers for both papers were forced to re-apply for their jobs and wait, Hunger Games style, to see if they’d get to keep earning a paycheck. Many really good, experienced writers took early retirement rather than wait out the process. I was nervous about the fate of PopCult back then, but apparently my lack of a salary made it a shoe-in that they’d keep me.
I wasn’t really nervous about PopCult ending. I was afraid that my archives would be merged with the Charleston Daily Mail’s attempts to copy me with other blogs. PopCult has always been a single-author blog, and it will always continue to be. I liked having competition, but was always disappointed when it would fizzle out after a few months of trying to keep up with me. I really enjoy writing PopCult. I make money writing other things, often anonymously, but PopCult, along with Radio Free Charleston, represents my life’s work.
And that means that Monday, when I heard the news, I got that familiar knot in my stomach that I’ve had to deal with several times over the years. There have been many times when I thought that PopCult was going to be killed by the paper. Only this time I got a little more proactive. I have secured my archives, and I’m prepared to take PopCult independent. I will not lose thirteen years of my writing and art. It’s all safe.
In addition to covering local and national pop culture happenings, in PopCult I’ve chronicled the death of my mother, aunt and uncle, the birth of my youngest nephew, my marriage to the most wonderful woman in the world, my diagnosis of Myasthenia Gravis, and even though I had to delete the post to protect the Gazette from being sued, that crazy millionaire who was trying to auction off a cheesy knockoff of a pop culture icon.
PopCult might wind up appearing under a new URL, but since that’s happened at least four times since I started the blog, I think my readers can handle it.
I just need to figure out how best to present an independent PopCult to the public. My career trajectory seems to have taken me from being paid to write PopCult, to not being paid to write PopCult, and now to the point where I will be paying to write PopCult. However, I will have the chance to run ads and sponsor Amazon links, and if I do really well, I may break even. This is how writers fare in the internet age. Perhaps someday I can find somebody who will pay me not to write PopCult. I’m willing to stop writing entirely, but I don’t think anyone could afford it.
In the meantime, I plan to keep doing PopCult as I always have here at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. If the new owners decide to keep me, I’ll stay here. If they don’t, I’ll set up shop somewhere else.
PopCult will survive, no matter what. I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords.
It is my fervant hope that any new owners see the value in keeping our award-winning editorial staff together, and invest in hiring more aggressive sales people that can let the paper reach new heights. There is a lot of dreaming in that fervant hope. As I write this, the highest bidder, and the most likely new owner, is the Ogden Media empire, and they are pretty well entrenched in publishing right-leaning newspapers with very small editorial staffs and low overhead. They also publish Graffiti and GRIT, and they own the Pittsburgh Pirates. If they come out of the bidding process as the new owner, they may keep PopCult because it’s cheap, or they may abandon all the community blogs rather than come up with a way to monetize them.
It’s nerve-wracking to watch, and I’m not even in danger of losing a paycheck.
Before that all goes down, however it goes down, I want to take a moment to once again thank Douglas Imbrogno, who had the vision to create The Gazz and the foolishness to hire me to blog for it. I also want to thank Amy Robinson, who was a wonderful editor and who made sure that my efforts were always mentioned in print. Thanks go out to Bill Lynch, a fellow Gazz blogger back in the day and the person who wrote a great profile of me on the occasion of PopCult’s tenth anniversary. That was, I believe, the last time that PopCult got mentioned in print.
It’s times like this that make me sorry that I already used “Interesting Times” as a headline for The PopCulteer.
And that is this week’s PopCulteer. Check back for our regular features…for now…and come to the Capitol Theater Friday to watch Rubber Soul tackle over 200 Beatlesongs with a little help from their friends. I’ll be there for the whole thing, attempting to record it for later broadcast on The AIR.