Original Purpose Lost

Shutdown the Main Street WIRE

David Stone
Three weeks after being dumped there, outdated copies of the Main Street WIRE, ignored by visitors, collect dust in RIUC's waiting area.
Three weeks after being dumped there, outdated copies of the Main Street WIRE, ignored by visitors, collect dust in RIUC's waiting area.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

The day I met Dr. Jack Resnick for lunch at Fuji East, he was outspokenly proud of starting the Main Street WIRE, forty years ago, to help a nascent community get a  foothold on Roosevelt Island. The newspaper, now less than a shadow of its original self, recently started rolling downhill. Backwards.

Today, the Main Street WIRE's a limp reminder of better days as one of our country's best small town newspapers, but now aligned with the community's worst elements.

We don't take the newspaper or the idea of shutting it down lightly. Otherwise, we'd be content watching it continue to deteriorate and fold of its own accord. But we no longer have enough patience for that.

Over time, readers have volunteered alternative titles for the Main Street WIRE.

"The RIRA Maple Tree Group Review" one volunteered, critical of its heavily slanted reporting during Dick Lutz's tenure.

Another dubbed it "the White Street WIRE," taking a poke at what we'll charitably call its lack of diversity.

What tore down the walls of respectability was our satirically calling it "the Main Street Moms Bimonthly," making fun of its narrowing focus and its general absence from timeliness with current events.

That brought out a torrent of racist trolls exploding in support of the WIRE. The viciousness of the attack, coupled with WIRE managing editor Kelly Turner's joining in the spirit, convinced me the once healthy, helpful newspaper had fallen down the final flight of respectability, from simply boring to dangerous.

Crux of Change

It's not hard to see where the WIRE went off the rails.

Longtime editor Dick Lutz, in his mid-70s, wanted to retire, "couldn't stand another meeting," he told me, but had a difficult time finding anyone to keep the WIRE going after he left. The workload was heavy at times and for him, after twenty years, of dwindling interest.

Finally, he settled on Briana Warsing, who never really took on the full load nor was willing to, but by then, he was out of choices. 

As some of you know, I was the last other candidate standing, and you can read about that here, My version is that, when I caught Lutz trying to maneuver me into retaining Warsing as editor, I balked. Theirs is that I dumped them at the alter and kept the dowry.

At this juncture, it doesn't make much difference who you believe. The extreme deterioration in WIRE content and its being voluntarily aligned with racists leaves every other question moot.

Brief History of the Main Street WIRE

Dr. Resnick launched the WIRE not long after the buildings it's named after opened. It was patched together by cutting and pasting in the laborious way it was done before computers and dropped off, tied up in bundles, for pick up in lobbies.

Advertising from local merchants offset the costs of printing, and after the newspaper was well-established, responsibility for selling ads was handed off to Ellen Levy and the editorship to Jim Bowser.

Bowser was a smart, gentle, affable man who gave up the job after being stricken with a serious illness. The paper went out of existence for months until Dick Lutz, a professional journalist, came along and took it over, retaining Levy.

Lutz's original idea was to use the WIRE as a tool for promoting a local interest website he'd started. But his revived version caught on. It was a good thing too because his skills as a webmaster were decidedly subpar.

By the time I agreed to take over the newspaper in 2016, after a number of requests from Lutz, Warsing had announced she was leaving at the end of June to join her husband in California. The WIRE would fold without someone to replace her and pick up the fuller publishing duties she never learned.

There's a longer story there, but for our purposes, we can leave it out.

Getting the WIRE assembled and distributed was a dizzying Rube Goldberg contraption with numerous moving parts and tenuous dependencies Lutz patched together, according to need, over two decades, more fragile than it looked to outsiders.

Some of its practices were, also, morally offensive.

How Some Profited Sweetly from the WIRE, on the Backs of Volunteers

What I found morally reprehensible was that so much of the newspaper's development and distribution relied on uncompensated volunteers persuaded that they were needed for free to make an important community service, the WIRE, happen.

Even some kids were recruited from the Child School as "interns" but learned nothing more than how to stuff plastic bags with newspapers.

At least ten volunteers pitched in on every issue, about half of them compensated with a sack lunch, the rest with a hearty "Thank you!"

In stark contrast, WIRE income averaged $6,000 per issue, during the months I was in training. With printing costs at around $1,000 on average, the other $5,000 had to go somewhere, and it sure as hell wasn't trickling down to the lower echelon of volunteers.

Ad manager Ellen Levy raked in an average of over $1,000 per issue while I was there. Lutz used WIRE funds to pay his $350 per month Verizon cable bill, his house cleaning service, newspaper and magazine subscriptions and more.

During my time at the WIRE, I was able to figure out where about half of the money went. It was enough to make me sick at heart over the way the volunteers were tricked into working for free - while others thrived.

I quietly planned to put an end to that.

Another issue that bothered me was Levy's ad sales pitch. Local businesses were not promised that their ads would be effective. They were told that they needed to support the WIRE as - guess what - "a community service."

One advertiser almost gagged when I told him that Levy was raking in 20% of what he believed he was donating. 

The Advertising Con

Even though Lutz told me that the WIRE's rates were on the high side, the truth is something worse. 

According to rate cards Lutz gave me to work with, the WIRE promises to "Reach all 5,500 apartments and more than 12,000 residents."

Those are the numbers used to convince advertisers that rates are appropriate, but they're phonied up. The actual number of apartments is closer to 5,000, a fact known to Lutz, or 10% less than what advertisers are told, and the resident count is even worse.

According to the last census, Roosevelt Island is home to 11,600 residents. Close enough but what wasn't shared with advertisers was that nearly 2,000 of those were located within Coler and, until it closed, Goldwater Hospitals, the majority nowhere near being potential customers for advertisers.

Today: Why the Main Street WIRE Must Be Shutdown

The story of how the WIRE used its leverage to improperly influence things like the takeover of the RIRA Common Council and the highly profitable Rivercross conversion have been told before.

It's undeniable that the WIRE slanted coverage to support causes that benefited Lutz and his friends, while controlling a media monopoly, but its otherwise high standards for journalism helped it get away with it.

Those standards are gone now and have been replaced with a cesspool of mediocrity and association with the worst of the Roosevelt Island community.

  • As a routine the WIRE solicits "community columns" that it uses to flesh out the paper for as many ads as it can sell. Some are of interest, some are just publicity blurbs and others are snooze-worthy. Quality is irrelevant. It's all about the ads, not the content.
  • The WIRE championed the RIRA Common Council's RIOC Nominating Elections in column after column, raising not the slightest concern about misleading information being published, unsubstantiated personal attacks or the integrity of the ballot itself. Fortunately, residents knew better, and the effort flopped like a fish out of water.
  • After an enormous colony of rats drew international attention when PS/IS 217's negligence allowed it to grow, laughably denying responsibility, the WIRE generously offered the principal front page coverage for excuse making, without challenge and while never once disclosing that the editor's children attend the school or that another editor is on the PTA's executive committee. (The PTA also declined to criticize the principal.)

The Main Street Moms Bimonthly Controversy

When we made a satirical reference to the WIRE as the Main Street Moms Bimonthly, and not for the first time, as a shallow instrument with very narrow interests, a team of three trolls exploded onto the comment thread.

Our opinion piece criticized the RIRA Common Council for trying to claim credit for a community success in driving the rats out of PS/IS 217, with a passing reference to the WIRE as careless publisher of the claim.

Anonymous trolls, using the tags "Amber," "Human Person" and "Joanne" let loose a torrent of hate, calling me an "...impotent old white man," other women "bitches," and just for fun, the attackers threw Frank Farance in the barrel with me.

Farance had nothing to do with the article, which the trolls ignored generally anyway, and it eventually grew apparent that, in addition to the Main Street WIRE, the trolls had also attached themselves to the school's PTA which Farance had recently accused of misusing funds.

Two things, one subtle, the other overt, tied the WIRE to troll attacks that were not just overtly racist but also crudely biased against age and gender.

First, I called out one of the trolls who I suspected of being on the WIRE staff, identifiable by style and simmering hostility. There was no denial, and she instantly stopped commenting.

Elsewhere, one of her friends outed her by saying she should sue me for libel because I identified her with racist comments. (I never used her full name.)

What really took the cake though was when the WIRE's managing and production editor Kelly Turner joined the comment thread, something she had not done in the past

A friend, she wrote, sent her a link, thinking she'd be "amused" at the torrent of racism, bigotry and hate, the bulk of which I'd already deleted.

But Turner didn't just read or chuckle, she waded in with a lengthy comment of her own.

No, she never took a moment to disown the racism or the derogatory comments based on age and gender as a conscientious professional would. She let it all stand, including its connection with the WIRE.

What she did do was worse, much worse.

Turner, also never commenting on the article itself, joined the trolls in attacking Frank Farance.

What made her post so much worse was that she repeated a lie, one she should have known was a lie or at least taken the time to verify. After all, she claims to be a professional journalist, doesn't she? Aren't they supposed to fact check?

When called out for contributing fake news, she did what the trolls aligned with her did. She disappeared.

In the week that followed, Turner had every opportunity to edit out her slander or to apologize. She did neither.

And I left her post up as an example of what's become of the Main Street WIRE. It isn't pretty and it isn't trustworthy. 

Conclusion

Since Dick Lutz cobbled together a version of the newspaper that gradually became contaminated with politics, misleading claims about community services and profits, its usefulness has diminished.

What's worse, though, is that while the Main Street WIRE never covers stories in depth or on time anymore, it's being used to advance personal causes that benefit its editors while being forced on residents through mail delivery whether they want it or not.

The privilege of delivering a newspaper to every resident entails a high level of responsibility. The WIRE fails to meet that level, one issue after another, making it more a tool for bringing revenue to the editors than reliable information to its readers.

Combine that with their public alignment with racists trolls and the use of slander to splatter a resident who criticizes them. It becomes clear that the WIRE needs to be stopped from doing additional harm.

We remind all advertisers who support the Main Street WIRE that their money goes to an operation publicly connected to racism as well as age and gender bias. We will continue to ask if that's an appropriate use of their community revenue.

In addition, for residents, we will be publishing a list of any and all advertisers who continue to invest in the behavior of the WIRE, keeping in mind that the WIRE never spoke out against the racist trolling and actually joined in support.

We are a diverse community. I doubt many businesses will want to be involved in supporting what's become of the Main Street WIRE or whatever you chose to call it. 

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