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Extra, Extra
2008-07-09 05:51
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

A few weeks back, Rich Lederer ran an interesting post about the state of the newspaper business:

With subscriber rates and advertising dwindling, newspaper profits are getting squeezed due to the decreasing revenues in a high fixed-cost business. It remains to be seen whether these companies can turn things around fast enough to remain viable longer term. In the meantime, look for more consolidation, layoffs, and plant closures to reduce capital expenditures and costs. Shareholders may face possible dividend cuts if cash flow weakens to the point where it no longer can support the current payouts. I wouldn't rule out bankruptcies or unwanted takeovers from opportunistic suitors, who most likely would finance the majority of such acquisitions with debt. Servicing high-cost bank debt and junk bonds would make it that much more difficult for the old media to survive without major changes to their business models.

If the truth be told, the newspaper behemoths were in the best position to lead, rather than lag, the growth in the online media space. Forward-thinking managements, while perhaps not entrepreneurial enough, could have beaten the Googles, Yahoos, eBays, and Monsters to the punch, ensuring not only their survival but prosperity for years and perhaps decades to come. Instead, newspapers are downsizing while changing their business models to focus on local events and become more like magazines by devoting space to features rather than old news.

An ideal companion piece can be found in the recent issue of the Columbia Jouralism Review, where Robert Weintraub writes about the decline of the big-city sports columnist:

The idea that the sports columnist may no longer be a crucial part of the nation's best newspapers is something to be lamented. The gifted sports columnist often delivered the best writing in the entire paper (and often commanded the highest salary, as fans bought papers to read his take on the local action). Freed from the Journalism 101 tropes, the sports column was home to more emotional and livelier prose than that in, say, the local political columns. At his or her best, a [Tony] Kornheiser or a [Jackie] MacMullan weaved artistry and insights into 750 words. That blend of beauty and concision is a dying art. By contrast, there is ESPN.com's popular Bill Simmons, who is knowledgeable and funny, but reading his sprawling pieces can consume an entire lunch hour. The Internet's boundless newshole is a boon to information delivery, but less so to crisp, disciplined writing.

...The big-city columnist's demise has not been entirely self-inflicted. His position as the go-to guy for both perspective and insider dope has been diminished by the democratization of information and the ability to quickly disseminate it to the public. When everyone has an opinion, and a way to broadcast it, the ability to get the news in the first place is crucial. Yet the columnist cannot get into the nitty-gritty of a local team's games, because beat writers and obsessed bloggers tend to know much more about the squad and its doings on the playing field, as they parse every game, every dollop of information, every statistic. The columnist is also outflanked by teams themselves, who use the Internet to bypass the press and break news, and by the growing number of athletes who operate their own Web sites where fans can interact.

I wonder if we'll ever see a fresh, young, must-read columnist, someone who knows their sports and knows how to write, in a major newspaper again.

Comments
2008-07-09 07:22:24
1.   ChrisS
0 Probably not, and for the reasons you mention. The most talented writers often skip the slog through minor leagues and end up at the show because of the internet. Smart, sharp-witted sports writers aren't even likely to be discovered in newspapers anymore. Will Leitch, for example, you and Cliff with a more narrow focus, the USS Mariners, FJM, even those River Ave. Blues guys are gaining audience.

Newspapers may still be the alpha dog in terms of access and clout, but in terms of having the best writers, they've lost that market share already.

And, really, Bill Simmons's schtick gets tiresome quickly.

2008-07-09 07:26:22
2.   williamnyy23
Nostalgia aside, I am not sure why anyone lament the demise of the columnist, sports or otherwise. If anything has been proven with the proliferation of information, it is that mainstream sports columnists are among the most ill informed about the topics they cover.
2008-07-09 07:33:52
3.   Schteeve
I disagree with Rich when he says that the old media behemoths were best positioned to capitalize on the emerging media space. Due to their size and establishment, they had too much to lose, and too much entrenched thinking to take the risk of short term losses even in the pursuit of a big win.
2008-07-09 07:54:48
4.   Shaun P
To quote the wise Dayn Perry: "'Beer or tacos?' Both, you fool."

That is, why can't we have both? The writer who weaves an artistic tapestry in 750 (or how many ever) words, but who also drops 10,000 words in a blog format as well? I think some media outlets are getting this idea, and its a good one. There are plenty of talented writers who could survive, and thrive, in both formats.

In fact, there's at least one I know of who already is thriving in both - Joe Posnanski.

3 I disagree. The old media behemoths have lost too much because they didn't stay ahead of the curve. The risk was more minimal for them to try to lead in the area as well.

2008-07-09 08:08:47
5.   Raf
Give me a newspaper columnist that plays it straight, and I will read his columns. Not a big fan of Madden or Lupica @ the NYDN. Not a fan of King @ the NYT. Don't really read the Post anymore, though given some of the columns linked to @ waswatching, it appears I'm not missing anything. Mark Kriegel made me laugh sometimes, when he was @ the NYDN. I liked Michael Kay's work when he was with the NYDN. I can read Pete Abe for a bit, but mainly for the insider information.
2008-07-09 08:30:44
6.   Schteeve
4 But they didn't perceive that to be the case. They had established revenue streams to lose, while the Googles of the world had nothing to lose. The business models always lag behind the tech innovation, so it's easier to make headway when you start your business model from scratch.
2008-07-09 15:00:33
7.   vockins
I was forwarded this beauty of an article today from Detroit Free Press:

http://tinyurl.com/65hkvj

That's one of the worst pieces of writing I've ever read, and I used to teach history to ESL students and dropouts in NYC.

The pizza metaphor is especially insane.

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