Writing, journalism and the ‘way it is now’

Maybe as journalists, would-be journalists, wanna-be journalists, ex-journalists, bought-out journalists, hacks, reporters and disenchanted prematurely retired ex-journalists, perhaps all that is left to cover is ourselves and by extension, our opinions, even if it is only for an audience of one.

And as a seasoned reporter myself — after two whole conventions — I can safely say that you get about as many insights into the hearts and souls of the candidates on the campaign trail as you would watching a plastic fern grow.

—Matthew Klam, Fear and Laptops on the Campaign Trail, New York Times Magazine, September 2004

The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy says the same thing, almost four years later, about sports — “That’s just the way it is now,” he writes — and bemoans the lost access to players the media once had.

Shaughnessy is 100% correct — that’s just the way it is now.

To which I say, yeah, it sucks. Just deal with it.

Pat Jordan is worried, too, but he seems to be adapting to it better.

It’s been coming to this point for a long time. Thirty-five years ago, Red Smith said it best:

The sportswriter learns to adjust, to make allowances. When you’re listening to these people, who are serving special interests, you simply adjust by taking a little off the top.

Pat Jordan might have taken a lot off the top for his Deadspin article, but I applaud the adjustment. After all, it’s the future.

As teams, political parties, athletes and candidates continue to control the message (and control the messengers in a growing trend to hire their own reporters), we’re seeing the of loss of hard news, which might turn into ceding the coverage of hard news if the media conglomerates see a way to save money out of it.

In the end, it may not be such a bad thing. Instead of parroting the PR-party line coming out of the press conferences, let’s let the flacks break their “news” and let the smart media quickly dissect it and turn more toward analysis — it’s not the breaking news, itself, that is so important, it’s what it means — and, for features, toward what we see in Jordan’s Deadspin and Slate pieces: the write-around.

Consider that “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is thought in some circles perhaps the best magazine article of all time though the subject famously never allowed Gay Talese and to interview him. Instead, Talese talked to Sinatra’s acquaintances and just watched the guy.

This, unfortunately, requires time, talent, a sharp eye and a broad mind (“He was, as usual, immaculately dressed. He wore an oxford-grey suit with a vest, a suit conservatively cut on the outside but trimmed with flamboyant silk within; his shoes, British, seemed to be shined even on the bottom of the soles.”). These things are in short supply in an MBA-dominated newsroom culture and among J-school educated writers who can’t escape the grip of publicists dictating coverage and fear the same thing Shaughnessy wrings his hands over — lost access.

If that wasn’t problem enough, would a corporate-owned bottom-line oriented magazine or newspaper even take a chance and dedicate the resources and take a risk on such an article?

So beyond the unusual (unfortunately, investigative reporting is now unusual, given newspapers’ bean counting and belt tightening), what’s left?

To be sure, Shaughnessy is not explicitly laying blame for this decline on anyone, though he seems to be tipping his Samuel Adams in the direction of publicists and the players who hide behind them.

But the media has its share of blame to shoulder, too. Even Red Smith once said he was admonished by his editor, Stanley Woodward, to “stop Godding up those ballplayers.”

It’s worse now, even if today’s media builds the public’s heroes higher only to tear them down later. The press is as complicit as anyone in building sports into an empire; reporters’ guilt in this is subtle, but self-serving, and any reporter who complains about how ESPN has ruined sports (and I think it has, to a large extent) ought to remember that the booming Business of Sport also keeps them in business, if only just barely. Call it the Media-Athletic Complex.

(NYT Magazine article via comment on Gawker; Shaughnessy column via The Big Lead; Red Smith quotes from an actual book (yes, printed on paper!), The Red Smith Reader, which excerpted Smith’s 1973 interview in No Cheering in the Press Box, neither of which appear to be in print on Amazon, though used copies are available.)


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