Friday, May 22, 2009

America follows the lead of its athletes, stops reading the paper

Some of us preferred the newspaper to See Spot Run. Photo from this site, and surprisingly not from my parents' house.

Bad week for the newspaper business. Of course, when was the last time the industry had a good week? 1972?

Anyway, on consecutive days this week Keith Foulke and Joba Chamberlain declared they do not read the newspaper. This of course brings to mind what Curt Schilling said in September 2004, when I asked him about players who say they don’t read the paper during an interview for Fighting Words (shameless plug).

“Well, most of them are lying,” Schilling said. “That’s one thing I’ve learned: The guys who yell and scream about someone reading the newspaper or checking the stats—they’re the first ones in the morning. Don’t read the paper? They read it.”

That said, having covered the blissfully defiant Foulke, I have little reason to doubt he’s telling the truth. I haven’t covered Chamberlain, but since he’s only 23 years old, I have little reason to doubt he’s telling the truth, either.

Why would Chamberlain ever have to read the newspaper? Typing this sentence makes me feel quite old, but Chamberlain probably doesn’t remember a time when he couldn’t fire up the computer and have the entire world at his finger tips. Back in my day we handwrote letters to friends across the country whom we’d never met and had to write research papers by going to the library and thumbing through the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. And we liked it!

Unfortunately, but not without considerable justification, the rest of us old fogeys are following in the footsteps of the hippity hoppity young’uns like Chamberlain. We’re a product of our times, too, and we want all the information we can possibly absorb and we want it now. Most of us have become accustomed to having the news of the day delivered right to our Palm.

Full disclosure on the latter point: I’m not one of those folks—yet—because I spend enough time tethered to the computer. Allowing me to feed my latent case of ADD by surfing the Net from a hand-held device and looking for whatever strikes my fancy at the moment would really destroy my already tepid productivity.

Most of all, though, we’re not stupid, and we recognize that the people running newspapers into the ground are treating us as if we are in fact idiots. They’re gutting the staff and the news hole, eliminating the coverage we most want to read and then charging us more to read a whole lot less. A few weeks ago, I was in Connecticut and I finished The Hartford Courant sports section before I finished my bagel. Sad.

The powers that be have also gotten us accustomed to getting the product for free online, and it’s awfully hard to put that particular genie back in the bottle.

The demise of the newspaper as we know it is too bad, because devouring the sports section from the time I could read is what inspired me to become a sportswriter. And it’s disappointing that today’s 20-somethigns probably have no idea what they missed.

I remember being in college in 1996 and trying to avoid reading the box scores on (and you had to type the whole damn thing in too) on the one computer that had Internet access in the newspaper office because I didn’t want to ruin the ritualistic and daily joy of reading the box scores in the Newsday that was delivered to my dorm room. Now, I’m actually thinking about going to campus the first day of the fall semester to see if Newsday even bothers selling subscriptions to students anymore.

As for Foulke and Chamberlain, they weren’t making some grand societal statement. For ballplayers, “I don’t read the papers” is an automated response—a self-defense mechanism for whenever criticism or bad press comes up, or perhaps something they are instructed to say during media training sessions.

The medium might be dying but the message is timeless: We don’t pay any attention to what the media writes or says. Maybe it’s time to tweak the phrasing though. Then again, “I only use the Internet to check my email and my Facebook” or “I don’t subscribe to the Twitter feed of my team's beat writer” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily.

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