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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Metroland - RIP?

Today marks the third Thursday without a Metroland since the alt weekly's office was seized by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance for unpaid tax bills, and the feeling that it will never publish again is sinking in. (You can read the details in this Times Union article by Paul Grondahl.) Along with thousands of other individuals and hundreds of businesses, I miss it already.

My own connections to Metroland  are many and deep - it was founded 38 years ago by my niece Amy's other uncle, Peter Iselin, a very talented musician whose disco-inspired venture into publishing lasted a surprisingly long time. But Peter was never great at the business end of the deal, and thefre was visible evidence of that early on.

My own favorite recollection from the middle 1980s featured weekly sprints by staffers from the Metroland offices at 4 Central Avenue to cash their paychecks at the bank up the street before the account ran dry. I had a front-row seat to this competition from my shop window on Washington Avenue, and always enjoyed the show.

Things got a little better when Steve Leon took the helm. I freelanced for the paper under Steve in three stints totaling seven or eight years spread over three decades, initially as a photographer and then mainly as a writer, covering a variety of subjects including art (no surprise) and professional basketball (in the heyday of the Albany Patroons).

The rates for freelancers were pretty generous, and I always got paid, though it sometimes took a while. But then the pay lag began to stretch too far, so I asked for a meeting with Steve to clarify my need to get paid timely enough to cover my rent. That's when he showed me a ledger that revealed 120-day accounts payable for advertising that totaled a quarter of a million dollars. This was about 10 years ago - before the Great Recession stepped up and began wiping out newspapers all over the country.

After I quit the paper for the last time, I learned from other freelancers who had hung on that Metroland's debt to them had extended well beyond a year and had mounted into the thousands of dollars for many individuals. To me, this was unforgivable - the paper was essentially floating an interest-free loan on the backs of struggling journalists - yet I still eagerly grabbed and read it every week. Except, of course, in those weeks when it didn't get distributed because the delivery people were also fed up with waiting for their money.

So, when this month's news revealed the paper's tax problems with the state, I couldn't have been less surprised. Also, it rang another personal bell - I worked as a state tax collector from 2012-14. And, from that experience, I could guess that Metroland was buried in debt to the IRS as well, not to mention imaginable lines of other creditors. In another small twist for me, I also learned that another former employer of mine (The Daily Gazette, where I worked for 13 years as an editor) might have wanted to buy Metroland if the debts could have been cleared up.

Now it seems that one possibility is lost, and it's a loss for all of us. Metroland - thanks for a really great run.

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