Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Help Wanted: Good Writers

Social media has been a sad place today with the stream of tweets coming from people at ESPN who have lost their jobs today. While loudmouth Stephen A. Smith and his $3.5-million per salary is safe, good, solid journalists like Ed Werder, Jayson Stark, Dana O'Neill and many others are now looking for work.

With the massive amounts of internet sites devoted to sports, as well as sport-specific networks for the NFL, NBA, MLB, and networks devoted to conferences like the Big 10 and SEC, most of them will find work, which is a good thing.

Still, it's frustrating, for several reasons. First of all, as with most layoffs, the people who made the decisions that put a company in a predicament get to keep their jobs. Despite writing checks he obviously can't cash and not having the foresight to see the trends in how fans get their information, John Skipper keeps his job, just like he did after the last two rounds of layoffs in 2013 and 2015.

Another thing that angers me is that it's obvious that sports media would rather have a bunch of loudmouth meatheads screaming ridiculous hot takes at each other that have about a 30-minute shelf life than dig deep and do real, actual reporting. Thankfully, some of that does still exist at ESPN with Bob Ley and his staff, but unfortunately they are typically regulated to one of the lesser ESPN channels at times that most people aren't watching.

Personally, I've reached the point that I only watch games on ESPN. I don't need a 90-minute pregame show for an NBA or NFL game, and I find the yelling back and forth on other shows as an insult to my sports intelligence. If I'm watching pre-or post-game coverage, I want to learn something, I want something of substance.

Unfortunately, we've been conned into believing that the only people that have an opinion worth anything are those that "played the game". Hence, the meathead mentality. The only problem is the next time one of the many idiots ESPN trots out on its shows says something that actually contributes to the discussion and teaches the fans something, it will be the first time.

But the thing that bothers me the most about this move, as well as many other layoff situations over the years, is that it's a clear signal that no one cares about good writing anymore.

As a sportswriter, I've gone through this before. While thankfully my day jobs kept me gainfully employed for over 25 years, I was laid off from my part-time position at the Aurora Beacon News in April, 2009. In a strange twist, I started working for the paper as a stringer the next day (and got paid more, but it made business sense because the money came out of a different till -- or something like that), but many of the full-timers didn't get that offer.

I'm not alone...most of the people I know in my little writing circle have either lost their jobs at one time or another or had to take a buyout and leave. Some found work, some are still stringers years later and have never found a full-time gig, and others just left the industry altogether.

To take their place, newspapers have hired untrained stringers who are more than happy to do a game for $85, but have no idea how to write a good, compelling story. Of course, that's an industry-wide trend, as internet sports media outlets have done the same thing, handed the keys to eager people, many of whom work for free under the con that they will get paid down the road, who might have an internet connection but are ridiculously short on writing talent. As a result, they get sloppy content that fills a space but does little else.

I get it, the whole thing is about traffic and clicks. AP writer Jenna Fryer's two Fernando Alonso IndyCar stories probably got more clicks in the span of a few days than this little blog has in the last two years. Her job is based on that, so it's no surprise that she will paint stories in a way that gets what she needs.

I get it, because getting clicks and selling papers has always been part of doing business, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Another thing that bothers me is that there are a lot of people in media that use their position to try and create personal relationships with the people they are covering. Creating a sense of comfort and trust is vital to a reporter's toolbox, but at the same time, a line has to be drawn as well. That line seems to be getting blurred more and more every day. I see a lot of people who seem to be more interested in becoming friends with drivers and taking selfies with them than doing real reporting.

(Editor's note: I see that more and more, and I think it's the height of unprofessionalism. If you have a media credential around your neck, you shouldn't be posting pics of you and drivers on social media. I've had lots of opportunities to do the same over the last year or so and refrained because it's just not right. End of rant.)

I know, I know, I'm old school! But when I started my writing career 17 years ago, the guys I worked with were true pros. When I first started working with them, I really couldn't believe it! I'd read their stuff in the paper for years and now I was on staff with them? It was crazy.

What was even better, though, was that from the beginning they treated me as an equal. They were always there to offer suggestions or answer questions that I may have had. Sometimes we would "double staff" an event and I would pay attention to how they did their jobs and the questions they would ask afterwards.

I wanted to be a good writer, I wanted to be like them, and while I am admittedly not the most talented writer in the world, if you read one of my stories over the years you would know that I always tried my hardest to write the best story that I could, whether it was for a city house league baseball or softball game, a college football game, or the PGA Tour.

That's part of the reason I got out of the sportswriting gig a couple of years ago, because that's not what the editors wanted. They didn't want a good, well-written story, they wanted someone to go to an event, keep stats and grab a couple of quotes. Or, they wanted a story written before the event even started. That just wasn't me.

I hope I'm not coming across as snobbish. I'm really not, it's just that I have tried my entire career to be a professional, and to represent who I'm writing for and the writing profession itself with integrity. Sadly, that is becoming less and less of a job requirement.

I'll always hold out hope that good writing, and good writers, will always have a place, but it gets hard sometimes. I'll admit, there are times where crossing over to the "dark side" is appealing. In my personal life, I am a mixture of quirky, funny, sarcastic and at times profane. Writing with no filter would be pretty easy to do, and it would probably lead to a lot more site clicks and maybe more attention.

But that isn't me. There are certain areas of my life where I take pride in my integrity, and writing is one of them. Heck, I've been serious about my writing since I was a teenager, so I can't quit now!

The dream of mine is that people will get sick of the noise and demand the good writing. Everything in life goes in cycles, and this is no different. Many of the people who lost their jobs today have been at this for more than 20 years, meaning they have been there and done that when it comes to what the public wants.

Twenty-five years ago, I was a member of Generation X, and back then we were what was wrong with the world. But you know what happened? We grew up and our interests changed, as Rocky Balboa said in Rocky IV...we became "normal people". Millennials will eventually do the same, and the landscape will change again.

As a writer, I'm sticking to my guns because I think (or hope) (or dream) that what I write and how I go about my job every day will become relevant once again. Even in my racing PR pursuits, as frustrated as I am with the culture right now, I know that what I find important -- good writing, smart, constant social media and good photography -- will eventually be what drivers and teams want. I believe that with all my heart.

So despite what happened today at ESPN, and what has happened with other organizations around the country, I'm staying faithful to my core beliefs. The written word has always been important, and the desire for people to read it will never go away.

We'll be back.






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