obama2008-the-press

Because I have a dream, I work lots of extra hours every week as a freelance writer. Some would call it moonlighting. Freelance writing is supposed to be one of the gateways by which you can get a steady, healthy job somewhere as a writer and/or reporter. But there is a paradigm shift happening in the world of media, where no one — literally no one — seems to fully understand or is capable of accurately predicting what things like “journalism”, “reporting”, “media” and so on actually mean going forward. The things that a reporter learned in a School of Journalism in 1992 are hardly true today. The things I learned in Media Communications — a field of study designed specifically to combine the tents of journalism with the future of “new media” are out dated now, even though I set out on that venture less than ten years ago.

Everybody is mostly just a stick in the wind. 

I was inspired to write this because of Heather B.’s excellent piece on this site about the quality of our discourse with the “legacy” media, because of an excellent piece on Salon about the convergence of old and new media at the Final Four, and because I’ve found that, when I count it all out, my favorite sportswriters in this country all come from different backgrounds with different beginnings. It’s left me feeling like there was no-one-way to get to the place I want to be. 

Still, in some circles of the old media, people like myself and like others who choose to contribute to sites like this are looked down upon as uninformed wannabes, journalist troglodytes — jealous and pithy and lacking credibility. 

Those feelings have brought out the worst in all of us. I’m disappointed in some or many of these things. Not in the central point of them (I do believe that the thesis of everything I’ve written stands up), but rather in how I’d chosen to communicate them. Somewhere along the line, I’d decided that in the 14th months or so I’ve spent on Twitter, I wasn’t going to be better than the lowest common denominator of both the fans and media who choose to bicker with one another. I spent a few moments feeling bad about that, and then I decided I wanted to start changing it.

I can’t tell you what it’s like for every person who aspires to get into the media. I know, for instance, that I don’t really desire to be a reporter. I can’t tell you what is going through the mind of someone like Brandon Schlager, who I helped bring to this site, because his path will certainly be different than mine. He has very different strengths and weaknesses in this regard than I do. He has taken the initiative to edit a college newspaper. Despite our differences, I am certain that he has a bright and fulfilling future waiting for him, and, the benefit of something that we all lose eventually: the benefit of still having time. 

But I’m not Brandon. Nor am I Jerry Sullivan or Bucky Gleason or Jeremy White or anyone else who is certain that the way that they’ve done things is the only way that things ought to be done. I didn’t care about the Sabres declining to hold a press conference. It wasn’t a spiteful apathy: I didn’t care just because I didn’t. I didn’t care about the questions, I didn’t care about the answers and I didn’t care about what it said about the Sabres or what it meant for the media. I could understand — empathize, even – with those who did care and for those whose jobs were made more difficult in its absence. But I didn’t care. Unfortunately, there was no respect for that. 

But that’s what we’re missing, right? Respect? And so here it is: straight from the guy who has called Mike Harrington a third-string quarterback, who has accused Mike Schopp of being a plagiarist, who has called Jerry Sullivan lazy and greedy, who stated his desire once to pee on Matthew Coller’s shoes…. I was wrong. Wrong to say those things. Wrong to jump into the rabble. 

I don’t think I’m wrong in what I’ve said about the ways media have failed us. I don’t think I’m wrong about the idea that: if I cannot have a discourse with the media, if there is no possibility that they’d ever change their opinion no matter what is said, then it isn’t worth it. I think I’m right about those things.

But I am wrong about the disrespect. And so are they. There is too much disrespect from both sides: from those who collect salaries and benefits and have routine bylines as the “media” in this country, and from the rest of us who are something else.

The most frustrating thing that goes into this is this awful belief that if I disagree with the way something is handled, it is because I don’t understand journalism. That’s not true. I do understand. I recognize that there are people who don’t, or refuse to; that’s life. But as a general matter of course, I think that this whole respect thing would be better served if we started from the premise that we are all generally on the same plain; that we all more-or-less agree with the basics. Let’s weed out the truly bad seeds from there.

————-

 

5:25 AM: The alarm goes off. I hit the SNOOZE button about three times. This is probably two too many times. 

5:45 AM: I have a 90 minute commute to my day job, which is running an office, which has nothing to do with writing. Writing occupies my mind about 99% of the day. But because paid free lance writing gigs are more-and-more sparse these days, and because the competition is so high, I have to work a “real” job — one that provides me health insurance and a guaranteed income so that I can pay our mortgage. Hopefully someday that won’t be the case. But for now it is, and it is 90 minutes away. I make more here than I could make anywhere in the country as an entry level writer at a newspaper or magazine, but the 25-mile commute, one that takes me through two prongs of one of the worst rush hours in the Southern US, is my least favorite part of the day. It is a place in which I feel the farthest from where I truly want to be; from where I’ll truly be happy. My wife knows this, supports me and is ready to pack up the house and move at a moments notice. If the time comes when a newspaper or magazine or online publication call back with a job at even half the salary, I will gladly give up the benefits of our particular lifestyle to follow my dream, and miraculously, so would she. I will live in Nowhere City, Iowa to get a chance. Just give me one crack, one at-bat, a cup of coffee. I’ll figure out the rest. Today is not that day.

7:30 AM: I get in to work. I’ve got a breakfast taco in my hand. It cost me $4. It’s $4 I shouldn’t have spent, but I can’t bring myself to get up any earlier and make breakfast. I’m the only one here. The first few hours of my day are filled with all the rigamarole of running an office: setting things up for the day, responding to e-mails, communicating with vendors. The entire time, I’m crafting pieces of writing in my head… pieces I will undoubtedly write, for myself, for no money, that will be sparsely read or considered. Pieces that are probably a great deal better than what you will read in this morning’s newspaper. I am not special in this regard. A great deal of amateur writers are just like me; their work good but largely ignored.

11:00 AM: The morning rolls by, mostly slow, mostly forgotten, mostly insignificant. I take a mental break and look back at a piece I wrote for a small paper to refresh my ambition. The piece is short, rushed and of low quality. It feels arbitrary. I wonder if I’ll ever get out of here. I think I will, but you never know. 

12:00 PM: My wife has planned a nice night at home for us. There’s plenty to do. There’s the new front yard to install, there’s several rooms that need painting. There’s the general tasks of home ownership. We’re going to go out and have a nice dinner and come home refreshed; ready to get things done. But life doesn’t happen that way.

1:45 PM: I mentally check out for a bit and send out some magazine queries for story ideas that I’ve been building over time. Of these, several will never receive a response. There will be plenty of rejections. There will be a few with returned interest, and the pay rate will generally be so low that it would make minimum wage look enticing. But I take them. Always. I am addicted to the byline; to the possibilities. A great deal of the queries I will have set up to involve research or spending time interviewing/following somebody. These will all be written anyway because I feel the need to finish these jobs. They’ll sit in a file drawer in my home office, most of them waiting for the chance to be published.  Eventually they will become outdated and turn into garbage. So many good stories die in the waiting.

3:00 PM: I get a text from an editor I work with frequently. He wants me to cover tonight’s local AHL hockey game, because his regular guy had to check out of the night’s event.  He is sorry for the short-notice — but not really — these things happen more than you’d expect. He’ll throw an extra 20 bucks on my normal fee. Can I do it? They really need me, he says. And this is where I think back to my wife, think about how she has sacrificed a great deal of well-planned nights for my last-minute assignments, how we’ve spoiled meal reservations for Campbell’s soup so that I can hit some small paper deadline. She spent her entire life wanting to be a teacher. It took her 23 years and a lot of doubt and tears, but she made it. She understands my struggles, my frustration. I just hope I get there before she stops understanding. And so although I want to say no, I take the assignment and the small pittance that goes with it. I’ll write a recap that no one will read, take part in interviews that few will care about. But I’ll do it because I have a dream and because that byline might be the one that gets me the job I’ve always wanted. You never know.

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Bobby Heenan, perhaps the best professional wrestling announcer of all-time, used to do this thing where he’d say something that was obviously bias and then refute the bias by calling himself “a broadcast journalist”. He’d root for villainous Ric Flair to win the WWF title, hinting that he had money on the possibility, but when called out on this, he’d scoff and say it wasn’t possible: He was a broadcast journalist. This is one of my favorite parities, and one that I think is very apt today. 

One of the all-too-common themes of modern media is that they have inherited some level of authority just by having their title. This goalie is better than that goalie. Darcy should have not made this trade. Lindy should have done this and not that. Why is this guy playing over that guy? The organization should do this. They should do that. What? Don’t question my thoughts or motivations. I’m a broadcast journalist. 

The media is, by necessity, filled with real-life versions of the cartoon-like Bobby Heenan. This is our fault, their fault and the fault of those they cover. Everybody plays a part.

The first thing I do when I get online is check the blog rolls. Then I check Twitter, for the trending topics. Then I hit the headline news. I do this five or six or seven times a day. With my phone, I can do it anywhere. News cannot sleep because an audience that once existed only in evenings and weekend mornings now exists 24 hours per day, all across the world. The demand for information has certainly increased.

Think about it in the context of a hamburger. Seventy five years ago, people ate hamburgers and enjoyed them. But the demand wasn’t as prominent because it wasn’t carved into our routine. Therefore, there was no need to have three hamburger restaurants on every corner in which you could get one half-cooked in two minutes. You would go occasionally to a restaurant or cook one at home and it would take a lot longer. It would be much more delicious, too. Today, we can get a hamburger whenever we want, virtually wherever we want. But the quality has suffered. The same goes with media.

Now that the demands of the media have become so tough, now that deadlines have tightened and there is pressure to get out more content in less time, of course the quality suffers. This is our fault.

The media doesn’t help itself either, though. Things like comment sections, message boards and Twitter feeds make it very easy for the media to get involved in the bickering about their stories. Do people really think that in 1980, people didn’t think sportswriters were all rubes? Of course they did. It has virtually always been that way. As long as there has been an ax to grind, it has been ground. The difference is that in 1980 people who read the newspaper generally complained about content indirectly, through their buddies at the bar or to no-one-in-particular at their kitchen table. It was the harmless complaining that we all do about certain things.

Bitching about stuff like that is therapeutic. It makes us feel better about our menial lives. But we sometimes forget that on the other end of those stories are reporters trying to live menial lives of their own. In 1980, those angry voices just floated off into the atmosphere. In 2012, they are a 45-minute trolling war against one another on Twitter, ending with embarrassment, exasperation, and both parties generally feeling a little smaller. 

And if it’s the media’s fault and the fan’s fault, it’s also the fault of guys like Darcy Regier, who are actually mortally wounding themselves without knowing it. Darcy is verbal ninja, able to dance around the most straight-forward questions with defined articulation, able to fill ever-extending moments of air with responses that really answer no questions. I have never actually heard or read anything from Darcy Regier that has actually *meant* something. He might as well be a hypnotist.

But when you do that — when you become so good at answering questions with non-specific non-answers — you leave the framing of the story to the people who write them. How can I really blame Mike Harrington or Jon Vogl or Bucky Gleason for framing a story incorrectly if the Sabres organization gives them nothing to work with? That part of this is not their fault. I just wish they’d frame things differently most of the time. I wish they’d mix in some good with the bad. I wish they’d spread out their stories so Gleason and Sullivan don’t both write the same column in a single day. 

Under the disguise of mystical journalism, these are not things which I’m really supposed to say. I’m supposed to care about the organizations accountability to answer questions. I’m not supposed to imply that there are personal motivations to this sort of thing. But there always are; it’s inescapable. The thing is: the complaining that comes with this part, the “Darcy just made my life tougher and made you less informed” does not help us forget our menial lives. It reminds us that the things which we do for fun, the people we follow and care about, are every bit as menial. That is a big bummer. 

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5:30 PM: It is time to leave work. I pack up my things, turn out the lights and head to the car. By now I’ve been up for close to 12 hours, been at work for 10. I’m already having trouble keeping my eyes open, but I’ve got a long drive ahead of me just to get to the hockey arena. I should have never accepted the gig, but I am constantly in fear of saying “no” turning into I’d never get a phone call or invitation back. There is always someone younger, hungrier, willing to do more-for-less. I’m turning into the Bobby Heenan character, the “I can’t give up my spot!” broadcast journalist who can never admit his own fallibility. 

6:55 PM: Two more rush hour spots and a 5-minute wait in line to park and I’m at the arena. I take the security elevator up to the press box, flash my credential and shuffle off to my seat. It’s like a library in the press box, if you’ve never been. Any emotional or otherwise noise-making reaction of any kind is strictly prohibited, for fear that someone might confuse you for a human. In this place, there are young guys and old guys. The old guys are there with 30 extra pounds and gray beards and cynical eyes. They’re the ones who most vocally root for quick games and easy stories. Then there are young guys with slick hair cuts, overdressed and attempting to fit in. They’re the ones who think they’ve transformed into some inconceivably cool thing because they’re where they are. A couple of reporters are streaming a Montreal Canadiens game on a laptop. A female reporter, in her mid-20s, wears low cut shirts and short skirts even though she knows it might be a bad idea. She flirts with one of the camera  crew guys. Everyone, it seems, would rather be somewhere else. Me too. But then the puck drops and I start hacking away at my keyboard with an abundance of notes I’ll never really use. Then, I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.

9:30 PM: The game is over, and now it’s time for the mad dash down to locker room area where, after a little while, we’ll get some scripted answers to scripted questions. I generally don’t ask anything because I am generally disinterested in the response. I’m not very good at feigning interest. I just stand there, like a goof, with my recorder, getting the same quotes you always get. In this particular arena there is a media room down by the locker room with internet access for anyone who needs to file something right away. I need to get this story to my guy by 11, which, after the interviews, gives me about 50 minutes to craft the last three hours into something usable.

10:30 PM: I have been awake for 17 hours. I just realize, while frantically typing away, that I hadn’t yet eaten dinner. It’s sometimes easy to forget these things in the rush of a day like this. Now I just want to finish my story and get home to get some food in my stomach and some rest. The quality of the story suddenly means less to me now. This is no longer about fulfilling a dream — the grand picture loses focus — this is about getting it over with.

11:00 PM: It’s time to go home, finally. I’ve sent in the story and texted my editor to make sure he got it and everything looks okay. Usually he gets back to me pretty quick. Not tonight. On nights when he takes his time, I always worry. Did I say something? Does he hate me forever? Did I send him LOLCATZ jokes instead of my piece? What happened?

11:30 PM: I’m eating dinner with one hand while getting things prepared for tomorrow with the other. My wife, who I saw for about fifteen minutes, heads to bed. I get a text back from my editor. He’s not running the recap in tomorrow’s paper edition. It’s not a quality thing, just a spacing thing. Some high school team is going to states and he wants to give that some more room. It’s just a meaningless middle-of-the-season game anyway. It’ll be on the web-site in under an hour, he assures me. I assure myself I’ll wait up to read it. I don’t know why but no matter how many times I do this, I still wait up to read it. 

12:45 AM: The article finally goes up. It looks good…except.. the two or three sentences I put in there that had some sort of human element to them — the few things that would make the piece stand out even a little, that would allow me to be proud of it — are gone. It’s been parsed down to a bare bones, paint-by-numbers rendition of nothing. With this particular paper, their archives only store about a few months of articles. So now there’s the added work of copying and archiving my own clip immediately, just in case it disappears.

1:15 AM I check my e-mail, one last time. There is a rejection letter, and someone who thinks they are very interesting who wants me to write about them, and at least six PR people sending me advertisements that I should totally peddle to this editor or that editor. I have a dozen reactions on Twitter to something I blogged about; half are good and half are bad. Everything cancels each other out and I feel as though nothing was accomplished, though I hope something might have been. I’ve been awake for going-on 21 hours. I will get up tomorrow and do the same thing. I will love it and I will hate it. I will be one day closer to fulfilling my dream.

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You shouldn’t feel bad for me. I don’t. I chose this. No one is really “forced” to be a writer in the way that one might be forced to be a factory worker or grocery store clerk out of necessity. I put in long days and wake up exhausted because, when it’s all said and done, my cup of life is a little fuller for having done it. 

This has afforded me some awesome opportunities. I’ve gotten to speak to some of my favorite musicians at Austin City Limits. I’ve got to kick back and talk with political power players and award-winning historians at the Texas Book Festival. I’ve been to movie premieres and met countless interesting people. I’ve got to go to a bunch of great sporting events for free. My wife and I get free tickets and free schwag to stuff all of the time. 

But if you were to say to me today that everything I write sucks and that I’m doing it all wrong and that I don’t understand a thing I couldn’t argue with you. Not because you are right and I am wrong, but because nobody knows. Right now, with media changing, just nobody knows. 

So in the grand scheme of things, if I can’t listen to your point of view and take the criticism and take something from it, what am I doing? And if I can’t deliver my points of view respectfully, what am I doing? 

Instead of yelling and infighting, maybe the fans, the media, organizations and events should figure out what works best? What makes us the most money? What makes us the happiest? What keeps us the best informed? How can we all make this work like it used to work, but how can we do it to overcome the new challenges?

Nobody knows what journalism is anymore, so we’re all idiots and we’re all experts. The only way that I can see that we get back to the right place is by respecting one another’s goals and motivations. We are all in this together right now. It’s time we start to act like it.

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