‘Snide Remarks’ 10th Anniversary Feature: A Timeline of Important Columns (Part 2)

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[Part 1]

Jan. 23 & 25, 2002, “Towed You So” and “Gus Mileage”: A two-part series on tow-truck drivers earns the wrath of an entire profession.

My editors and I fielded many angry phone calls and letters when the first of these, about a bad experience with a towing company, was published. Naturally, the column to elicit the most wrath we’d had in years would be a two-parter, and my bosses were not exactly thrilled at the prospect of getting more angry calls and letters after part two was published. So we had to tone part two down quite a bit, more or less ruining it but successfully staving off the torch-wielding mobs.

These were published in January. In September of that year, I bought a new car at Provo’s Kia dealership, trading in my old Hyundai. (You thought there was nothing lower than a Hyundai, but that’s only because you had forgotten about Kia.) Unfortunately, I accidentally locked my keys in the Hyundai there at the dealership, right at the end of the business day. I had to leave in a hurry to get to Salt Lake City for something, so I didn’t have time to wait for someone to show up with a slim jim and unlock the car. Technically, the car now belonged to Kia anyway and was their problem, not mine, and they were friends with a local towing company that they figured could come over and unlock the car for them. They sent me on my way in my new Kia and said they’d deal with the Hyundai. Just come back tomorrow to get your personal belongings out of it, they said.

At about 11 that night, I returned with my spare Hyundai key to get my stuff out of it. The car had been parked on the street outside the dealership — but now it was gone. Holy crap, I thought. The car’s been stolen! The Kia guys left it here with the keys inside, and now somebody came along, broke the window, and used the keys to drive the car away. How do I report a stolen car when the car doesn’t technically belong to me anymore?

After a few moments of semi-panic, it occurred to me that perhaps the Kia people had called their tow-truck friends as planned, gotten the car unlocked, and simply moved it into their gated lot. I hopped the waist-high gate into the lot and sure enough, there it was. Not stolen after all. Whew.

I used my spare key to open the door, still needing to retrieve my CDs and other miscellaneous debris. Something on the steering wheel caught my eye. It was a handwritten note. It said: “Maybe next time you will think twice about who you criticize.”

In discussing it with the Kia manager the next day, we ascertained that the note, as I suspected, had been left by the tow-truck driver they’d had unlock the car. He was evidently still upset about the columns from January, and now he wanted to make the point that despite my having insulted his noble profession, he was still doing the right thing by providing a service when I needed him. It was meant to make me feel bad. I was supposed to think, “Aw, man, I mocked tow-truck drivers, and now I actually NEED one. And he did his job uncomplainingly! I should be ashamed of myself.”

What I actually thought was, “You’re not much of a martyr if you go around leaving notes for people telling them what a martyr you are.”

Also: “Nice try, but I’m not the one who needed you here. The Kia dealership did.”

How did he know it was my car? How did he remember my name all those months after the columns had been published? Those are the mysteries. The lesson, however, is clear: Tow-truck drivers can HOLD A GRUDGE.

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Feb. 8-24, 2002, “Olympics Report: The Molympics” and the 14 subsequent columns: My 15-part coverage of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

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The Olympics coming to Utah was obviously a HUGE DEAL to the local newspapers, including the Daily Herald. We even had a hockey venue in our very own Provo, and of course the other events were in nearby Park City, West Valley, and other Utah locales. During the Games, we ran a special section every day of our own Olympic coverage, supplemented by stories from the wire services (since we didn’t have the resources to commit the 15 reporters it would have taken to cover everything ourselves).

Someone had suggested months earlier that I write a column every day during the Games for the special section. I had readily agreed, thinking it would be a fun challenge to write “Snide Remarks” not once a week (or even twice a week, which was the schedule we were on now), but every single day for two weeks. The only concession we made was that no column would appear on the two Mondays during the Games, thus theoretically giving me Sundays off.

What an opportunity this was for me! I considered myself very lucky to be working for a Utah newspaper during such a historic time, and luckier still to have bosses who liked me and supported “Snide Remarks.” The Olympics columns were fun to write, and I was proud of the overall result.

A nice capper: In Salt Lake City Weekly’s “Best of Utah” feature a few months later, they named “Snide Remarks” the “Best Unread Humor Column” (“unread” by people in Salt Lake, is what they meant). They cited the Olympics columns specifically, calling them “brilliant.” Heck, I’ll quote the whole thing:

Who says no one in Utah County has a sense of humor? Well, we have on occasion, but never mind. Provo’s Daily Herald employs one of the state’s funniest writers in Eric Snider, a Renaissance man who also co-founded the now-defunct Garrens comedy troupe and doubles quite capably as the Herald’s film critic. His satirical insider takes on Utah culture — including his brilliant series of Olympics columns — are often hilariously caustic, enough to inspire plenty of humorless angry responses from Utah County readers. OK, so maybe Eric’s the one exception.

That remains one of the nicest write-ups I’ve ever gotten. And they remembered me, too: A couple years later, I went on to freelance some columns and reviews for that paper.

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July 17, 2002, “Ann Landers’ Final Column”: I make fun of a beloved old lady’s death; many people are upset.

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If she didn’t want people to make fun of her death, she should have thought of that before she died.

My favorite part of this whole uproar is that the column is wholly unjustified. I had no serious satirical purpose in mind. I really just thought it would be funny to present Ann Landers’ final column as though she had written it while she was dying. I thought it was funny then, and I think it’s funny now. But justified? Absolutely not. Totally offsides. The people who were offended by my callous disregard for propriety and respect for an old dead lady were right to be offended.

But I still think it’s funny.

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Oct. 9, 2002, “Les Is More”: The new bosses refuse to publish a column; I post it on my website; hilarity does not ensue.

The column was about a local schoolteacher whom some people wanted fired as unfit because she was a lesbian. The Herald had run a human-interest story about her and her partner several years earlier, resulting in dozens of canceled subscriptions. Now she was in the news again because of the campaign against her, and I wrote a column about it.

I’m particularly proud of this part: “Homosexuality is a hot topic in Utah. Most people are ‘against’ it…. And of course being against homosexuality means you have to talk about it all the time. Only in San Francisco is homosexuality discussed more than in Utah.” It’s funny because it’s true!

Anyway, I had new bosses now, and they wouldn’t publish the column. The executive editor, Randy, was very conservative and basically felt the column portrayed gays in too positive a light for our readers. My immediate supervisor, features editor Jean, was very liberal and felt the column made too many jokes at the expense of gays. In other words, the column was both too conservative and too liberal. In other other words, it’s impossible to please everyone when you’re making jokes about sensitive issues.

When they wouldn’t publish it, I did what I’d always done: I published it on my website anyway. I’d had EricDSnider.com since before I worked for the Herald, and there had always been a tacit agreement in place. My bosses didn’t mind that I republished material on my site, as long as I indicated it was originally published in the Herald. Since everything was on the Herald’s own website, too, it’s not like I was discouraging people from buying the paper. It was no big deal.

It also helped, I think, that none of my previous bosses ever actually visited my site, at least not regularly. But now I had new bosses, people who had moved to Utah from other places. I know that in Jean’s case, she had read my site before taking the job at the Herald. What I was doing wasn’t exactly a secret anymore, in other words.

I’d already run into a problem once, when I had to completely rewrite a column for the Herald and published my original version on this site. Jean was not pleased with that at all, perceiving it (accurately) as an attempt to undermine her authority. What good did it do to make me rewrite something for the paper if I was just going to say whatever I wanted on my website? It was a new problem in the world of journalism, where writers had outlets for their work in addition to the papers they wrote for. (Jean herself was later disciplined at a subsequent job for writing negative things about her co-workers on her personal blog. Doh!)

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These lesbians got me in trouble.

And now came the lesbian column. The Herald wouldn’t publish it. As I had always done in the past when they wouldn’t publish something, I published it on my site. Jean and Randy became aware of this immediately and were quite angry. They insisted I take it down at once, and there was some talk of making me remove EVERYTHING on my site that had also been published in the Herald. For a day or so, I took the whole website offline, to see which way the discussions went.

I took an unplanned vacation after this, to clear my head and to give Randy and Jean time to cool down. I looked into other job options, too. I’d been increasingly unhappy at the Herald since Randy and Jean came onboard, as they’d managed to suck most of the fun out of the job.

When I got back, Salt Lake City Weekly’s “media writer,” Paul Swenson, wrote a column about the Herald’s recent woes. My website figured prominently in Swenson’s article. It had been on my message board that news had leaked (not from me) about a discrimination lawsuit that former employees had filed against the paper. (They eventually won that lawsuit, by the way, and rightfully so.) I had posted that lesbian column, leading to lots of discussion about the Herald, much of it unfavorable. Swenson had been offended by a column I’d written several months earlier, and he brought it up here, even though it wasn’t really relevant. Furthermore, I had talked to Swenson when he called me, which meant I was quoted in his article slamming the Herald. Whoops.

Swenson always struck me as a particularly stuffy little fellow. He was an occasional movie critic, too, generally coming out of the woodwork for Sundance pre-festival screenings, and walking out if the movie was odd, experimental, or graphic. He makes two errors of fact in this column, calling my site “The Land of Snider” (it was “The Land of Eric”) and referring to the Herald’s previous owners as the Scripts League rather than Scripps League. Is it ironic that a “journalism watchdog” column would include careless journalism mistakes? Or is it just funny?

Anyway, Randy and Jean, already not terribly happy with me, were even less happy now that the Herald was being talked about in other newspapers. They declared that they wanted “Snide Remarks” to be more substantive, less about frivolous things and more about actual issues (though not issues like lesbian schoolteachers, I guess). They also cut back the publication schedule from twice a week to once a week, ostensibly to give me more time to write quality material, but probably more as a punishment. Things trended downward with me and the Herald until I was finally let go several months later, and this incident marked the beginning of the end.

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March 8, 2004, “Tightening the Belt”: The resurrection of “Snide Remarks” — for a price.

The Herald fired me on Aug. 20, 2003, with my last “Snide Remarks” having appeared on Aug. 17. (The firing was unrelated to “Snide Remarks,” by the way. It was complicated, but the story is here, or you can read an NPR interview where I talked about here.) Almost seven months later, “Snide Remarks” was reborn as an Internet-only publication, with this one marking the return. The catch? It was available by subscription only. For $3 a month or $30 a year, readers would have access to a new “Snide Remarks” every Monday.

It was an experiment to see if you could make money selling content on the Internet. Everyone was trying it at the time. Even sites that had lots of free content, like The Onion, were selling “premium” memberships, where you’d get access to additional material.

For the most part, the experiment didn’t work for any of us. The Internet community in general has learned that while people will pay for DVDs, CDs, books, magazines, newspapers, and cable or satellite service, they will NOT pay for Internet content — even if the content is similar to the content in those other mediums that they WILL pay for. (People have bought books of “Snide Remarks” columns by the thousands. Those same columns on the Internet? We ain’t payin’ for that.) It’s a mental block we humans have, this idea that the Internet should be free. I guess I’m the same way, so I don’t blame anyone.

“Snide Remarks” subscribers never numbered any higher than the low hundreds, and the small income derived from them wasn’t enough to justify the potential readers who were being turned away. In August 2006 — after writing a column every single Monday for 129 weeks straight — I did away with the subscription system and took a few weeks off. I figured it was better to make zero money but have potentially millions of readers than to make a little money but have only a couple hundred readers.

[Part 3]