The HISTORY OF NEWSBLUES
On a hot July evening in 1998, your Surly Editor® and Mrs. B (who were then known simply as Mike James and Mona Scott), were out for an evening stroll in Columbus, Ohio, trying to decide what to do next.
Mona had "lost the fire" in her belly and, after 28 years as a television news anchor and reporter, had reached the uneasy conclusion that the time had come to get out while the gettin was good. Two years remained on her employment contract with WBNS-10-CBS, but she'd had enough. She decided to approach station management about an early release. They graciously agreed.
As Mona's husband, I feared for her sanity. I knew that without the daily challenge of TV reporting to occupy her abundant curiosity, she would go mad...and take me with her. I proposed an idea for a website. It would be called "NewsBlues," I told her, and it would be a place for TV newsies to bitch and moan about all that was wrong with the business.
She wanted no part of it. TV news had been good to her. "Leave me out of it," she said.
On August 11, 1998, while Mona was away at her family reunion in Amelia Island, FL, I posted the empty shell of NewsBlues on a rented web server. The world yawned. Two weeks passed without comment. In late August, former talent agent Don Fitzpatrick (now deceased), posted a brief mention of NewsBlues in his daily email newsletter "Shoptalk." Within five days, the website was clicking.
"Everybody in the business is aware of it," said Syracuse University professor Dow Smith at the time. "They're all talking about it."
At the end of September, I received a bill for $67.05 from the Atlanta company that hosted NewsBlues, citing "bandwidth overage charges." (It was exactly the same amount as my first weekly paycheck as sports director of WFTV-9-ABC in Orlando in 1970.) Visitors to NewsBlues, it seemed, were consuming big chunks of the internet highway.
In the final week of September 1998, NewsBlues recorded more than a million visits....in ONE WEEK...roughly 5,000 an hour. The site had become white hot overnight, and not everyone was happy about it.
Thousands of anonymous posts poured in from the belly of America's TV newsrooms Most were critical of their bosses and station owners. Some were libelous. Cease and desist letters began arriving. Attorneys threatened lawsuits.
"The site is viewed as pure comedy," said KCBS reporter Drew Griffin. "Nothing is sourced. You have no idea who is writing in and, quite frankly, a keen ear can hear the same trash in the bathrooms around here."
Although we were unaware of it at the time, NewsBlues had become a precursor for social media.
By the end of October 1998, NewsBlues was averaging 100,000 visitors a day. Still, advertisers wouldn't touch us. The content was deemed radioactive. The bill for bandwidth overages topped $400. The Columbus Dispatch ran an article about NewsBlues, incorrectly attributing the website's bilious content to Mona. She was crushed.
"We (were) beaten down by the daily wave of anger from all sides," I told the Online Journalism Review. "People pissed off about something that was posted; people pissed off because something they submitted wasn't posted... or, worse, was edited to remove libelous statements. But most of all we were beaten down by the demanding arrogance of all involved... the sense that this was their site and we were sometimes standing in the way of their right to vent... never appreciating the fact that we were legally responsible for the content."
After just three months, on November 13, 1998, I pulled the plug.
The following day, the moving van arrived, packed up our furnishings, and we embarked on what were to be our quiet "retirement" years in North Central Florida.
Fat chance. When the computer was unpacked a week later, I found roughly 1,400 emails urging us to resurrect the site. "I'm willing to pay," many of them said.
And that, dear subscribers, is when the light clicked on. We could see that there was an unquenched thirst for critical content. We understood that people...and especially those who worked in television...were becoming evermore disillusioned with the industry's direction. But we knew we couldn't continue to publish the vitriolic insider reports without some form of filtration. We risked becoming, in the words of ABC's Sam Donaldson, "Just another miscreant with a modem."
On January 1, 1999, we moved NewsBlues behind a subscription wall and began rewriting the anonymous contributions. The website adopted a more polished, professional look....and readership cratered. Fewer than 200 subscribers were willing to pay the $10 quarterly fee. But, in the move, we were able to regain control of the website's content...and its tone. Legal threats withered. And we stopped losing money.
In the summer of 1999, a year after the website's initial launch, we began producing a daily newsletter called the "NewsBluezette," which combined anonymous "insider reports" with rewrites of widely available online newspaper stories. The Surly Editor® persona was adopted as a way of injecting snippy comment.
We circulated the newsletter by email for 16 months until spam and content filters forced us to change our method of distribution. The first online edition of the daily "NewsBluezette" appeared on Monday, November 20, 2000, and headlined our exclusive coverage of Fox News reporter Shepard Smith's arrest in Tallahassee. A link on "The Drudge Report" caused 340,000 page hits and alerted us to weaknesses in our password security system.
Mona added a daily grammar lesson three months later, on February 21, 2001, called "Mrs. B's Grammar Corner," which became an outlet for her love of language. To this day, she has never contributed any of the daily NewsBlues editorial content (although she does copy edit the text and occasionally groans theatrically when a story doesn't meet her standards).
In the ensuing years, we have offered our readers a front row seat to the unprecedented corporatization of media and the government-approved dismantling of television's obligation to serve the American public. We've also reported on the shallow lawsuits and vapid management missteps. We never anticipated the steady flow of stories about newsies in domestic spats, DUI arrests, disorderly conduct, cocaine and heroin addiction, sex abuse and harassment, hallway scuffles, shoplifting, mortgage fraud, open mics, F-bombs, N-words, and general "problematic behavior." We never envisioned the likes of Alycia Lane or Larry Mendte. It has been, quite frankly, a target-rich environment.
We have watched the unhealthy transformation of TV news: the steady shift to shallow tabloid content; the casting aside of older, experienced talent; the headlong pursuit of younger demographics; the drive to build newsrooms on ethnically-balanced quotas and newscasts on research-driven formulas; the abandonment of investigative journalism out of fear of litigation; the proliferation of 24-hour cable news and its need to fill time with opinion; the politicalization of news and the loss of balance; and the increasingly intense focus on the bottom line and the never-ending push to "do more with less."
We are clearly aware that NewsBlues has flourished on the bones of a failing industry. But we are heartened by the fact that without NewsBlues, much of what we report here on a daily basis would have been buried beneath the white noise of corporate spin and management double talk.