Writing in the 21st Century: A Manifesto

I recently wrote a 2,500 word article for the March issue of Inside Lacrosse concerning the NLL franchise Minnesota Swarm, and their owners, former medical CEOs John and Andy Arlotta. The father/son pair purchased the organization from the Minnesota Wild prior to the 2009 season, and have since implemented a business plan that will hopefully succeed at one of the most daunting business initiatives in the U.S, building a successful (and profitable) sports franchise. Genuine guys, goofy but electric atmosphere at the Hive (Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul’s) plus a nice January trip to Minnesota, complete with an overlook of a frozen Mississippi River.

With my focus turned to high school lacrosse and recruiting this spring, I’m able to write one, maybe two long form articles for the magazine anymore. Partly, stories over 2,500 words don’t fit our profile as a niche sports publication geared to boys, teenagers and college age men who have limited attention spans. Readers want lists, rankings, big splash photos, player insights on gear, product reviews and the peeks at the game’s relaxed lifestyle. Plus, my job as Associate Editor necessitates that I spend more of my time managing content than actually producing it. It’s a treat to write long form any more, and when I know I have the time I make sure to accept those assignments during our editorial pitch sessions.

Starting about age 5 or 6, when I was as a timid but talkative student at Hampden Elementary (P.S. 55), I knew I wanted to one day become “…and a writer.” That “…and” aspect evolved over time. There was, in succession trucker driver, homicide detective, photographer, Air Force ROTC, cook, radio host, professional boogie boarder. None of those other endeavors materialized for me (I earned my B.A. in history for Christ sake).

But the writer concept hung on. I wasn’t much of a diary keeper, and I didn’t push myself to participate in writing contests or workshops or special summer programs. My spelling skills were mediocre (today saved by the many AutoCorrect programs in existence today), my on-page grammar rough and my copy editing ability marginal. A lefty, my handwriting was so squiggly and cryptic that my middle school teachers forced me to type all my papers for fear of failure.

This is not an incredible pallet to start a publishing career, but I loved stories , imagining them and recounting them and reading them. I produced my best work in my English and literature writing assignments, where I always earned my top A’s.

Books were a love, but newspapers were my true inspiration. As foreign as the concept seems now, I devoured the The Baltimore Sun, always starting with the Sports Section, then the Maryland section and a glance at the front page if there was important news, followed by a tour of the comic strips (Zippy the Pinhead was a requirement). Bylines were important to me. There was Dan Rodricks, sports columnists John Eisenberg and Peter Schmuck, and uber-dude movie columnist Stephen Hunter, all early models that I would try to emulate.

Thee lifestyle of a newspaper writer also carried an enticing weight to it. I’ve spent time around former Baltimore Sun sports writers in the pressbox and heard older writers speak at Stoop Storytellers, and they painted intoxicating verbal art, their lives dripping with local lunatics and bugged-eyed politicians and drunks and Quixotic neighborhood leaders and shlubby gangsters from Pimlico horsetracks, all of it laced in booze and deadlines and ink smeared fullness.

Goddamn, I wanted to live like that. It made sense for me. I’m a person motivated by both, dollars and a hard drink or seven. Struggling with the balance of secrets and truths was never an issue for me. I enjoy asking questions, to solve the mysteries of the streets, to unlock both the archaic mechanics of politics and the psychologies involved in that business. Plus, I can barely understand Algebra. Engineering was not in the future.

Plus, as a child of Baltimore city, I understood the newspaper’s role in the daily urban flow. Folks who wanted to move in this city life kept it tucked under their armpits or stacked atop their briefcase papers and legal tabs. I wasn’t going to be rich, but I was going to enjoy life and my city and the art of being a published name in my hometown, or a town similar to it.

I started to used the internet around 1996. Professional wrestling was experiencing its second major peak in the U.S., with Atlanta-based WCW and Vince McMahon’s WWF going head to head on Monday nights. Casual fans followed the weekly storylines, but hardcore fans (later to be known as the IWC-internet wrestling community) could log onto AOL and find out the secrets of the upcoming shows. There you could learn what big free agents signed with which companies, what next week’s main event was going to be, results of big matches before they were shown on television. And it was given away for free. I used it with glee to catchup on the action and to learn the inner secrets.

Of course, after reading the wrestling notes I surfed over to Baltimore Sun’s website, where I read all the news for free. Most newspapers started publishing their stories online as a promotional effort for their print products.

The internet had arrived,  scything  it way through traditional media with the subtly of the Black Plague, leaving a pile of victims in its path while demanding the remaining survivors  embrace a new age of information prosperity. Or die.

Dramatic? Yes, but the situation demands that it be defined in dramatic fashion. Media historians and commentators like to compare the internet’s destruction of media jobs as akin to the death of telephone operators or industrial age factory jobs, whose jobs were also deemed obsolete by technology. But those jobs existed for 100, maybe 200 years tops. In one 15 year span digital media has beaten a stayed, 1,000 year-old human communication technique into a coma. There’s a reason Guttenberg, the inventor of the printing press, was dubbed the ‘Man of the Millenium’ by Time and A&E in 2000. Imagine the mental journey your great grandfather experienced as he watched the automobile take out the horse as America’s favored mode of transportation.

Internet = our generation’s horseless carriage.

Since I didn’t attend Syracuse or Northwestern or Missouri, I didn’t make the old school internship connections that slip you into the New York Times or Washington Post or Chicago Tribune. Not that those connections are worth much any more. For every four internship positions open, there are 600 plus students vying for a spot, and then you get paid shit for several years, and then at 40 your too expensive to keep around anyways so the buyouts come,  and they fill the void with a new crop of cherubic journos waiting their turn to shine.

My short career has not been so dark. In New Orleans, I worked as staff writer for a small newspaper, and if it weren’t for Hurricane Katrina I could have been a magazine editor there. Here in Baltimore, I cover college lacrosse, which I consider the last pure sport to follow, akin to working as a beat writer for horse racing of college football in the 1920s or pro football in the 1960s. Without hesitation, I could pick up the phone tomorrow,  call Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala , and he would talk to me without a middle man dictating the message. Very few sports carry that luxury anymore.

However, the internet is neither interested in nor wants to support the art to writing in long-form. Instead, the web is sustained on performance. The American audience, what are they interested in? What’s the national conversation of the day? Where are the eyeballs going to so I know where to advertise? SEO optimization rules. The nerds won, and we are their writing monkeys, a million MacBooks strong, seething off WordPress and Tumblr, speaking in the tongues of HTML and JAVA.

On the newspaper end, the current math has stopped computing for some time now. After Woodward and Bernstein, journalism emerged as the cool profession, with students flooding university programs, creating more competition for jobs. Meanwhile, since the early 1990s revenues have plummeted for small and midsized markets. The firings followed suit. As “Wire” creator David Simon is apt to point out, the Baltimore Sun at one time supported 500 reporters working the city. Today it has maybe 200 covering the same area. Niche web-based publications have sprung up to fill some of the cracks, but the banner news organizations live with less is more.

And for the most part, who fills these last 200 plus jobs? Single people or people who don’t have income issues of their own. Unless you’re a superstar multimedia branded product, there is no quality money. At least, not ‘support a family and pay a mortgage’ money. Why put out a $50,000 salary with benefits (which the company can’t afford anyways) when they can spend that cash on two eager college grads and a summer internship.

Maybe this is all good. Too many lame Dear Abbys and Norman Mailers and Woodwards and Bernsteins imitators entered the business expecting a ready-made lifestyle that they thought was their birthright. Maybe the internet will force the bums out, and we’ll have 21st century journalists with true grit, mirroring the pioneer publishers of yore, who ventured into the American frontier with a barrel of ink and a press and the spirit of the Fourth Estate.

I don’t know, we’ll see. These are heady times in this business, and maybe you have to do what’s necessary first to get to do what you love.

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One response to “Writing in the 21st Century: A Manifesto

  1. Natalia Bulawka

    Amen. Ain’t that the truth!

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