Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Happy Endings

Detroit Free Press sports columnist Mitch Albom recently won the AP Sports Editor (APSE) award for lifetime achievement. KC Star sports columnist Jason Whitlock used this occasion to comment on the depressing state of the newspaper industry.

The bone of his contention is that Albom is a proven exaggerator and outright fabricator in his columns. He never let the facts stand in the way of creating a good story for publication:

Albom is and always has been the king of feel-good fairy tales about dead sources, make-believe dead people in heaven … and any other source willing to keep quiet while Albom poured syrup and exaggeration on some cute anecdote.

Albom is not unique in this regard, nor is the phenomenon limited to sportswriters. It seems every metro area bred these ethically challenged storytellers in the guise of sports and news columnists in the 80s and 90s. Or maybe they've always been with us, and I just started paying attention in this time frame. But the Twin Cities should have been so lucky to have one that merely twisted and made up the facts to provide "cute anecdotes". Instead, our variations were vicious partisan hacks who used the rarefied real estate of the local monopoly newspapers to advance social agendas, attempt to manipulate elections, demonize those that disagreed with them politically, and generally poison the public life of the community. In part, because of this, an entire generation of potential readers have been turned off to the idea of ever subscribing to the the mainstream newspapers in town.

Whitlock addresses this issue, and the decline of newspapers generally, focusing on another relevant dimension, the poor quality of columnists that a monopoly environment created:

We keep selling the copout excuse that the economy is the reason we're failing. Or that young people are too stupid to realize how good we are. It's all bull****.

We refused to change. .... We remained beholden to an APSE contest that in no way takes into account context, impact, relevancy, traction or innovation.

That approach is fine and dandy when there's no competition and local newspapers printed money. You can ignore your readers and put out content targeted at contest judges when there’s no place else for readers to go.

Unfortunately, it's 2010 and not 1986. You don't need the newspaper to find out what's playing at the movies, or what the weather is going to be like, or what's on TV, etc. The things that made newspapers essential can be found other places.

We now have to survive on creativity, original ideas and innovation. Television, YouTube, laptops, blogs, Twitter and cell phones have made narrative sports writing less valuable. It's made fictional, feel-good, narrative bull**** far more risky.

Heh, it's true. A lament from back in the days when our monopoly newspapers were still riding high was not only that they have us an unremitting stream of one political perspective, but that is was also a crappy unremitting stream, quality-wise. But as long as people needed to find out what was at the movies or sell their used cars, the captive audience would be there, there would be no incentive for improvement, and these people would be given a podium from which to lazily pontificate and hector us for the rest of our lives. It all seemed to dark and dismal.

But then the Internet happened. And everyone lived happily ever after. Thanks again Al Gore.