Ospreys in Chicago, anyone?

As someone who still, inexplicably, loves newspapers, and who has enough remaining ink coursing through my veins even 10 years after leaving the trade (or is it all the fumes from the presses I inhaled?), seeing what has become of the Tribune properties in the last few years has been enough to make you want to cry. But after reading David Carr’s excellent article in the New York Times alleging management’s failings, harassment, indulgence, bullying, and culture of entitlement under Tribune owner Sam Zell and his cronies, I feel like the men-children responsible should be, in the words of the National Gonzo Press Club, lashed to an oceanside cliff so that ospreys could feast on their eyes. You think that ad executives of the ’60s Mad Men behaved badly? You think the ’86 “Scum Bunch” Mets behaved badly? These pigs can go spit for what they did to great newspapers in Chicago and Los Angeles, and for all the lives they ruined of toiling reporters and editors (with no other journalism job prospects).

Newspapers may have always encouraged a culture of controlled insanity (see, Thompson, Dr. Hunter S.). It’s been something that’s been missed (or muted, at least) for a generation or more in the era of the J-School-trained Master’s of Journalism Journalists (don’t demean them by calling them “reporters”) or the MBA-holding Managing Editors (or Directors of Content and Audience Developments, or whatever they’re called now).

As Pete Hamill, in News is a Verb, wrote:

“Reporters in those days were not as well educated as they are now. Some were degenerate gamblers. Some had left wives and children in distant towns, or told husbands they were going for a bottle of milk and ended up back on night rewrite on a different coast. Some of them were itinerant boomers who worked brilliantly for six months and then got drunk, threw a typewriter out a window, and moved on. Some were tough veterans of the depression and World War II and were sour on the whole damned human race. But all of them were serious about the craft. And oh, Lord — were they fun.”

Sure, there were drinkers like Hamill and Jimmy Breslin and Steve Dunleavy, gonzo writers like Dr. Thomson. But those old-time reporters produced (and, admittedly, the new school reporters sometimes do, too, as soulless as that production might often be).

But had the old-timers behaved as the Tribune management is alleged to have behaved, particularly in the new century, production would mean nothing.

There is Gonzo journalism, and then there is using journalism as an excuse, a crutch, and an entrée to contemptible behavior.

And then, on top of it, there is rewarding yourselves financially as Rome burns, as Carr reports.

Dr. Thompson once said: “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuck-offs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”

Back to the zoo-cage, eh?

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RIP Vic Ziegel

Good-bye to one of my favorites from my formative sports-reading and sportswriting years, Vic Ziegel of the New York Daily News.

“The Long Island Press no longer exists. (So what else is new?) When I was still in college, I showed up at the Press several nights a week – eight splendid bucks a night – to take high school basketball results over the phone and write a few paragraphs of roundup, nothing too fancy.

“There were about a half-dozen of us living in this fast lane. One night, much like all the other nights, the scores starting running together. And to keep awake, and because I’m a cunning, vicious SOB, I urged my fellow eight-buckers to repeat the same phrase in the lead of our basketball roundups. The next day, on the high school page of the Long Island Press, in a half-dozen league stories, and another on non-conference games, it was reported that Chuck Lastname or Danny Lastname or Gerry Lastname led his team to victory by ‘performing yeoman work under the boards.’

“Seven times, yeoman work under the boards. And I was back the next night, accepting congratulations, another eight bucks heading my way. What did I learn? That you can get away with a few things in this world. That nobody cares what kind of work you do if you work cheap. That if I ever fell off a roof and landed on my head I could still edit stories about high school sports for the Long Island Press. That people would laugh when I repeated the story.

“Very seductive, the sound of laughter. And so I discovered, in my yeoman period, that if I wanted to continue hearing the pleasing sound of laughter, I could keep writing sports. At least until I discovered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Nothing seems to have changed. I can still be found in the sports section, still trying to earn a smile. Makes me think, nights in Pittsburgh, Louisville, the Iona-Siena game, that maybe I did fall off that roof.”

—Introduction to Ziegel’s Sunday Punch: Strawberries, Raspberries, Steinbrenners and Tysons – A Famed Sports Columnist Takes His Best Shot at Sports’ Big Shots, 1991

(h/t to evesmag.com; I have this book buried somewhere in my attic, and damned it I can’t find it, though I can recall the “yeoman work under the boards” line as if I read it yesterday. I never had the gumption to try that prank when I was writing high school wrap-ups. Thanks to evesmag for saving the story online.

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Bloom County memes and stranger things

“Before there was The Daily Show or South Park, there was Bloom County, Berkeley Breathed’s satirical eighties comic strip that centered around a sensitive penguin named Opus, and ribbed such cultural cartoons as Donald Trump, Al Sharpton, and George H.W. Bush.”

New York magazine Vulture blog, Oct. 12, 2009

Growing up in the Eighties, I didn’t read political news in the A-section. I assuredly devoured newspapers, but it was 80% sports pages and 5% movie reviews and entertainment news. The other 15% was the funnies, particularly Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County. I would clip comics and stick them in a manila folder. At one point, I had several folders stuffed with the musings of Opus, Steve Dallas and Bill the Cat. I had folders for For Better or For Worse, Garfield, Family Circle (why I don’t know), and, of course, Peanuts, too, but Bloom County was my favorite.

Having little use for political news at the time, I didn’t even get most of the jokes — or rather, I just assumed all politics were a running joke, but somehow cool at the same time (a worldview I still hold today).

I certainly caught on to the pop culture references though, and I even had that floppy, square 45ish record by “Billy and the Boingers” that came with one of the compilation books that were released every other year or so (which I used to buy, even though I had already clipped the comics that were collected in those editions).

Even more, at one point I wanted to be a cartoonist, and would imitate (read: steal) Breathed’s style in my own comics, which I cut-and-pasted into my own two-page neighborhood newspaper I produced in my teens. (I was thrilled to bike down to the local “Copy-A-Second” place and plunk down 5 bucks for like two dozen photocopies, thrilled that the place could print on both sides of a sheet of paper, giving my Commodore 128-produced 8½ × 11 tabloid a sheen of pure professional.)

Bloom County spoofed the Era of Reagan, but, like a lot of Eighties critique during the Eighties (and 20+ years later, my memory is hazy to be sure, so I’m probably mangling this), I don’t remember Reagan himself getting skewered much in the land of Opus. His policies and his clique, sure, but not Reagan himself so much. (Or maybe I’m just confounding my memory with the line from Raising Arizona: “They say he’s a decent man, so maybe his advisors are confused.”) Breathed himself recently said he felt he was trying to play it more down the middle, and that jives with what I can remember.

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Local-washing food and sportswriting

McDonald’s recently launched a local TV commercial around these parts (h/t All Over Albany). Yep, multi-national Mickey D’s name-dropped a bunch of Albany-isms (some of which The Locals don’t actually or frequently use) into a spot in a bid to put a local face on the Golden Arches.

I suppose it should be a compliment that parochial Small-bany rated a commercial geared directly toward its decidedly Single-A market. But a comment about “local-washing” in the All Over Albany blog got me thinking about the phenomenon.

The “Buy Local” movement has had some positive impacts, even beyond the obvious growth of the excellent farmer’s markets we have in upstate New York. I like that regional chain supermarket Hannaford sells some local produce from farms in a few-county radius here, even if the offerings are limited to one cart in a several-thousand-square-foot store. But they position the offering as you come into the produce section and label it with the farm it came from. Bully for them. It’s a good idea, and a smart idea. It appeals to my 100-Mile Food sensibilities, even if I don’t come close to fully practicing that.

But what about Starbucks re-naming one of its Seattle stores as “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea” to whitewash some corporate stain? What about the execrable Gannett Corporation’s deceptively named ShopLocal™ Web site? (h/t Forbes). Frito-Lay ads in Florida? Local-washing efforts by Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Citgo and Hellmann’s? Does at least some of what Wal-mart and other supermarkets do (in selling local produce) redeem themselves in the same way that Hannaford does in my mind (though Hannaford’s superior-for-a-chain organic section, including its own house-brand, gives it a bump in my book, and no, I’m no flack for them, I just like their store; but am I biased because I’m a fan?). And, as Elisabeth Eaves writes in Forbes, did the “Localvores” bring this onto themselves?

I have mixed feelings about this. Not about the McDonald’s commercial, but about the full ethos of buying local. I support that philosophy wholeheartedly, but I worry about the dogma of supporting that ethos to the exclusion of all other approaches.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that the chains do actually hire local people, which Eaves notes — yes, I agree that they do create jobs. On the flip side, those jobs often pay poorly, come with limited or no health insurance, send most (if not all) of the local franchise’s profits out of the area and back to the corporate headquarters, are situated in a building that often has no architectural relationship to long-standing neighboring structures (except to other chain places in a sea of urban sprawl, and this in the face of typically weak zoning laws), and quite possibly replaced jobs in locally owned businesses (not franchises) to begin with.

On the other hand, in these strained economic days, if I’m not eating PB&J for lunch (again) my lunch budget is $3 — enough for two items off McDonald’s Dollar Menu and a buck coffee, provided I can scrounge up enough change in between my car seats to cover the sales tax. Plus, we took Junior to the place once and he referred to it as “Old McDonald’s.” In fact, we tried Wendy’s a few weeks later, and eager to avoid him becoming brand-brainwashed, we called Dave Thomas’ place Old McDonald’s, too.

(Aside: At once point I had attempted the Neil Pollack approach in Alternadad and tried to flip branding on its ear by telling Junior that, whenever he saw the Golden Arches, it signaled a building that sold yucky food. That didn’t last long once we had a hungry 3-year-old suddenly awake on a road trip and the only thing open on a Thruway rest stop was Mickey D’s. But I digress.)

In the end, it’s a fine line. Hannaford’s approach seems to be the right one, though of course, I’d like to see even more local offerings there. But McDonald’s approach seems more sneaky, more insidious somehow.

It’s not entirely dissimilar from what ESPN is doing with ESPNChicago.com, ESPNBoston.com, ESPNDallas.com and (God help us) ESPNNewYork.com. (Though ESPNScranton.com still seems to be available.)

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William Safire RIP

Wow, have I got some catching up to do. As I’ve previously mentioned, yep, I’m a hypocrite. But here are some items I threw up on my Facebook page in the last month that I wanted to include here. So, previously, on Facebook…

  • William Safire, dead at 79: Great lexicographer, I carry a well-thumbed copy of his Political Dictionary in my work bag. May have disagreed politically, but the man was a damn smart writer. A man who knew the power of words and speeches, and despite our political differences (and some of his questionable journalism), a man I enjoyed reading for his love of language.
  • ESPN.com: Selling out more than previously thought possible? To borrow from Sports Illustrated, that week’s sign that the apocalypse is upon us: Bill Simmons, Brought to You by Miller Lite
  • Belatedly (on my part), Happy Labor Day from the execrable Gannett Corp.: The New York Times’ David Carr, writing about  The Journal News of Westchester: “…(R)eporters at The Journal News don’t work in a newsroom, they are part of an ‘Information Center’; they don’t cover beats, they cover ‘topics’; and in a new wrinkle to an old story, the staff was not being laid off, but becoming part of a ‘comprehensive restructuring plan.'”

Degrees of journalism

Jack Shafer is one of those reliably irritable writers who gets it right more times than not (his crusade against Bill Moyers was one of those times that are not, but other than that, I can’t think of any others right now). He’s the prototypical cranky journo, and the world is better for it.

Right now, I tend to think Shafer is absolutely right about the future of journalism, and the fact that the downturn of today could portend a rise tomorrow. To wit:

Let me say it another way: The barriers of entry into the journalism business have been battered down, making it easier than ever to enter the profession. That will read as small consolation to the journalists who have had their publications shot out from under them—the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Ann Arbor News (come July 23), and magazines too numerous to tally. But please notice that I’m not saying there has never been a more lucrative or prestigious time to become a journalist. The cash and status associated with the profession are fairly recent. Until the early 1970s or thereabouts, the average journalist made an average salary (if that), and his societal standing was modest.

If the downside of the battered-down barriers to entry is less pay and lower status, the potential upside is that a flood of new entrants into the field could portend a journalistic renaissance.

This hardly aids journos of my generation and the Millennials. Our bosses, most of them Baby Boomers, sold us a bill of goods that said we needed more and more college degrees to be “real” journalists, even though many of them didn’t have Master’s degrees when they entered the field. This isn’t exactly what Shafer is saying in his recent Slate column, but it got me thinking.

To me, this touches on something Laurie at Punk Rock HR wrote about recently regarding MBAs in the work world in general, and what Jimmy Breslin has long said about the reporting world in particular — why the hell do you need a Master’s to be a journalist, or for that matter, a degree from a Journalism school when you should be learning about history, literature and the like in school (with a healthy re-up of grammar lessons, but I’m hardly one to call the kettle black on that one), and learning the how-to’s of journalism as a cub reporter under the tutelage of a seasoned veteran? It’s real-life experience that matters, and that makes good writing.

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Whither the box score?

As a kid, I can remember devouring box scores, with their encapsulated summaries of baseball games. Box scores became fancier in the early Nineties, with the rise of fantasy leagues spurring on extra columns for batters’ walks, Ks and up-to-date batting averages and ERAs. But they remained a staple of my newspaper reading, as much as the columnists and the crime reports.

Now, as newspapers continue to die, box scores seem to me to be dying too; at the very least, their importance to fans seems diminished.

That’s not to say that sports stats are less popular; quite the opposite. But the collection of stats inside a box score doesn’t seem to have the same pull it once did. Even on the Web, it’s easier to check a player’s most recent individual page or click on a quick game summary on MLB.com or check out a live update on any of the various sites. And that doesn’t include the overflow of stats included on the scrolling tickers on the bottom of ESPN and the MLB Network, or on the recap screen that follows each game’s highlights on Sportscenter, Baseball Tonight, and every other highlight show. It’s just not the same as an old box score.

Ironically, fantasy leagues, which fueled the boom in expanded box scores almost two decades ago, have helped contribute to their diminished stature, as much as the (largely self-inflicted) death of newspapers. Why check 15 individual box scores for 15 games when you can check CBS.com and see the stats for solely your fantasy team’s guys collected and summarized on a live scoring page?

(Disclosure: every morning since the mid-Nineties until about a year ago, I used to sit with the sports pages open, yellow highlighter in hand, and highlight the summary lines in the various box scores of the players on my Rotisserie baseball team. But I digress.)

I’ve come around to reading articles, columnists, etc. almost exclusively on the Web. I prefer reading on-screen so much that even if I buy the local papers, I still wind up reading that days’ news on their Web sites — the print version sits mostly untouched, at least until Mrs. Icepick picks it up. But despite that, I haven’t come around to reading box scores on the Web, where they do, in fact survive. I wonder if I’m alone in this, or if it is merely the way my reading habits have developed.

Will the box score form, developed by British-born journalist Henry Chadwick in (or around) the 1880s¹, survive?

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