David Stone

Who knows what the shelf life of a lie is? When I ran into one of your standard, Roosevelt Island know-it-alls, this morning, and heard her recite the comfortable lie she preferred over the more difficult truth, it was time to recall Sherie Helstien's big lie and how it sought to protect the Main Street WIRE's Rivercross elites as they raked in cash at the expense of unwitting volunteers and businesses that were told they were needed for an unselfish cause.

Who Is Sherie Helstien and Why Is She Saying These Things About Me?

Sherie Helstien at the Tram 40th Birthday Event
Sherie Helstien at the Tram 40th Birthday Event
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

"The job's still open if you want to revive your interest," Main Street WIRE editor Dick Lutz wrote at the end of an email on February 11th, 2016. Two months earlier, my proposal to take over had been ignored by founding publisher Jack Resnick.

"I'll take care of Jack," Lutz promised.

Friendships, marriages and business partnerships share the privilege of insights and intimate details hidden from outsiders. Privilege carries with it an expectation of discretion, an assumption that you won't swing open to the world doors that ought to stay shut.

I kept secret much of what I learned in two months of transition on the way to control of the Main Street WIRE, a move that should have been completed by the end of June, last year, because it was the right thing to do.

Yes, when asked, I told people that Dick Lutz tried to con me into a situation I'd already rejected, much like he "took care of Jack," until I sunk enough money in that there was no turning back.

But you have to tell people something.

Then, Sherie Helstien, Lutz's close associate in business and with Maple Tree Group, accosted a friend of mine on Main Street and, attacking my integrity, warned him to stay away from me.

"Either you're with the community," she said, "or you're against it." As for The Daily, she promised, "We're going to shut them down."

Earlier, acting as the Residents Association Common Council vice president, she fired off an email to all its members:

"If I were you," she wrote them about me, "I’d steer clear of him and give him nothing, especially anything having to do with RIRA.  He cannot be trusted. He is using an (sic) mail list he received under false pretenses of taking over the position of WIRE Editor, and then walking away from the agreed upon start date.  He did however, take an email list with him w/o permission to use…  I urge you NOT to 'reward' him with your business."

I understood her anger and, knowing her personality, her Trump-like disregard for freedom of speech and the press. After all, she and her husband Matthew Katz had been pampered by Lutz with meals out, theatre and concert tickets, all paid for from the bank accounts of the Main Street WIRE.

More on that later, but her lying about what happened with me and the newspaper had to be corrected.

Taking over the Main Street WIRE excited both my wife and me, and it was painful for both of us when the deal fell apart. Starting up The Roosevelt Island Daily was my recovery.

We moved on, and after fending off his threats, I told Lutz that it would be best if we stayed invisible to each other from then on.

But Sherie Helstien won't let us. Her tactics force me to tell the full story I'd hoped not to revisit.

Starting the Transition

After Lutz assured me not to be concerned about Dr. Resnick's lack of engagement, I committed: "I’m willing to jump in as soon as we reach an agreement with Jack. No point in waiting for June. If you really want to get this done, let’s go now."

"We need to talk about a transition from Briana to you," he responded, and we made a date for lunch at the Riverwalk Bar & Grill to work out the details.

"Let me get through to Jack so he'll greenlight (sic) without further fuss. I just have to get him to let go of this & allow me the latitude to move."

Things happened quickly from there. Although recent issues showed some deterioration in content, Lutz spent nineteen years creating a local newspaper, the quality of which was far beyond what a community as small as Roosevelt Island's could expect.

Then, he began handing things, although less than I thought, over to Briana Warsing.

Some content issues were easy to dismiss because Warsing, who'd "exhausted" Lutz over eighteen months of hands-on editor/publisher training, much of which had not stuck, was leaving to reunite with her husband, who'd started a new job in California, at the end of June. The couple has three lively children.

When I asked if he'd seen the most recent, slipshod edition of the WIRE, he said, "No," with conviction. Content was in Warsing's hands, and he was eager, at 77, to move on. His health wasn't great. He was also, he confided, sick to death of going to meetings.

Improving content was something I'd start working on, right away, respecting Warsing's responsibilities as acting editor. And my wife was ready to jump in to work with John Dougherty on the physical composition of the WIRE.

Into that mix you can throw responsibility for the advertising revenue flow.

Lutz originally tried inducing us to take over by offering to unseat Ellen Levy as advertising manager, a position more lucrative than we imagined, and increasing income by improving on her shortcomings.

We shot that down, uninterested without control of the rest of the operation. Neither of us wanted to become salespeople first and journalists second.

And it was a good thing we backed off because Levy is far more important to the newspaper and better at her job than Lutz gave her credit for. Replacing her would not be so easy or, it turned out, a good idea.

Hands and Feet In

Not having been involved in a WIRE pre-distribution session or the support activity that goes on around it, you'd be as surprised as I was at how much work went into getting out an issue.

Writers and proofers have a fairly leisurely window to create enough content for any WIRE issue. Like salespeople on quota, though, everyone waits until the last minute to get things in, creating a last day rush, followed by ten days of not much to do.

Lutz's plan, and now Warsing's, to solicit community columns lessens writer demands further while, as you'll see, increasing revenue by puffing up the content, however unevenly.

Last minute news events can rattle the process, but those are rare exceptions.

Staging at Rivercross

Alternate Friday mornings started early in the Rivercross Community Room. I met Lutz there, and we bundled together ten sets of the freshly printed WIREs for a bulk mailing sample. Before my involvement, the WIRE was already mailing to many residents and more might be needed any day.

Then, it was upstairs to Lutz's apartment, much of it given over to WIRE business, a good sized office, storage space and more.

Vicki Feinmel was already at work there, setting up billing. Lutz jury-rigged a contraption in his kitchen that allowed her to insert newspapers into plastic sleeves, along with invoices, for mailing to advertisers.

This was the first whiff I got of what turned out to be a Rube Goldberg machine cobbled together over two decades for getting the WIRE out.

I felt in my gut that it wasn't something I'd look forward to managing over the long haul. I began thinking about alternatives.

But that reluctance turned out to be the lesser of my concerns.

My first concern snuck up on me. While we were arranging for mailing permits in Lutz's office, me learning how to weed through the postal service's bulk mail website, he made me an unexpected offer.

"I talked with Jack, and he thinks we should start paying you something for each issue. We have between $200 and $400 to work with."

Caught off-guard, I said, "Split the difference. Make it $300."

Previously, I'd been paid $100 for each published article as a freelancer. This was a nice unexpected bump up for our family budget, although it did make me wonder how there happened to be several hundred dollars waiting to be had per issue.

The Essential Rube Goldberg

The WIRE collecting dust in a doorway. Local businesses pay for the deceptive waste.
The WIRE collecting dust in a doorway. Local businesses pay for the deceptive waste.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

By the time we returned to the Community Room, Matthew Katz and Sherie Helstien, circulation managers, had arrived. Putting together the issue for distribution was chugging along over a half-dozen tables.

With several teams working in coordination, newspapers for doorknob delivery were being stuffed with inserts, slid inside plastic sleeves and hung on pipes laid flat across work tables. As they accumulated, Katz scooped them up and stacked them in boxes for delivery to building complexes.

Another group stuffed newspapers that wouldn't be bagged but laid flat for doorstep delivery throughout Roosevelt Landings.

Meanwhile, another volunteer and I worked with Dick and Sherie to affix mailing labels to newspapers already in sleeves and heat sealed. After labeling, they had to be stacked in postal baskets in perfect bulk route delivery order.

After a few hours, a young man who Lutz paid minimally loaded up a Rivercross cart with all the bulk mail, and we pushed it down the hallways to the loading dock, then down Main Street into Southtown where Linda Heimer waited in the seventeen year old car she co-owns with Lutz.

We filled it up, and after wedging myself into what remained of backseat space, I rode along as Heimer drove to the bulk mailing facility in Long Island City, where we unloaded everything onto a scale, and she got paperwork approved inside. Then, we reloaded the car and brought all the newspapers back to Roosevelt Island and their final destination at the local post office.

Later, Heimer would load up again with boxes of newspapers and drop them off at various buildings where volunteers would unpack and distribute them door to door.

The operation had wheels but not many miles left on them.

Points of Failure

Now that I had a good look at the mechanics of getting the WIRE out, an operation for which I'd soon be responsible, a number of problems were right in front of me and had to be solved, not counting the decrepit car dependence.

Then, the Money Came Up

I'll condense this because the reality dawned on me over a period of weeks, not right away, and because Lutz failed to disclose a lot of vital information, I never got the full picture. What I have is partial and, I think, damning.

First, to understand the business of the Main Street WIRE, you need to understand that it was, by the time I got my hands in the clay, oriented around generating revenue, not distributing information. News was secondary to the money.

An early eye-opener for me was that, as Lutz explained, the number of pages in any issue of the newspaper is set by the  ads Ellen Levy is able to sell. In other words, you figure out the ad space, then you backfill with content. It's a common problem with print media but unusually blatant with the WIRE.

The need to generate enough content to match the moneymaking ads spurs practices like the increasing number of "community columns" and free space given to RIRA and Cornell. I doubt that contributors understand the vital role they play in enriching WIRE insiders.

I made plans to get rid of the RIRA Column. Even Lutz conceded that Jeff Escobar, RIRA's president and main contributor of the column was "a terrible writer," boring and repetitious.

But Lutz wagged his finger at me when I told him that because "we don't have a license to bore our readers," I was going to kill the column and replace it with featured articles.

Lutz's objection? Escobar filled up space in the newspaper, nestled in between blocks of advertising. "If you don't have him writing it, you have to write it yourself," he explained.

One of Lutz's weirder ideas shared with me was consideration of producing a newspaper where all the content was on the first two pages and every other page was filled with ads. Get it? Less writing, more money.

Because the Main Street WIRE Really Is a Business

Did Steven Kaufman know or even suspect that the WIRE scored an average of over $6,000+ per issue?

If he did, he's a genius. No one else did.

After separating from the WIRE, I did an informal survey, asking to guess how much money it made.

The average guess: $2,000 per issue. In fact, in the quarter I worked at taking over, each issue brought in over $6,000.

But here's the kicker: What do you think the actual printing costs are?

Answer: $1,000 on average.

So, where does the rest of the money go?

My first concern was the uncompensated volunteers, recruited mostly by Helstien under the impression that their help was needed in a community service. She even got the Child School to send over "interns" with the same pitch.

Let's include Rivercross where the building's tenants unknowingly subsidized the WIRE with an estimated $1,000 worth of free space every month.

That's where the money didn't go.

Because Lutz dodged my request to see all the financials, igniting suspicions, I can't give you a full accounting. But the information he did give me implies somethings about what he kept hidden.

Lutz himself, who boasts that he never took a paycheck from the WIRE, used the newspaper's bank account to cover his $350 a month Verizon bill ("Gotta stay up on the news," he told me.), his cleaning service and more. (This form of compensation is sometimes used as a way to avoid paying income taxes.)

As his apartment was heavily used for storage and staging for publication, I took for granted that at least some of his rent was also paid by WIRE advertisers.

Some information I gleaned from copies of credit card bills, but there was at least one more WIRE credit card Lutz never exposed. On it must be the theatre and concert tickets with which he hosted Katz, Helstien and other friends, the restaurant bills and who knows what else.

All this is sort of okay and not uncommon, but it's not okay when you don't pay as many as half your workers as much as a dime.

Another curious omission in the WIRE financials Lutz shared was what he paid Warsing.

As far as I discovered, the greatest beneficiary WIRE income was Ellen Levy. As advertising manager, she pulled down over $1,000 per issue during my interim tenure. She was even paid commission on ads, like Trade Fair's insert, for which she did little or no work.

There were two reasons why, while criticizing her openly, Lutz maintained Levy's payments. One was rational; the other, a little nutty.

First, the rational one. Lutz hated the idea of selling the ads himself and failed at finding anyone able to replace Levy.

His second reason was that, if he let her go, he feared that Levy would take her skills and contacts over to Rick O'Conor's RooseveltIslander blog and put the WIRE out of business. Even O'Conor chuckled when I told him that one.

Lutz was also convinced that Cornell Tech would start up its own online newspaper, soon after opening, and steal away all his advertisers. "They'll have all these web savvy folks over there who'll have nothing better to do than build webpages," he said.

Worse, that was his rationale for initiating a Cornell column. He thought it might hold the Ivy League school off from encroaching on his lineup of advertisers.

Where's the Rest of the Money?

A recent "independent" WIRE shamelessly shills for crime-scared Roosevelt Island Senior Association.
A recent "independent" WIRE shamelessly shills for crime-scared Roosevelt Island Senior Association.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

The truth is that I don't know where roughly half of the WIRE's money goes.

The more I learned, the more suspicious I grew. When I did the math and figured out that I could account for only half of what came in each issue, leaving $6,000 unexplained every month, I felt I need to know more before taking full responsibility.

I asked Lutz for a complete accounting, and after considerable dodging and feinting, he said it would take "two to five weeks" to pull that information together.

What?

It was April now, and my wife and I grew more wary.

"I recommend you move on getting a business credit card" to start paying printing costs, among other things, Lutz wrote to me shortly after that on April 10th. I still had no additional accounting information.

This request came a single day after I told him I wanted to take the WIRE to a new model that eliminated the cobbled together Rivercross Community Room contraption in favor of direct mail distribution, allowing us to devote more time to content and developing an improved web presence.

Little did I suspect that a major clash, which I still haven't figured out, was about to erupt.

A Sudden End

Lutz's initial reaction to my proposal was upbeat.

"It's good that you're thinking all this through," he wrote on April 9th. "Going to every 2 weeks consistently throughout the year is valuable, I think. And I have often thought about just eliminating all the complications of the stuffing and distribution operation."

He continued on with other considerations, practical and philosophical, but was fully supportive.

But things changed quickly. I was sitting on a Central Park bench with my wife when I got Lutz's next email. It was weird.

"I've had a chance to parlay with Briana," he wrote, using the strangest verb you could imagine. "She is eager to continue as editor through the end of June. That being the case, I feel promise-bound to support her in that -- and it has the advantage of giving you a little more time to plan & get fully squared away."

Alarms went off in my mind. I'd never proposed anything that would keep her from staying on the job through June. So, what the hell was he going off about?

"There's no question," he continued, "that you should expand your role and test your systems as rapidly as you feel you can, and we should talk about some specifics on the publisher side of the fence.

"For example, do you want to try out your new accounting/billing system?"

Puzzled, I wrote back, "I never thought Briana would want to let go early, although I thought the demands of moving might cause her to."

Lutz shot back, "In my view, the commitment to Briana's education and future as a journalist is one of the community dimensions for which the newspaper exists. I appreciate your eagerness to step in, but we agreed on July 1 and, while I would be ready to alter that if Briana were comfortable modifying our contract, I have a firm obligation there and am fully comfortable sticking with both firm obligations -- to her and to you."

Here again, Lutz was arguing a case that I didn't recognize. It was incoherent, an unexpected wild card. The sudden appearance of a contract with Briana worried me too. It was one more surprise hidden behind the facade. What else wasn't I told about?

And he still had not given me the financials I needed, and yet, expected me to start incurring expenses.

To my complete shock, this was also the last civil communication we ever had.

Unglued

Concerned that a plan for keeping the WIRE running was falling apart, Dr. Resnick called me and asked to meet for lunch on the 11th. By the time we sat down for sushi at Fuji East, he'd already had a difficult conversation with Lutz whose vehemence had him bewildered.

I explained my confusion.

Although as a tenant, he hoped to reverse the Rivercross decision to kick the WIRE out of its Community Room, he understood that it remained likely.

I'd told him about my plans for direct mail before I told Lutz, and he was onboard with that too.

Lutz's big complaint was over losing the "community aspect," which Resnick took to mean the volunteers who did all the hard work for free and I took to mean Lutz's peculiar attachment to Briana, in support of which he seemed ready to let the WIRE fold.

Dr. Resnick asked me if I'd make it easier on Lutz by being the one to tell the volunteers they were no longer needed.

"Of course."

In business. I'd more than once had to deliver bad news. 

I left that meeting feeling upbeat, confident that Dr. Resnick would work things out and get things back on track.

But I didn't hear another word for two days.

Time to put my cards on the table. I wrote out a full plan that included every detail of my taking over the WIRE, consistent with the verbal agreements I had with Lutz and Dr. Resnick. To save space, I leave out the details here but will provide them on request.

Simply, I set the conditions for taking full responsibility on July 1st without disrupting any contract with Briana. No strings attached. I emailed it to Lutz, Warsing and Resnick.

I sent a separate financial proposal to Lutz and Dr. Resnick. I would accept responsibility for all obligations as of July 1st, but the handoff required a clean slate. In other words, any indebtedness must be matched with cash and receivables on the books. I expected to start out free and clear.

No one responded to my first proposal.

To the second, financial proposal, Dr. Resnick alone responded: "We're not anywhere near an agreement on going forward. My discussions with you, Dick and Brianna have not been encouraging."

Our deal was dead in the water.

The Aftermath

 I was so upset, it was another two days before I told my wife about what happened.

Our hopes for managing a first class community newspaper were gone. The events surrounding the rejection of my proposal were so surreal, I expected to get a conciliatory call or email from Lutz or Dr. Resnick for a couple of weeks but the call never came.

I felt lost.

We spent hours trying to figure out what went on behind the scenes because, until the last day, neither Dick, Briana nor I had a serious disagreement. Something had to be fishy, something I hadn't been told.

My wife thought Lutz and Warsing reacted to my determination to steer the WIRE off the Maple Tree Group/RIRA axis on which it was stuck and build a better relationship with RIOC.

Disagreement over editorial content didn't seem to be enough in my mind, especially since, as far as I knew, there wasn't any. I suspected something less political and more unseemly.

There was, I thought, some sort of inappropriate relationship going on, the kind of thing that drives impractical, emotional recklessness. It felt clear to me that Warsing had shared with Lutz a choice not to reunite herself and her children with her husband in California and to stay here instead. And keep control of the WIRE.

A few months down the road now, I believe both of us have been proven right. We will never know for sure. Whatever their secret contract was, they never shared it with me. They just whacked me over the head with it.

The Email List

The email list Sherie Helstien claims I don't have "permission to use" was already in use before our deal with the WIRE collapsed. Lutz gave it to me, along with detailed instructions on how to upload it to my own account.

The reason he did was because I wanted to restart the Alerts that he'd dropped months before after reducing full time activities with the WIRE. Warsing had not picked them up. 

I picked up the list and began sending Alerts as a service to the community. No one paid any sort of sponsorship. It was just a good thing to do. So, why should that not continue after my deal with the WIRE ended?

I believe that what upsets Helstien is that I came up with a way to enhance the alerts with additional community news. Unlike the printed newspaper, readership is completely voluntary. Links are there for anyone who's interested after checking out whatever information is in the Alert.

For the record, only a minority of recipients click on the news stories. The majority just appreciates the basic information, and that's fine with me.

Not with Helstien and Lutz, however.

The fact of the matter, the thing that really bugs them, is that both the RooseveltIslander blog and the Roosevelt Island Daily now have consistently more readers than the the Main Street WIRE, and we get them because people go to our sites looking for information, not because we shove something into their mailboxes, want it or not.

Unfortunately for the WIRE and other newspapers, it's been widely acknowledged that print advertising is rapidly decreasing as a revenue source because digital ads are both more effective and less expensive.

As for Helstien, having known her and observed her style for over fifteen years, I take for granted that her attacks will continue and probably escalate. That's as unfortunate for the community as is the mess that has been made of the Main Street WIRE.

Intelligence untempered by wisdom and empathy is as clear an example of human waste as you are ever going to see.