“On Journalism,” from some unlikely (yet some of my favorite) journalists.

History Column
Written by Nathan Mattise

I went to school for journalism and I’m a future wannabe journalist. I know this stuff interests me more than most but when rumors of some publications with Cheers status (c’mon – everyone knows their name? Too much?) closing starts to spread, everyone begins paying attention. That’s why I wasn’t shocked to see this on the front page of ESPN.com recently:

Bill and Chuck Klosterman engage in a debate so epic we needed two podcasts to capture it all. In part two of their epic podcast, Bill and Chuck Klosterman drop the gloves as they discuss newspapers, sportswriting and the Internet.

Regardless of how you feel about Simmons or Klosterman they have some “it” factor (talent, intelligence, drive, networks, luck, etc.) that helped them rise above their peers into their current positions. Whether or not it gives them a ton of credibility on this issue is for someone else to decide, but if you tossed Anthony Bourdain and Ira Glass into their conversation I’d be in my writing/storytelling heaven. The podcast doesn’t provide answers necessarily, it’s more of a reactive debate about which factors have put the industry in its current situation. However, it’s worth listening to in its entirety. Check out a basic summary of their main points (with elaboration after the jump):

Klosterman’s biggest contributor:

  • Ad revenue and the loss of it due to the Internet and entities like craigslist (then how that negatively impacted newspaper’s reporting capabilities)

Simmons’s three factors that lead to the current journalism culture:

  • Newspapers had a lax attitude towards ‘net in the beginning (Klosterman expands on this to say that newspapers historically have irrational responses to electronic media and the most recent result of this is that while info used to sell papers, now it’s commentary).

  • Newspapers were threatened and jealous of the ‘net’s immediacy (Klosterman: “Does most news even need this?” And maybe newspapers never really were competitive news sources, rather people valued their experience [morning coffee and the paper] rather than their content).
  • Unions and the issues they brought… (This allowed others to mail it in with a tenured prof. approach [I’m here for good – no incentive to really work hard]. Papers couldn’t get out of bad hires as well. This discouraged young writers from sticking around [young Simmons included] because their ideal goals are occupied and the people in those positions can’t ever be usurped. Klosterman said unions also led to an increased pay scale).

Now for some of the more interesting bits of elaboration…

On the immediacy of news and newspapers reaction to electronic media Klosterman said (in reference to the example Simmons gave on the Globe versus local web sites reporting on the Martinez to Red Sox trade), “It’s not 9/11 or Columbine, nothing that needed to be read immediately. As a culture we’ve decided the new Hold Steady single, movie release date or NBA trade needs to be consumed instantaneously to be valid. That puts all news sources outside of the internet in a really problematic position.”

Simmons then talked about how newspapers already had this situation arise with sports talk radio. News would break after the morning edition, radio had it all day for commentary but readers still went to the well-reported, well-thought out angled stories in the paper the next morning. Klosterman countered with blogs are more like talk radio then newspaper, and that newspapers have traditionally played the new media’s game when new media rose. He cited the newspapers’ push for immediacy without thinking of profit this time around and their design push to become more like television during the 70s/80s (i.e. the rise of USA Today) instead of trying to provide more in depth reporting and stories that images couldn’t provide. Simmons summed it up, ” If I said to you we can go to dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House for 50 bucks or we can get it delivered for free at my house, we’d be eating at my house. That’s what newspapers did.”

On the ‘net being a meritocracy in response to Simmons’ saying unionized reporters could potentially mail it in Klosterman strongly disagreed. “Would your readership go up or down if you had full nudity on your column? I guarantee it would go up but does that mean your quality improved?… it’s a meritocracy in the sense of pure capitalism.” He countered this with an example that a metro columnist consistently attacking a popular mayor wouldn’t be fired whereas online they may be let go if their page views drastically declined. He also commented on how this logic is further flawed because page views are inherently flawed. If he sees a Maureen Dowd column as the most read thing on NYT.com, despite not particularly reading her, if he clicks on the link it only perpetuates her online value regardless of if he reads a single word.

On the lack of opportunities for young writers to move up Simmons relayed his own experience at the Boston Herald. “I looked at the landscape and thought, holy crap, I’m gonna be 35 and may have a chance to cover the Bruins. That’s my best case scenario cause no one ahead of me is going to leave. Is it a good thing that someone like me, and… obviously I had some talent, left because I knew I wouldn’t get a chance until I was 35 to hang in the Bruins’ locker room and get quotes from Ray Bourque?” Simmons points out Dan Shaughnessy and Bob Ryan have been at the Globe since the 1980s, but Klosterman points out that Simmons himself is now in that position. He argues Simmons has every piece he writes on the front and that his recent column on actors and actresses would’ve been killed or burried if any other ESPN columnist wrote it. A metro columnist couldn’t even suggest it. “You’re more of a tenured sports writer than any writer who’s ever lived. You create your own world, even called the Sports Guys World, you created your own language, things like the Ewing rule, and create an entire culture that’s entirely yours. How could someone else ever do that? They can’t… It was easier to become a metro sports columnist then than it is to get your position at ESPN.” (They also mentioned now major metro columnists almost use newspapers as a stepping stone to television and the ones who don’t make that leap can be perceived as not talented enough to do it).

Finally on blogging Simmons said he thinks more young writers will emulate them and not a columnist like Simmons because there is the possibility of gaining an audience right away. “People will just toss a story up without having an angle on it but they know others will comment on it. And I think, ‘Really? You spent 20 minutes on that?'” Klosterman added the mentality on the ‘net is now that you’re judged on what you write about, not what you’ve written and you write about what you think others will write about not what you want to write on.

That’s a lot to take in from just a 45 minutes podcast but I can certainly see where they’re coming from on certain issues (how moving to a desired position seems impossible, what is the value of immediacy on certain items, why isn’t there a market for longer/in depth piece, etc.). Thoughts and reactions anyone? I know I’m still formulating my own.

(Links today from ESPN.com, NYT.com, The Boston Globe, Wikipedia, YouTube and Time.com.)

Have any hopeful or encouraging words for young journalists? E-mail me some moral support, please.


Filed under Columns, History

4 responses to ““On Journalism,” from some unlikely (yet some of my favorite) journalists.

  1. cmajor7

    I see you were linked randomly to a recent post about Simmons’ feud with ESPN. (Sadly, it’s the most-read post I’ve put together, sad because I don’t know much about the issue, and sadder because not much came of it.) Anyway, I was listening to the beginning of the podcast on my way to get a Guinness with my friends, and I haven’t heard Part II yet. I have only two contradictory observations:

    1. Simmons and Klosterman debating anything isn’t bound to yield results. I don’t get a lot of insights from their banter. Just talking points and counterarguments. They are entertaining, though, which brings me to

    2. Simmons, at the very least, is incredible. He writes a lot, mostly knows what he’s talking about, and he’s funny. He’s entertaining. I’m growing weary of people feeling like they have to write “Say what you want about Simmons, but…” Yeah, I’ll say what I want about Simmons: He writes better than I’ll ever write, he’s got a hot wife (who also writes well), and 500,000 people a day hit his site just to see if he posted something.

    That’s enough of me rambling. Good luck with your journalism career. I got a news-ed degree in 1992, after editing my college paper, working for a few years as an editor and reporter… and then saying to hell with it and becoming a teacher.

    I haven’t regretted it for an instant. And I was good at what I did. I really was. But who can feed a family in a dying industry that pays you $7.50 an hour to start?

    But really. Good luck.

    • Couldn’t agree with you more about Simmons – I’ll even take his podcasts now despite people getting upset with their length (kind of like how some criticize his columns). Hopefully the print media finds away to survive going forward but otherwise I like your approach – find a way to work but find time to blog. Good luck with the bracket (I saw your latest post – I got similarly crushed by the opening round)

  2. maggieg

    You’ll never guess which Web site directed me here today . . . A+ Mr. Mattise.

  3. Pingback: Good podcast. « New Frontiers

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