The Day That Sydney Schanberg Invited Netslaves' Steve Gilliard to an Editorial Rumble
When Netslaves hired Steve Gilliard as writer and "media operative" in early 2000, we knew that we were in for a wild ride. Gilliard had already proven himself to be a sharp-barbed skewerer on Silicon Alley's WWWAC list, so we knew that whatever he did for Netslaves would likely create enemies. But none of us knew that his first major action for us would be to piss off Sydney Schanberg, one of New York journalism's major luminaries, to the point that Schanberg invited our editorial team to an impromptu riot.
The whole mess began after Schanberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Killing Fields, hooked up with a project called APBNews.com. Remember, this was a time when many Old Media journos (including Lou Dobbs) were bailing from their slow-moving Old Media companies and staking their claims in cyberspace. APBNews.com was among the first of Silicon Alley's content startups to get into serious trouble, and when it began to run out of cash in June of 2000, it asked its staff to continue to work for the site for free.
Gilliard saw this as an outrageous assault on the principle that writers should be paid for their work, and immediately attacked APBNews in what he called "An Open Letter to APBNews" He began it with the following passage, which is one of my all-time favorite Steve Gilliard openings:
The crash and burn of APBNews.com was no surprise... except to its employees.
They called you in at 9:30 AM Monday and said it was over. That's right. It went from 140 employees to zero just like that. Management never dealt honestly with their people and were still hiring until the final countdown. They had given you the news after a weekend where you were feted at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel's ballroom. That's one of the best places on earth to eat mediocre hotel food.
The reaction to Gilly's missive was stunned, hurt, and vituperative. ABNews.com's semi-employed survivors wasted no time lambasting Netslaves.com, not for what it wrote, but for the way it was written:
Name: David J. Krajicek
Comment: You see, Mr. Gilliard, APB--however flawed--was a news site peopled by adult journalists. Someone like you, who posts infantile, uninformed screeds, who confuses obscenities with deep thought, who so desperately needs a professional copy editor reading his work, could never understand.
Others supported Gilly, and all day, an escalating flame war consumed the pages of Netslaves.com. Finallly, Sydney Schanberg himself laid down the challenge:
Name: syd schanberg
Comment: I'd be much more impressed by the brave insults gratuitously spewed at us by Messrs. Gilliard et al if they had the spine and character to come to our news room at 65 Broadway and deliver them in person. Do come. Show us you're really grown-ups. Sincerely, Syd Schanberg
Netslaves' Bill Lessard, somewhat stunned by our close brush with journalistic royalty, asked Schanberg to clarify:
Should we bring baseball bats? Does this mean that you want to rumble? Sorry to sound arch, but if you don't agree with us, that's fine. Call us idiots, dismiss us as sub-literate morons, but don't cheapen yourself with threats.
We didn't hear back from Syd, so we didn't make a move. Maybe we copped out by not grabbing a bunch of hand tools and heading over to 65 Broadway. How tough could Schanberg et al really be? But was the challenger really Schanberg or just an agent provacateur? (this all happened before we installed IP-logging on the site).
I'll always wonder what the outcome of a physical struggle would have been. But we never took Schanberg up on his challenge, because we really didn't know what to bring. Clubs? Bolt-action rifles? Lawyers? So we just pulled down our window shades, made sure that we weren't being followed, snd stayed close to our computers, stoking the virtual fires from Yonkers and East Harlem.
It was clear that Steve Gilliard was unafraid of breaching one of New York journalism's most important but unwritten rules: that you must never, EVER attack one of your own. From that moment on, we knew that Gilliard was a major talent. Having this kind of talent on staff might get us all killed, or at least blacklisted as working journalists, but way back then, when we were young and spry, we just didn't give a damn.
For further informed vitriol on "l'affaire APBNews.com," see Steve Gilliard postings on APBnews.com's demise:
- An Open Letter to APBNews.com Staff (They called you in at 9:30 AM Monday and said it was over...), June 5, 2000
- A Reply to the APBNews.com Posts (When I started online, no one wanted to pay writers, period...), June 7, 2000
- An Open Letter to Fox (Concerning its Possible Acquisition of ABPNews.com), June 11, 2000
- R.I.P. APBNews.com (Which Declared Bankrupty Today), July 5, 2000
- The Funny Thing About APBNews.com (An Analysis of a High-Profile Dotcom's Bankruptcy Filings)