At first glance the forums of The North County News seem to be thriving. Closer examination, however, reveals that the whole operation is a Potemkin village. For readers unfamiliar with the allusion, so-called Potemkin villages were fake settlements consisting of little more than facades erected at the direction of Russian courtier Grigori Alexandovich Potemkin to impress Empress Catherine the Great during her visit to the Crimean peninsula in 1787.
The NCN forums had their inception in a single blog begun in 2006 by that newspaper, which boldly appropriated the name Croton Blog. We say, “boldly appropriated” because Crotonblog had commenced operation a year earlier, and its name was protected by copyright. The NCN blog’s sole purpose was to accommodate the small number of former contributors to Crotonblog who were unhappy with its policy of accepting anonymous contributions and comments. Eventually sensing that its initially naïve policy of insisting that all contributors must reveal their identities and sign their own names was inhibiting reader participation, the newspaper decided to follow the practice of the blogging world and accept anonymous contributions and comments on a new next generation of blogs.
Accordingly, in November of last year, the Croton Blog was mercifully killed and a dozen forums were set up—ten for communities in northern Westchester, one in southern Putnam County, and another to serve the whole of Westchester County. The result of this new effort to create a presence in northern tier communities has been a mixed bag, to say the least. Although a handful of Croton residents hijacked the Croton forum and now monopolize it like a chummy private fiefdom, the results for the other forums have been desultory.
Consider these statistics: In the seven months since the forums were started, of the eleven communities selected to host forums, three (Chappaqua, Mt. Kisco and Pleasantville) have had zero participation by readers. The postings in three other communities (Somers, 1; Katonah, 2; and Ossining 5) can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Here’s the rest of the dismal picture: Cortlandt, 11; Putnam Valley 12; Peekskill, 17, Yorktown, 21—or a total of only 69 postings. What is so curious about this numbers is that, with the exception of one Katonah posting by a resident of Croton about the Katonah Museum, someone in the employ of the North County News made each of these 69 spurious postings.
The street word for such postings is that they are the work of shills. In the jargon of the underworld, a shill is someone who poses as an eager customer and buys counterfeit merchandise such as phony Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton handbags, or participates in a rigged game—usually three-card monte—by playing the role of an enthusiastic winning gambler to dupe bystanders into betting and losing money in the swindle. The NCN’s shills use the names “yepster” and “Bazzomanifesto.” The latter name is that of a taxi operator in Peekskill who also serves as a columnist on The North County News. His specialty is writing illiterate and ungrammatical “sample letters” that he urges readers to copy, sign and send to legislators.
In short, in ten of the eleven communities targeted by The North County News, not a single resident of those communities who was not on the NCN payroll saw fit to post anything on an NCN forum. This speaks volumes, of course, about the penetration of the newspaper into communities of northern Westchester and southern Putnam counties. We might point out that The North County News is headquartered in Yorktown Heights, and that community is the focus of its newsgathering activities. Yet so weak is its penetration there, it still cannot generate enough reader interest to spark a single posting by a Yorktown reader.
But when we come to Croton, the picture changes dramatically. Although its circulation in Croton is slight, in the same seven months since last November, a total of 855 postings have appeared on the NCN Croton forum. This startling performance makes one wonder whether there is something in Croton’s water that would spark such a burst of mean-spirited partisan acrimony. In contrast to the disinterest and lack of participation by residents of the other communities, once the NCN shills had gotten the ball rolling on NCN’s Croton forum, a mere handful of collaborators took over and now monopolize it.
At the moment, this little clique is using the Croton forum to (1) extol the administration of Mayor Gregory Schmidt; (2) promote the candidacy of Village Treasurer Abraham Zambrano for the high-paying job of Village Manager, despite his lack of academic qualifications and related work experience; (3) make disparaging remarks about Crotonblog; (4) conduct a rah-rah campaign to convince themselves that prosperity is everywhere present in Croton despite every indication to the contrary, the latest being the surprising announcement of the impending departure of specialty retailer Wondrous Things; and (5) congratulate one another for copycat journalistic “scoops,” such as posting a link to an already-published Journal News story.
Examining the names of the authors of the 855 postings reveals the inner workings of the NCN forum for Croton-on-Hudson. First we must deduct the six postings of the two NCN shills, “Bazzomanifesto” and “yepster.” Of the remaining 849 postings, 313 were posted by Maria Cudequest and 100 by Robert Wintermeier. Include the other frequent posters, “Carolyn G.” (99), “notorc” (81) and “Jennifer” (81), and we find that these five posters on NCN’s Croton forum have made a total of 674 postings, representing 83% of all postings. A tight little inbred group indeed, such as you might expect to encounter in a remote village off the beaten track in some Appalachian hollow.
If all that The North County News can show for its considerable three-year venture into the world of blogging is a single forum buzzing like a nest of angry hornets, Crotonblog cannot be blamed for wondering why a newspaper would sully its good name by providing a platform for a bunch of malcontents. Even more puzzling is why a once-respected newspaper would plant on eight of its twelve forums phony comments from shills purporting to be readers to give the impression of intense reader activity where none exists, even to this day. Shame, shame, Editor + Publisher Bruce Apar and The North County News.