Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Only Future for the Newspaper? The Past.

"Have you ever noticed how often you pick up a newspaper in a restaurant or barbershop and see that the sports section is missing?"

This rhetorical question was posed a few years ago on a sports talk show I was listening to. The host was attempting to justify the importance of his profession, and the importance of sports in society. Whether or not his premise was valid, based on my own experience, I couldn't argue with the evidence. To add to this, being a newspaper-phile myself, as a student I used to frequently carry around a paper to read during downtime in class. When people weren't making fun of me, they would invariably ask to see the sports section.

Now however, I don't have trouble specifically finding a sports section quite as often-- because I'm having a harder time finding any sections at all. Places that previously set out newspapers for patrons to read aren't always doing so anymore. I can only see this as indicative of a decline in overall importance of the physical newspaper in society.

Of course, many newspapers are finding a wider audience than ever before, but only in a digital format. The problem for newspaper companies with this phenomenon is that advertising revenue on-line is nowhere near enough to make up for what they are losing in print revenue. Googling the words "newspaper sales" will give one a clear picture of the problem. This article, from one month ago, concisely states the gloomy state of affairs.

Conventional wisdom is that when an industry is confronted with a paradigm change, survival depends on the finding of a niche. The print newspaper industry is still searching for how they can differentiate themselves from cable news and the Internet. I would say that I have a radical solution, but I don't. I actually have a reactionary proposal. I've noticed that most newspaper websites only have digital archives going back about a decade or so. They need to go further back then that, and they will find the answer. They need to go down to the deepest bowels of the archives room and pull out the yellowed copies of newspapers from the 1920s and 30s.

And the solution indeed can be found in the sports sections. I don't think cable companies want to consider the implications of how many subscribers they would lose if someone waved a magic wand and erased the letters "E, S, P, and N" from the alphabet. The sports section can be the backbone that carries the newspaper back to prominence. But why would anyone need to pick up a sports section when they can get their boxscores and injury news from the Internet, or in-depth analysis from the aforementioned cable channels?

Cue Grantland Rice:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.

Although this 1924 passage is probably the most famous paragraph that his sportswriter penned, it is indicative of his regular style. And he was not the only one of his era to write like this. It was common for sportswriters to approach their subjects with a literary or poetic inclination. And why shouldn't they? We are often told that sports are "an escape from reality," so why should the sports section conform in tone and style to the other sections?

I think there are a confluence of factors that would allow for a return to this gilded age of sportswriting. NFL Films has established that people are willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to their games; in other words, no matter what we know to be true intellectually, we are not averse to seeing our athletes as gladiatorial warriors playing for something more than filthy lucre.

On the other hand, we are more aware than ever before of the banalities that now permeate the sports lexicon. We recognize "coach speak" and cliches when we hear them. Bill Belicheck is more than a stereotype; he has shown an awareness of the vapidity he permeates in press conferences. This makes him a parody. And increasingly, the sports fan is becoming savvy to the banality of media commentators. (See the excellent blog for more). The final effect is that for many readers, you could cut out large swaths of what is currently published in sports sections and not lose anything of value.

A final factor: one medium that has been relatively unaffected by the digital revolution is the bound book. E-books haven't caught on, perhaps because of the way people process information. Whey they are more interested in leisurely absorbing something thought-provoking or literary, they turn to the tangible product. When they want bite-sized information, they go to the Internet. Perhaps if newspapers changed their niche from providing facts and data to providing a literary immersive experience, they have a chance to survive, and the medium itself just might become as immortal as the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.


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