On newspapers

Before the summer of 1998, I don’t think I’d ever interacted with a newspaper in an appreciable way. The dew-covered sleeves of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch always rested on the kitchen counter when I came downstairs in the morning; my mother was an is an early riser, and she’d walk up the hill of our driveway around 6 a.m. to get the paper each day.

Back then, my mother read the paper cover-to-cover, and my dad started reading it in the doctor’s lounge of the hospital where he works and finished it at home in the evening if he hadn’t had too long of a day. I loved the smell of newspaper, sharp and kind of earthy, but that was about it — until 1998.

That’s when I began to run downstairs every morning and grab the sports section out of the pile. My mother knew she’d better finish it before I was up, because after that, it was mine. I checked the baseball box scores: Had the Cardinals game ended after I’d fallen asleep? Had the Cubs? The Mariners certainly had most of the time. I needed to know who had a hit a home run, and how many, and was Mark McGwire leading the race over Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr.? There was a sense of urgency to my baseball consumption, the kind of frenzy that only a 10-year-old can feel about a steroid-fueled race that would last until the 162-game season’s final days. Then, once my numbers were in order and my heart rate had slowed, I’d check out what Rick Hummel had to say about whatever the Cardinals (who were mediocre) and McGwire (who was earth-shattering) had done the night before.

Twenty-one years later, this simply is not how kids get their baseball news (if kids are watching baseball in the first place). They’re getting alerts on their phones, watching games through streaming services, tracking fantasy stats on apps. But newspapers still bring local analysis you’re hard-pressed to find elsewhere — of sports, and of many more important things. You see, after the home run race ended, I kept reading the newspaper. I moved on from the sports section to the front page. I read the 100 Neediest Cases every holiday season, the comics and even snippets about local government that I couldn’t yet quite grasp. Eventually, I even picked up the second, more daunting paper that was tossed to our driveway every morning: The Wall Street Journal.

Over the course of my career in sports writing, which lasted nearly a decade until its current hiatus, I only worked at a newspaper for one football season (plus the two years I spent in graduate school writing for the Columbia Missourian). But newspapers still loom large over my life in and regard of journalism, and they’re in trouble. (This is not breaking news, but bear with me here.) Last week, Margaret Sullivan at The Washington Post wrote a gutting story about the future of local newspapers, which prompted the musings that led to this blog post. The headline: “The death knell for local newspapers? It’s perilously close.”

Sullivan points to several recent developments, both sudden and gradual, that spurred her column. In the “sudden” category, there’s the news from last Tuesday that Alden Global Capital, professional strip-miners of newspapers, bought a massive stake of the Chicago Tribune. Alden has already gutted the one paper I worked for, the Denver Post, as well as the San Jose Mercury News. The Trib and other papers in the Tribune newspaper group appear to be Alden’s next targets for vaporization.

In addition, the merger of Gannett at GateHouse, two large newspaper chains, has been churning along for a while now, and it was finalized this month, bringing with it the news of a looming $300 million in job cuts.

And then there’s the situation at McClatchy, another newspaper chain that’s so over-leveraged as to be close to bankruptcy. That projection also came to light last week.

I’ll leave you to read Sullivan’s column for her analysis of the situation as a whole; she’s much more experienced in the world of newspapers than I am. There are a whole lot of out-there ideas that might save newspapers: non-profit status, foundations, you name it — a lot of ideas that depend on some level of public benevolence. And I don’t know if that benevolence exists, necessarily, even if it absolutely should. This morning, my mother sat next to me reading The Wall Street Journal and then commented that she’s going to drop the subscription next year. My parents already quit the Post-Dispatch. I urged her not to, then finished with a plea to at least keep online access. She countered and said she thinks she can get online access for free through an Apple platform — which I can’t imagine does a lot for the Journal’s finances.

And places like The Wall Street Journal aren’t the places I’m concerned about. The New York Times will be fine. So will The Washington Post, and now even The Los Angeles Times appears on surer footing. It’s the Post-Dispatch, the Times-Picayune/Advocate/whatever they’re calling the paper in New Orleans these days, the papers in places like Albuquerque and Columbus and Tallahassee and Tulsa. The informed public is always going to have a place to read about impeachment trials and billionaires declaring for the presidential race, but it seems like readers in this country are teetering on the brink of having nowhere to go to learn about city council meetings and corrupt local alderman or even the 100 neediest cases in a mid-sized city in December. Which leaves us with what, exactly? Facebook? Nextdoor? Some other brand of occasionally informed and generally blathering crowd-funded nonsense?

The decline of newspapers right now is a vicious cycle. Smaller and mid-sized and even humongous papers aren’t making the money they used to, so they can’t pay talented reporters and writers what they’re worth, so those talented reporters and writers migrate to online or to the few papers that can occasionally pay something that looks more like a living wage. Others stick around in less-visible jobs — because mid-sized and small papers do have plenty of smart and nuanced voices, if you take the time to subscribe and find them rather than whine about a paywall — but staffs shrink, and reporters who were once pulled in three different directions are now pulled in 17, and deadlines get earlier because papers start leasing out their printing presses for some extra dough, and readers like my mother who don’t understand this begin to complain about the depth of coverage. Fair enough. Benevolence, gone. But it’s not the reporters who are to blame. It’s the circumstances, circumstances that might improve if we could all agree that news is worth paying for and newspapers are worth saving from private equity sharks.

For a million reasons, we need newspapers. And despite the hour I spent rambling here, I probably won’t be the person to convince anyone of this fact. But imagine a world without the smell of newsprint.

Weekly Reading, Nov. 8, 2019

It’s been a minute since I wrote here, and I’m sure exactly zero people noticed that I missed a post of this nature last Friday, in large part because I was embarking on a much-needed weekend bender with an old friend who came to visit.

My brain and liver recovered sufficiently to do some reading this week. Most of it took place in the pages of my GMAT book; I wasn’t joking in this tweet, and I’m planning to take the test next month. I’m not sure what that means, or if I’ll go to business school, but I am sure that I’d like to give myself more options than just sports journalism as I think about the future.

Let’s circle back to the GMAT book for a second. You guys, I am having entirely too much fun remembering eighth-grade math. I love doing math problems. When I was a senior in high school and enrolled in BC Calculus, someone asked me what I thought I wanted my major to be in college the next year. I said I had no idea, but that I’d love to get a job where I did calculus problems all day. Why I didn’t become an engineer, I have no idea. I don’t think there are private equity bros out there buying engineering firms and laying off qualified, trained people in favor of kids who’ve shown proficiency with legos. But again, I digress. The GMAT book is a long way from calculus, but I’m having a blast turning on parts of my brain that have been dormant for a decade. The num of a the interior angles of a polygon with n sides is 180(n – 1)!

If you’re still reading now, congratulations. I did actually make time to consume a few interesting stories on the World Wide Web this week (and last week, pre-bender). My favorite was this profile of Adam Driver in the New Yorker. For an actor whose work I’ve enjoyed for years — I remember being mesmerized by him on Girls, with his weird affect and presence — I knew next to nothing about his life pre-acting. He’s from Indiana! He was in the Marine Corps!

I also loved this Tom Junod essay about being the inspiration for plot behind the Mr. Rogers movie. First of all, imagine being a relatively normal person who happens to have a movie made based on an unlikely friendship in your life. It’s a complete mindfuck. Junod writes beautifully about his time with Fred Rogers, what it means to be a good man, and how much the world has changed. The writing throughout the piece is phenomenal, but try to read this paragraph and not be affected: 

“In 1998, I wrote a story about Fred Rogers; in 2019, that story has turned out to be my moral lottery ticket. I’d believed that my friendship with Fred was part of my past; now I find myself in possession of a vast, unearned fortune of love and kindness at a time when love and kindness are in short supply. I keep telling myself that I don’t know how to answer Theresa’s question, that I don’t know what to do next, because Fred never asked anything of me. But of course he did. I have read his old emails, and I can see that he was very clear about what he wanted from me and everybody else. He never stooped to proselytizing. But he lived a life of prayer, and he wanted us—he wanted me—to pray.”

In other screen-adaptation news, I started watching HBO’s His Dark Materials this week. I read Philip Pullman’s trilogy in the late ’90s, and those three books were some of my favorites as an adolescent. (What’s funny, though, is I don’t ever remember talking about them with anyone, and I was under the impression that they were much less of a phenomenon than they were.) I was disappointed by the movie version of The Golden Compass in 2007, which made me leery of HBO’s adaptation. Still, there’s no way I won’t watch every episode of the thing, and the joy I took in seeing Lyra’s Oxford brought to life on screen in the first episode was only slightly dulled by some of the shortcomings discussed in this very good review on The Ringer. If anything, I hope the show spurs people to read the books if they haven’t; I re-read the trilogy this summer, and I’m about to start the first of Pullman’s new, related books.

Finally, I really enjoyed reading Drew Magary’s NFL column, which is about a lot more than just the NFL — and which appears to have found its post-Deadspin home on Vice.com, at least this week. In the column, the always-great Magary talks a lot about Deadspin‘s demise, and he includes a nugget about an ill-fated job-offer from Sports Illustrated that he fielded over the summer. That probably interests me more than it interests the average person, but still: I’m reading any and all content about what’s happened to sports media in the past month. (Hm, I wonder why I have such an affinity for my GMAT book.)

Ok, that’s it. A trigonometry refresher beckons. Happy weekend.

REVIEW: She Said (plus some ramblings about journalism)

Before I picked it up, I was worried She Said might be one of those great books that’s so dense, it takes a week or two to work through. (For the record, I had pretty much zero doubt the book would be anything but great.) I thought the subject matter might be as draining and discouraging as it is essential, and I wondered what new material it would present to readers who followed the Harvey Weinstein scandal closely in 2017.

Turns out, I had no need to worry. Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s book about their reporting on Weinstein — and Donald Trump, and Brett Kavanaugh — was as readable as it was informative and thought-provoking. As a journalist, I relished the play-by-play of the Weinstein reporting, and I felt myself cheering silently for Twohey and Kantor as they slogged through obstacle and reported draft after draft. I loved the nitty-gritty journalism of it all (potentially more than a non-journalist might), and it made me wistful for the days when I broke news. That’s saying something; generally speaking, I hate breaking news.

Beyond that, though, the book gave so much more humanity to the Weinstein story: to the journalists who broke it, to editors, to victims, to a frustrated accountant whose assistance helped break the whole scandal open. It fleshed out their lives, their values, their bravery. At times, I wanted the book’s scope to stick simply to Weinstein, but in the end, I appreciated the arc Twohey and Kantor drew from Trump to the Hollywood mogul to Kavanaugh to corporations — and the final chapter, which puts a McDonald’s worker fighting for corporate reform in a room with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd, quietly illustrates the scope of both the reporting and the movement it spurred.

Right now, readers have their pick of books about the #MeToo movement and its aftermath. Besides She Said, there’s Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, and I’m also looking forward to Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, a memoir that gives personhood to the woman whose gut-wrenching victim impact statement turned heads when Buzzfeed published it in 2016. I’d argue that all three books should be required reading in 2019, and though I’m only one-third of the way finished with that self-imposed assignment, I’m guessing that part of what will make She Said stick out as special for me in the end is its inextricable link to journalism. Yes, the book taught me more about the #MeToo related stories that have dominated headlines in the past three years, but it also reminded me of an important lesson in journalism: Sometimes a story is self-contained, but more times than not, it’s part of a pattern. I’d do well to consider the bigger picture more often than I tend to.

I’ve never reported on anything even 1/1,000th as important as the stories Twohey and Kantor have broken throughout their careers. I consider both women professional role models, and the care with which they went about their work reporting the Weinstein story is a standard we should all aspire to, both journalistically and as people. Reading about their process made me want to take on bigger stories in my next job (wherever that may be), and it reminded me that I’m not too timid, too reserved, too young, too anything to report on important subjects I believe in.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri, the starting running back on the school’s football team was mysteriously absent from a preseason practice. My beat partners and I, on the ground at the stadium, relayed this development to the newsroom, and thanks to an abundance of student labor, editors had the ability to send someone to the local courthouse before it closed to check if there might be any record of legal trouble brewing. Long story short: There was, and that night, we were able to break a story of real consequence about accusations of sexual assault levied against an athlete at a Big 12 school. Thanks to trust that several members of the paper’s staff had built in the community, we were well-sourced and confident in our reporting, and I will never forget the rush I felt when the paper’s top editor hit the button that put the story online. (All links to our original story turned up a 404, so I’ll link here to a follow-up piece instead.)

I thought of that moment often as I read She Said; obviously, Missouri running back Derrick Washington is no Harvey Weinstein, and our story played out over a day, not most of a year. But that night, my beat partners and I knew we’d done our jobs well, and we’d shed light on an important accusation. What I didn’t know then was how prevalent such accusations would become in college football in the coming years, that another Big 12 school would foster an environment in which assault became almost endemic to the program. At the time, the Washington story taught me that no news is too small to investigate more closely — my beat partners and I had felt there was something off about his absence that day and how news of it was delivered — but after reading She Said, I can’t help but be reminded that we missed the bigger picture. We brought the Washington news to light, but did we follow up to learn if the program planned to make any changes to its policies and punishment structures? Did we consider that the relationship in which the alleged assault occurred — the victim was Washington’s tutor — might be a common one in future accusations, at other schools, involving other players?

We did not.

Patterns exist, and the world is nothing if not a serious of reactions. I want to do better at remembering that as I move forward professionally, to look at the world through both a microscope and binoculars, to work with as much empathy, curiosity and care as I can muster.

Weekly Reading, Oct. 25, 2019

As a journalist, every story I write is supposed to have a snappy lede, or maybe a colorful scene — some way to grab the reader, really. Too many times over the course of my career, I’ve sat in front of my computer for hours, trying in to come up with a decent lede at the expense of, you know, trying to get the meat of the story on paper. No matter how much of what I’m going to write is outlined in another file or in my head, I can’t get started until I’ve typed a lede that doesn’t make me hate myself.

Which is all to say: I don’t think that’s how blogging works. As I begin to work on this post, I’m sitting at my best friend’s apartment in Baltimore, and no matter how many times I stare out the window or stretch my fingers, I cannot come up with a lede… for this weekly reads post… which should give you a good idea of how seriously I’m taking this blog. (Very.)

A blonde woman in a too-big Masters t-shirt sits on a blue couch while a dog the size of a large guinea pig half-barks next to her. She thinks to herself how confusing the noises that tiny dogs make tend to be. Through a window, sunshine slants in, the kind of fall light that’s more like a memory of summer than a preview of winter. She begins to type on her iPad, hundreds of words about what she’s read over the past few days, hoping someone will actually click and read. She rolls her eyes at herself and coughs.

Now that I’m done being an ass, let’s move on to the point of this post: NEWS! My plan is to do a post like this one every Friday, rounding up my favorite stories, tweets, whatever. Here goes…

If you’re a fan of baseball, or sports, or human decency in general, I hope you’ve spent some time this week reading about the Astros, whose assistant general manager, Brandon Taubman, reportedly taunted several woman reporters in the team’s clubhouse after it won the NLCS. The grounds for said taunting: Taubman was extolling closer Roberto Osuna, whom the Astros traded for in 2018 while he was in the middle of serving a 75-game suspension after being arrested and charged with assaulting the mother of his young son.

My former coworker at Sports Illustrated, Stephanie Apstein, reported the clubhouse incident in a column Monday. What came next was a display of ineptitude and hubris on the part of the Astros, which The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh summed up well in this piece. David Folkenflik of NPR also jumped in after Steph’s original reporting, adding more details to an already vomit-inducing report. Now, the Astros are down, two games to none, in the World Series, which might feel somewhat vindicating — but it shouldn’t. Yes, if the Astros lose the series to the Nationals, the argument that Lindbergh puts forth in his story — that the team hopes winning will distract from the at times unsavory way it goes about its business — weakens, but still: What’s changed? Are teams and less incentivized to pursue a player like Osuna at a discount when the need arises? Are victims of abuse any more likely to report or press charges? Are clubhouse environments any less hostile toward women than they were last week?

The answer to all of those questions is likely a resounding no.

UPDATE: I wrote this post Thursday afternoon, and a few hours later, the Astros put out a statement apologizing to the reporters who witnessed the incident. The team also revealed that it fired Taubman.

In other bad looks for baseball this week, an umpire sounded off on Twitter with a rather disturbing sentiment. At least he deleted it, I guess.

Moving away from the world of sports, I enjoyed this New Yorker piece on the history of impeachment, as a concept, which has been around since 1376. Apart from introducing readers to a historical figure named Luther (Brandybottle) Martin — who was apparently a very capable drunk — the story explains how impeachment came to be in England and why post-colonial America decided to take up a political process that had by the time of the Revolutionary War become obscure. The story also discusses past impeachments, of lesser political figures than presidents, and includes this succinct but on-the-nose sentence: “Every impeachment is a political experiment.”

I was fascinated by this story on The Atlantic‘s website this week, in which I learned about something called “stag and doe” parties. Weddings are weird. We all need to chill out about them.

I’m going to read Ronan Farrow’s new book, Catch and Kill, about serial abusers and the societal protections powerful people enjoy, but I’m going to wait to do so for a few months. That’s because I just started She Said, which is about the Harvey Weinstein investigation, and I feel like two Weinstein-related books in a short time span would be overload. That said, I’m curious about what Farrow has to say, and this Vulture piece is kind of a cheat sheet, sharing 19 anecdotes from Catch and Kill. Do not — I repeat, do not! — use this as an excuse to not read the book (read books, people!), but if you’re curious about some of the more sensational aspects of Farrow’s reporting (which I was), it’s a nice summary, and it made me even more excited to get my hands on the book in its entirety in a month or two.

Also, I just saw the news that Farrow reached a deal to do a podcast offshoot of the book, which Variety reports will begin in November.

REVIEW: The Dutch House

I’m an Ann Patchett novice.

For years, I’ve seen her name on bookstore shelves and in suggestions for me on Amazon, but for some reason, I’ve never purchased one of her books or even checked on out at the library. I really can’t say why, but I have a kind of blurry memory of my mother telling me I was too young to read Bel Canto when it came out. (I was in middle school at the time.) That said, the recollection in question might not have involved Bel Canto. It could have been another book with a blueish cover. Memory is a funny thing.

Memory is also the backbone of The Dutch House, which will be the first of many Patchett books I pick up going forward. I bought it a couple weeks ago at 7 a.m. in the New Orleans airport; I was desperate for something to read and the selection for sale was slim—which is not to say I felt forced into the purchase or disappointed that it was the title I ended up with. But until that morning, I’d never heard of The Dutch House, and I had no idea what I was getting into.

That said, I loved it. The Dutch House tells the story of siblings Maeve and Danny Conroy, from Danny’s perspective. I’m a sucker for any book about the bond between a brother and a sister; I have one brother, and we’ve been close our entire lives. Danny and Maeve are impossibly connected, and they live in a grand house, which is known in the area as the Dutch House. They’re also motherless, and this loss and others begin to define them as they exit childhood into adolescence. I don’t want to spoil the story, which reads almost like a 20th century (realistic) fairy tale, but I won’t ruin anything by saying that the siblings’ story is wrapped up in the house where they spent their childhood, a house that’s part blessing, part curse, part burden, part vehicle for wonder. Patchett writes the book in a series of flashbacks, and the telling evokes questions of how the Conroy children remember their childhood. The family’s collective memory looms large over the tale, too, as Danny grows up and realizes how little he knows about his own origin story and the assumptions he’s projected onto his own life.

The Dutch House is a book about family as much as it is about power, as Danny and Maeve harvest strength from the most unlikely of circumstances and learn to act upon a world that’s treated them unfairly. Though the ending felt somewhat predictable—it felt like too easy of a resolution for a story so complex—I came away from the book charmed by Patchett’s writing and impressed by her ability to flip the script on concepts like forgiveness and revenge.

Testing… one, two, three

Hi! Welcome to my blog, assuming someone is actually reading this — and let’s be real, I’m just going to operate under the assumption that no one is. As usual, I’m much more comfortable when I feel like I’m screaming into a void, not addressing actual readers.

I’m starting this blog to give myself a forum to write while I’m unemployed. I was part of the mass layoffs at Sports Illustrated in 2019 — I’ll let this Deadspin story do the talking about that indignity — and now, I’m taking some time to evaluate my options and work on a book. I’m lucky to have those luxuries. But I will say: After almost a decade of writing daily, this experience is beyond strange, and I realized almost immediately that I’d need somewhere to (self-)publish my thoughts during this time. So, voila! I’ve created this aesthetically mediocre space, which I hope will contain slightly better-than-mediocre writing.

My focus here will be books, journalism and writing, but I’ll probably veer off in other (predictable) directions from time to time, so bear with me. You’ll probably get photos from my travel — next up, I’m headed to Annapolis, Maryland for a Tulane football game and Paris — and maybe even some cameos from my cat, Eloise, who loves nothing more to sit directly on top of my computer keyboard or whatever open book I have in front of me. She also derives intense pleasure from chewing on pens I’m trying to write with.

I guess I’ll wrap up this introduction there, before I veer into a full breakdown of Eloise’s days, likes and dislikes. I’d love it if you’d follow along as I negotiate unemployment, read a ton, attempt to re-educate myself on topics outside of the world of sports (I think I’ve lost several IQ points since 2009) and travel.