So a few days ago I wrote this blog post about the crappiest of crap editorials, written by a Tennessean sports editor named Dave Ammenheuser. And, truly, it had nothing to do with Dave as a human being, or even Dave as a sports editor. Hell, I don’t know the guy. I simply take exception to newspaper columnists soliciting ideas from readers. It’s, at best, a curious way to cultivate column concepts.
Anyhow, in the ensuing days I’ve had a chance to read some of Dave’s actual sports columns, and I was slugged in the face by a profound reality: Men like Dave Ammenheuser are a big reason daily sports sections are becoming obsolete.
Now, I want to make this clear: Nothing here is about Dave as a person. I don’t know him, I have zero personal animosity toward him. But, as an editor, he has clearly bought into the modern Gannett philosophy, which concerns making the newspaper as reader-centric as possible. Meaning, turn the product into a three-dimensional vehicle where customers (and potential customers) feel involved in the product. Make it about them. Bring them in. Feel what they feel. Tell their stories.
I suppose, from an unemotional Spock-like standpoint, this makes sense. I mean, why wouldn’t people want to be involved with that they read? Don’t things like Twitter and Facebook verify that we’re a me-me-me-me society? Heck, let them eat cake.
Here’s the problem with that: It’s bullshit. When you decide your sports columns (not profiles. Columns.) are going to focus on the volleyball player with a heart of gold, the mid-level college offensive coordinator finally getting his shot, the distance runner who shocked the region, the equestrian rider who gave up golf to pursue horses, well … you’re writing not for a mass audience, but for somebody’s scrapbook. In other words, the equestrian rider’s mom, dad, grandma and Aunt Lucy will love you forever. But, for the most part, nobody else will give two shits.
If I’m the sports editor of The Tennessean, or any newspaper dying a slow-and-painful death, I’m begging my columnists to go for the jugular. I want to hear why Vanderbilt’s football coach needs to be fired. I want to hear why the Vols will never be good again. I want a man/woman unafraid to blast, to praise, to write hard, to bring a jolt of lightning to the page. This doesn’t mean you have to regularly slam people. But you need to have an opinion, and you can’t tiptoe. You must bring it. Then bring it again. And again. I’m no fan of Skip Bayless. But you know why he’s enormously popular while peers from his newspaper day are long gone? Because he makes points and drives them home. Repeatedly, awkwardly, sometimes cruelly.
Truth is, newspapers are on the way out. It sucks, it hurts.
But if they want to last a bit longer, they need to stop following this inane idea that readers need to be a part of the process.
What readers want—truly want—is compelling shit.