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 than just elicit clicks.

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.

(Editor's note, September 30, 2022: In a couple of desperate moves to get my career going, I crossed to the "dark side" a couple of times. They all ended badly because the people I was working with didn't have the same values and integrity I have for myself.)

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.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Nigel vs. Fernando

I have to admit, I was as stunned as anyone by the announcement yesterday that current McLaren Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso will be driving for Andretti Autosport in this year's Indianapolis 500. Not only can't I believe the announcement, I also can't believe that it was all pulled off with so much secrecy.

Big props to Michael Andretti for getting the deal done, and a tip of the cap to Stefan Wilson, who put the pursuit of his own program for May on hold so that they could get everything arranged. I'm sure that wasn't an easy decision, Wilson, like Pippa Mann, works pretty much year-round to secure funding for a 500 ride, so to eschew that for a year for a greater good has to be absolutely commended.

There is no doubt that this is huge news, and the impact of it covered the entire planet. To me that shows two things: 1) the popularity of F1 and its drivers and 2) the legitimacy of the Indy 500. I hope that the people who think that the 500 has lost popularity and luster are paying attention, because the news and the reaction to it show that rumors of the demise of the 500 have been greatly exaggerated.

Many are comparing this to 1993, when reigning F1 World Champion Nigel Mansell signed a two-year deal with Newman-Haas Racing, finished third at the Indy 500 and went on to win five races and the CART title that season.

So if you had to put each situation head-to-head, which one is "bigger"? Mansell taking America by storm or Alonso giving up his McLaren seat for the Grand Prix of Monaco for a one-off in the 500?

You know, with the spread of information and the power of social media that exists, and the following Alonso has makes the news of his announcement bigger, but having experienced Mansell in 1993, I think that was a bigger deal. Maybe not in terms of current metrics and the idea of "moving the needle" because Alonso will probably do both on a greater scale, but from a racing standpoint, Mansell's 1993 season to me ranks as one of the greatest of all-time.

Mansell came here off of a 1992 season that saw him win nine Grands Prix and finish second three times in the 15-race schedule. In 1991, he had won five races and notched four runner-up finishes while finishing second in the World Championship standings behind Ayrton Senna.

Like IndyCar, Formula 1 racing was at an absolute apex in the early 1990s. When I heard the news that Mansell was coming to drive in the US, I thought it was a "larger than life" announcement. Here was a guy who not only was the reigning F1 champion, he was at the absolute apex of his career.

It was so exciting to think about Mansell coming in and banging helmets with the likes of 1992 CART champ Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr., Paul Tracy, Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk, and others who were at or near the apex of their careers as well. Not to mention, he was teammates with Mario Andretti, who won the final race of his illustrious career and finished sixth in the seasons standings at the age of 53.

Then Mansell comes out and absolutely manhandles the car and the field to win at Surfer's Paradise! After a bad crash at Phoenix that saw him suffer a back injury that caused him to miss the race, Mansell returned to finish third at Long Beach. So by the time he got to Indianapolis that year, the excitement for his debut was pretty much off the charts.

I was there when he went to qualify, and the buzz was unmistakable. And the race? Well, you can read my recap of the 1993 race here.

Yes, I'm biased. The 1993 race remains my most favorite of the 500s I have seen in person, and I was rooting hard for Mansell to win that day. I still believe his drive in that race was nothing short of phenomenal. It's hard to explain if you haven't seen it, or have the context of that era, but he drove that race on pure talent, and he raced so incredibly hard. In the end, it was his inexperience that got him, as he was snookered by Fittipaldi on a restart with 16 laps to go.

He eventually won four more races that year, including the ovals at Milwaukee, New Hampshire, Michigan and Nazareth. In all he was just a Tasmanian Devil that year, winning races with talent and brute force. I still look at that season with amazement to this day.

That's why while I am happy to see Alonso running the Indy 500, love the exposure he's bringing, adding to the buzz of the 101st Indy 500 and have a hope that he kicks ass because it would be super cool, it's just so hard to compare that to the impact Mansell made. I'd even feel that way if Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel were doing the same thing, a one-off is just that, a come-into-town-and-leave sort of thing. If they were here, at the height of their career, for a full season, maybe I would think a bit differently.

I guess that's why I see Mansell's deal differently, because the buzz started as soon as he signed, and it didn't let up all year long. He was also a guy you either liked or didn't, and his flair for the dramatic -- like his over the top grimacing when he got in and out of the car after his back injury -- gave him a kind of had a "black hat" thing. And then there was his talent, which was absolutely prodigious.

In the end it's an apples to oranges thing, and there is nothing wrong with that, because this discussion doesn't have a wrong answer. It just depends on your point of view. I choose Mansell because I saw it happen and got to experience it myself. If you didn't, chances are you may not feel the same way.

I guess I just wanted to share my experience in 1993 for the purpose of context. I love IndyCar 2017, but Nigel Mansell circa 1993 was pretty cool too.

What are your thoughts?