McCollough on Journalism

Last Saturday, I started a discussion about the nature of journalism.  Collin McCollough, formerly of Stampede Blue and now of Bleacher Report, sent me his thoughts, and I asked to share them with all of you.

Back in a time I couldn’t pretend to know, there was something apparently called a Magnavox.

Families would apparently gather around this ancient artifact and bask in its glow, taking in the programming of the day.  It was so convenient, so centralized.  There, in the dull glow of grayscale, sat an anchorman, hair slicked smartly and tie perfectly centered.  This man told the story of the world, assured baritone booming through the picture box’s speakers, to countless families filling sofas, sprawling over rugs, kneeling before the omniscient tube before them.

This was the news.  This was the sole model on which journalism operated. 

This was 50 years ago. 

When I read disgruntled older scribes and their associated assertions that journalism, in 2011, could ever possibly be any one thing, I cringe.  I cringe not just for the degree hanging from my wall, framed in cheap walnut, but for the kids aspiring toward that same accomplishment.  For tomorrow’s journalists.  And while they are busy deciding whether they want ‘to laugh or vomit’, I’m just thinking about what kind of example yesterday’s media is setting for the future.

Frankly, I’m pitying their desperation, too.

Because, you see, there is no more Magnavox.  Well, yes, technically the company still exists. But the foundation of centralized media does not.  We no longer operate as one nation under Dan Rather.  We devour our dinners at staggered intervals: mother and father after work, son after soccer practice, daughter somewhere between dance and algebra.  There is no longer one source of information, one wood-framed elephant in the middle of the room.

Now, there are tablets and smartphones.  Laptops and desktops.  Facebook, Twitter and all assortments of social privacy assassins.  There is a television in the family room, a television in the basement, a television in all four bedrooms, a television in the office and sometimes, even, the kitchen.

Oh, and there’s this crazy thing called the internet as well.



Now, we get news as fast as we make it.  We don’t have time for Dan Rather, dapper as he may be.  If a house catches fire, nobody has the patience to wait until six o’clock to hear the details. Eyewitnesses tweet.  Neighbors blog.  Reporters flock to the scene, where the chief gives a live report which is immediately uploaded to the station’s website.   The Dan Rather days are over, the overlong dull days of a later winter rolled into the burgeoning sprint, electric potential always lingering in the unstable air.

When I first enrolled in Indiana University, I wanted to be a sports columnist just like every other student who dared stumble the halls of Ernie Pyle School of Journalism at eight in the morning, outfit some combination of sandals and sweatpants only passable in a collegiate context.  I wanted to refine my skill, those lessons learned from high school editorials teasing the potential of a promising rookie named Bob Sanders, and graduate to grind away as a high school beat reporter at some small town paper, then work my way to a mid-level market and, with any luck, cover the local football team.  That was the world as illustrated for me in college, a world of Steno pads, tape recorders and understated interviews with players and coaches.

But that’s not really the world today, is it?

This past February, I covered the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine.  I happened to sit next to a local sports columnist who lamented the same changing face of journalism, the dying dream of scribes past.

“I face an ethical dilemma every time I teach my kids [at a college-level sportswriting class],” he told me, “do I prepare them for a dying industry and tell them everything they’ve learned they can throw out the window immediately, or do I continue along with the curriculum as planned and pretend like all is well in the industry?”

Fact is, the media industry as a whole has changed, and journalism along with it.  So instead of gravitating toward a small town paper and covering the high school football beat, I found myself drawn toward the new model.  The decentralized model, where anyone is potentially a journalist and everything is potentially journalism.  Where instead of getting media credentials with a daily, I received media credentials with a blogger-centric contribution hub.  Where I had access to the same players, coaches, GMs and information as the Peter Kings and John Claytons of the world.  Where I was treated as a peer.  Where I was able to affect interviews and press conferences as much as anyone else in the room, where I was able to ask Mike Mayock a question whose answer was quoted in several publications, where I was able to question the direction of Gary Kubiak’s team within the division and provide fodder for Texans beat writers.

That’s journalism today.  Decentralized.  A true newsgathering democracy.  The landscape has shifted, and shifted for good.  And unless there is a seismic shift in media tectonics, journalism will continue to shift toward decentralized control and information will continue to come from individuals immediately immersed with the subject matter at hand.  I can see the pros and cons resulting, of course, especially when it comes to constructing (and maintaining) credibility, but it sounds like – if some people are not entirely ignorant of this shift – they simply refuse to acknowledge it.

Those old ideas are maddeningly erroneous because, in reality, no one knows what a journalist “is” these days.  How do we begin to define the term in the cyberspace climate?  It’s absurd to suggest any one person could act as the gatekeeper of credibility and actively assess who or what constitutes true journalism by listening in to a single radio interview.  This is a machination much larger than the old-school realizes or cares to realize.  They just reinforce this ridiculous Good Night and Good Luck notion that it’s still 1950 and true journalism still wears a necktie, chain-smokes Lucky Strikes and spends half its day adjusting its fedora and scribbling furiously in a notepad while holding a two-ton telephone to its ear.  But journalism is no longer a centralized media model! It is actively fragmented, its pieces self-aware.  The shards can endeavor just as much as the former whole ever did, though perhaps with less visibility.  Still, they are reflective and still, they all act to reflect, their angles assorted but presentation existent nonetheless.

It scares me that people go out of their way to cut their palms on these pieces and bloody themselves with resentment.  And it reeks of desperation.

I wouldn’t begin to know how to draw the distinction between blogger and journalist anymore, but frankly, who cares?  At the end of the day, it’s about information and where people get it.  It doesn’t matter how it’s presented or dressed up or down or biased or unbiased or credentialed or written in AP Style or 140 characters or rhyme scheme or haiku form.  It’s about information. People populate the best information spaces available to them.  18to88 is one of those spaces, if not the crown jewel of them, for Colts information.  Who cares what the label is, as long as the end result is that folks are visiting 18to88 because they know they will always find quality, reliable information?  Should we really care that Nate Dunlevy isn’t officially on a beat, that he doesn’t have a crowded corner with a bronzed nameplate adjacent to the sports desk?  That his byline is sans serif?  If 18to88 reflects the most information, if it presents the clearest picture that the most people gather around, then who cares what kind of distinctions we’re so possessed to draw?  Does there have to be a line in the sand, a this-or-that, a him-or-us?  Or can it just be enough that 18to88 is a reliable, quality information source, and one many prefer to others of the same – to borrow a Bill Polian favorite – ilk.

Others can go to the grave laughing and puking at the same time, but in this shaky transition between ink-smeared thumbs and smudged keyboards the demand for information will still prove to be the primary motivator in folks gravitating toward various news sources.

And, hey, if you are uncomfortable with this model, if you want to mock the Ark and shrug off the raindrops as a soggy Tuesday afternoon, that’s fine.  I’m sure you’ll find solace basking in the static glow of your Magnavox, waiting for Dan Rather to tell you what everyone else knew three days ago.