With A Passion About The Printed Word, Act 1.

March 9, 2009 § 2 Comments

David Simon, Newspaper Man

David Simon, Newspaper Man

It might be a side-effect from growing up and treasuring the Sunday Times as manna from the heavens – or my years as a college newspaper writer – but I react the same way when I open up a newspaper (no, the Post doesn’t count, that’s a tabloid) that a junkie does when they get their hand on a dime-bag of cocaine. It’s a rush of blood to the heart. Watching the fifth season of The Wire wasn’t as bad as it could have been, because the newsroom is a growler full of kick ass for me. And for the most part, poseurs like Krauthammer and Kristol, Newspaper Men and Newspaper Women are a breed I’ll go to the mat for any day of the week.

My thanks to Collin for getting the gears turning again on a topic I’ve meant to get words out on. Box Score Beat is a damn good site, but I took issue with something he said, and thought a rebuttal was in the cards.

So I read his post, “New Journalism Demands a New Voice,” and got all animated in a rush because he seemed to be using Ben McGrath’s “Roid Warriors” article from the March 9th The New Yorker (which is about the investigations into the A-Roid story by The Daily News‘ sports investigatory team the I-Team) as a jumping off point about the failings in dumping the print writers onto the internet.

A friend pointed me to Ben McGrath’s recent article in The New Yorker titled “Roid Warriors” a few days ago. … I ran into the same friend the next day, and she asked me how I liked the piece. I replied that it was interesting enough, but I thought the writing was stereotypical print style and that it didn’t do much for me.

Where Collin sinks his teeth in is the proverbial red meat of the Sports Blogging Party: trite quasi-Lenoesque writing from old fartish hacks who never deserved their jobs when they wrote for print media anymore than they deserve their current jobs as online scribes. Here’s a quote that Colin found from Reilly:

Sure, times are rougher than Russian toilet paper. Your 401K is now a 101k. Donald Trump just laid off three blow-dryists. But because of it, you can see great sporting events for the price of a can of Spam Lite!

“RDRR,” Ricky, as the teacher at the sole private school in Springfield would say. But the problem with the piece was that the above quote was part of a longer ‘graf, and the only writing singled out as what you’ll see he refers to as “newspaperman writing,” despite the fact that the McGrath piece is where the story starts.

I’ll bold this ‘graf because I think it’s what we agree on. The above quote from Reilly doesn’t even deserve the place that it already has in print journalism, either. This is one of the flaws of large scale print journalism, to sell enough copies, publications have to cater to the lowest common denominator, as a result, the internet catered to the niche interests, and developed dedicated followings for those willing to lead.

Back to Reilly, though: any professor teaching journalism – print or online – would give that quote such a smattering of red ink you’d think the assignment was a Netflix envelope. Am I proud of that last line? Not entirely, but it gets the message across and it’s of substance, showing how drastically poor Reilly’s writing is, and somehow avoiding tried-and-abused never sacred heifers like Russian Poverty (not the best thing to be attacking in times of crisis), Donald Trump’s hair, and Spam, which Monty Python have had a humor copyright on for decades.

So how did Collin build a bridge from a New Yorker piece he was nonplussed by to

Don’t get me wrong, the reporting in the piece was solid, and the point of the article was surely to make the I-Team’s story the focus. But I’ve realized in the last few months that, due mostly to the proliferation of blogs I read, I have come to not only enjoy but also to expect a voice and an opinion in sports articles.

That seems to be the big difference between the net and the printed page: people get to be their own columnist online. Generalization, sure, but I believe there’s warrant to it. What I’m finding troublesome, though, is when writers I would classify as “print writers” convert to the online world and bring their newspaperman voice with them.

What do I mean by newspaperman voice? The type of writing that makes you think of trench coats, typewriters, kitschy headlines, and newspaper bundles tied with twine. The type of writing that smells faintly of ink and printing presses. The type of writing that has become so standard it can be called a “type of writing.”

Rick Reilly’s a perfect example.

While I’ve come to love Deadspin, have met Leitch and love their style of writing, it’s not a whole meal. There’s a thing about Yankees beat writer Tyler Kepner’s prose, for both the printed New York Times and the Bats blog that the NYT has Kepner writing for, that I actually find rather deserving of the ink and paper that is used in the printed version. He writes well, and he has a voice, but that doesn’t mean he has an opinion that comes through in any means other than the fact that you sense that he has a want for the team he covers to win, or at least give him stories worth a damn and more original than “Team Spends A Little Under The GDP of East Timor During Off Season To Try And Win The World Series.”

What I was trying to say is that we don’t always need columnists. Sometimes we need reporters. Actually, for the important stories, we really need reporters. We like columnists and the opinionated because we like to hear our ideas in someone else’s writing. The Times gets the difference between writing for the printed page and writing for the pixelated screen, as Kepner’s blog posts are musings and blips, appetizers compared to the lunches he serves up in ink and paper.

When I read that article from last week’s New Yorker, I realize that this is the kind of writing that keeps ink and paper companies in business(well, that and extremely pushy folks of the Schrute persuasion), because the printed publications, unlike most of the sports blogging world, can afford to send writers out to report, and find the reader more than they can find on their couch, you don’t see the following image in any MLB broadcast:

On a dry-erase board behind O’Keeffe’s head, Thompson had scrawled a quote from the newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe: “News is what somebody somewhere is trying to suppress. The rest is advertising.” There was an arrow connecting the word “somebody” to the name of the lawyer Rusty Hardin. His client Roger Clemens, the I-Team’s sources say, could be indicted for perjury sometime this spring.

This kind of stuff is why print still walks amongst the living, because it’s something that requires investigatory journalism, something that isn’t available to all bloggers, myself included, many of whom are unpaid and doing this to practice their own craft of writing in lieu of a paying gig, but most of us know that we’re not the standard.

What annoys me, and I don’t want to go Bissinger, but I’m worried about the future of the newspaper thanks to a dying attention span. Sure, the papers have a boatload of blame that they’re carrying on their fold, but they’re better than the alternative. I’ll hold onto the NYT, and I’ll be quite angry if it’s put out of business and those loud, boisterous hucksters at TMZ are still cranking shit out.

Good Journalism is what’s happening. It can happen in blogs, and does, but I’d rather have my name in ink than on screen nine times out of ten. This is why I’m going to try and write about a thousand words a night this week about where and why newspapers and magazines are chock full of FAIL and how I’d try and change the game up. Again, thanks to Collin for the inspiration.

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§ 2 Responses to With A Passion About The Printed Word, Act 1.

  • Collin says:

    Now THIS is a conversation worth having. Monster of a post, Henry. I’m glad I’m not the only one who is constantly thinking about this ever-changing state of journalism.

    I agree with you that we need more in journalism than columnists. If that didn’t come across clearly in my piece, I missed the mark. Reporting is the foundation of journalism, no question, and newspapers are the birthplace of reporting.

    My point of leading with Ben McGrath’s New Yorker piece wasn’t to discredit his story. Pieces like that have their place in journalism, and that specific story is full of worth (it’s in the New Yorker, ’nuff said). I just thought it was a great example of the traditional print voice that is seeping online.

    To me, the internet is a platform shrouded in a cloud of ? No one quite knows how to tame this beast yet, and they sure as hell don’t know how to make money off of it. But just because sites/publications aren’t sure how to make capital, does it mean they are allowed to be uncreative in their content? Is it a free license to shake out the pages of their magazines onto their keyboards?

    I agree with you–good writing is good writing. But the problem with journalism isn’t a lack of good work, it’s how it will be presented. Why not figure out a new voice for the new medium that is the internet, learn how to monetize that beast, and then take that money to fund print once more?

    Print reporting shouldn’t go away, and it doesn’t need to change (although I could do without some of Reilly’s autopilot puns), editors just need to know its place, and businessmen need to figure out how to keep it there.

  • […] Collin replied to my post with this comment. The line from the comment I found worth jumping off from towards my next thought about print […]

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