2014: A Year in the Life and Death of the Press Box

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Writing a twice-weekly column with volunteer labor reminds me of a quote I keep handy. It’s the Shoeless Joe one from Field of Dreams: Man, I did love this game. I’d have played for food money. It was the game…The hotels…brass spittoons in the lobbies, brass beds in the rooms. It was the crowd, rising to their feet when the ball was hit deep. Shoot, I’d play for nothing!

It’s sort of a corn syrupy heartstring puller, but to me the point of it is to stay true to yourself and your passion and maybe, someday, you’ll get to sleep in a brass bed.

Or maybe not.

Recently I was telling a friend and former newspaper colleague I’d stumbled across a box of my old clips and was surprised—not about how far my writing had come, but how much it had regressed. Three thousand-word features lingered in the moment and news stories were created and edited and polished for a final product with real heft, real sources…that showed real enterprise storytelling skills. All this has since been replaced by 140-character snippets. Sonnets to one-liners.

As the print medium has died and the ad dollars have swelled for Google, Facebook—and not much anyone else, this metrics-based world we occupy now gives us instant gratification, instant feedback and, oftentimes, instant regret.

I know some stories will take hold. The tear-jerkers and the hate reads oftentimes draw the most viewers instantly. What’s missing, however, is consistent bumps for the well-thought-out piece.

Sadly, the stories or interviews I spend the most time obsessing over sentence structure, double-checking sources and even asking for a different set of eyes to proof, pretty much get relegated to “family and friends” single-digit Facebook-like oblivion. It’s discouraging and at once, telling.

Last week, NYT’s Teddy Wayne wrote a story entitled The Rapid Decline of the Movie Quotation. It was a simple breakdown of why our movies are no longer quotable (and why we no longer quote movies). Technology seems to be the number-one culprit. But the following paragraph caught my eye as the real harbinger:

Which brings up another factor that has stymied quotable lines: the tent-pole-movie mentality that has driven Hollywood the last 15 years. The movie industry has long embraced broadly appealing spectacles, but now they must also appeal in translation to foreign markets to show their financiers the money. Greed, for lack of a better word, isn’t always good: it results in sequel-ready franchises with less reliance on nuanced English dialogue and more on eye candy. Therefore, the “Iron Man” and “Hunger Games” series crowd out narratives that, in the 1970s and earlier, wouldn’t have encountered such failure to communicate to wider audiences. Forget it, Jake; it’s Tinseltown.

In other words, we continue to dumb down our language and that, as a result, is making us dumber. While I’ve never been accused of making people smarter with my writing, I hope I made a few of you stop and think or maybe smile this year. Likes or no likes, brass bed or no brass bed, that has always been my goal.

Below are 2014’s top-three most-clicked posts from myself and Kyle Magin as well as a few each that may not have gotten the play they deserved:

  1. Seven Reasons Not to say Fuck it and Move to a Mountain Town—Sad but true, write an incendiary piece and put the f-bomb in the title and you’ve got a hit. This one somehow stirred a reaction but it was written after I’d gotten done reading Outside’s best places to live issue. I love when Outside rolls out best places to live/work/visit cover stories. Everything is just so neat and tidy. They always profile these kind of rich hipster couples with perfect glasses and gear and jobs in their subway-tiled kitchens holding giant Central Perk-inspired coffee mugs. They’re just so happy and bright. The reality is most of the places profiled (mountain towns especially) are tough living. The weather is unpredictable. The economy is mercurial. And shit breaks all the time (cars, relationships, water heaters, dog’s legs). I wanted to write a tribute to the real folks doing it in mountain towns—living, working, raising families—despite the odds. Unfortunately, the story had a Costanzian effect and the homage turned up the ire in some communities.
  2. The Real Story of Novato’s Round House— This was inspired by a Craigslist ad posted for a home for rent that borders the 101 in the southern-most part of Novato, sort of the unofficial gateway to the town. I grew up and went to high school in Novato and most of my best friends have found their way back there to raise families. Though I’ve been away for two decades now, when I go back, it’s the town equivalent of Cheers. This was a love note of sorts to my home town and the people in it as well as tribute to the tropes every longtime Novatan knows. As one commenter pointed out, Novato residents have always had an incredible, self-effacing sense of humor; one more closely associated with Garrison Keillor and the Midwest. They are kind people and sensible. But most of all, the folks in Novato look after one another and they all, to a person, “get it.” I’ve called many places home but Novato will always be where my heart is.
  3. Forever a Giant— My father passed on in January and most of the readers here followed my chronicling of his time with cancer and his ultimate farewell. I tried not to get too sentimental about our relationship. We didn’t have much in common until well into my adult years when I finally had settled down a little and he finally learned to accept that his footsteps were not the ones I would follow. In that time, we discovered we were more alike than we both led on. One evening a couple months before his passing, he turned to me after a particularly tough time together and said, “Just so you know. No matter what, I cherish  you—because that’s what fathers do.”

And now a couple you may have missed:

  1. All I want for Christmas…is a Candlestick urinal— Though this one technically came in at the end of 2013, I find the events that followed this year noteworthy. I sent the 49ers and the San Francisco Parks & Recreation Department email and certified letter versions of the note in this article. While it was a bit of a ruse, I would seriously pay $500 for one of those trough urinals. They’ve always been a conversation piece with my friends and any longtime Giant or 49er fan will perk up when you mention the urinals at the ‘Stick. I found it funny that I never got even a form letter or email back…from anyone. This year I stopped paying attention to the NFL. Some reasons are serious, others not so much. The reality is I just can’t accept the fact that the 49ers play in a giant corporate-friendly erector set in the Great America parking lot funded by Goldman Sachs and the city of Santa Clara. It’s a perfect storm nightmare of racketeering, corporate greed and refusal of the current ownership to suck it up and follow the Giants model: use private funds to stay and build in a world-class city on a world-class waterfront. The piece got about as much traction as my request, but I still look at it as my farewell to being a 9er fan.
  2. Pints and Picks Week 10: If your name’s not on here, you probably don’t exist—I loved writing Pints and Picks—a weekly breakdown of college football lines with some craft brew recommends co-written with Kyle. Sometimes it became a chore. Sometimes it was a bore. But it is some of the stuff I’m most proud of to date. The columns are dense and the prose is unwieldy at times, but I’m not going to make any excuses. Sometimes (OK, a lot of the time) I purposefully left in a run on or an unnecessary paragraph or two just because it’s my way of saying not everything has to fit in a Buzzfeed .gif. Some things, in other words, are worth sitting down and taking the time—the payout is even greater. I feel week 10 Pints and Picks, as we’d winnowed down to a handful of loyal followers, is a perfect example of why I still find joy in writing. Shoot, I’d write for nothing!

Kyle:

I wonder if 2014 will find its place in my sporting memory with any distinction some day or just get in line with every other year that didn’t include a championship for one of my teams (so, like nearly all.)

It sorta feels like the year sports broke for me.

The NCAA made more money than ever and found new ways not to share it with its own labor pool, a sensitive ecosystem was destroyed by Russia to host the most expensive Olympic games of all time and feted a guy who started a war two weeks later, the NFL is essentially a failed state operated by a warlord and his goons and my Tigers still can’t get the bats and arms to work in unison.

The nice part is all of that makes for tremendous copy. I can’t think of many more compelling sports years to write about. Current events intersected with sports constantly, boxing saw the continued rise of its most exciting force in years (Gennady Golovkin), Madison Bumgarner challenged every fragile-pitcher notion we take as gospel and it all started for me cheering the Michigan State Spartans to victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Here’s a look at the stories you thought were most important this last year, and the ones I had the most fun writing.

Top three most-clicked:

  1. Boxing Photographer Stephanie Trapp on shooting in the squared circle—Boxing personalities float in and out of our lives for 4-5 months at a time. Gennady Golovkin is all I think about in the two weeks leading up to his fight, and, outside of the announcement of his next fight, he pretty much drops off the radar in the interim. Stephanie was such an intriguing interview because she’s so omnipresent in both the sport and my Instagram and Twitter feeds. She works the circuit year-round to make a living as a boxing photographer and it was interesting to get a firsthand look into her day-to-day and the energy powering her young career. Her ebullient/energizer bunny nature came across in her answers to my queries and there’s little question that the almost frenetic quality of her personality is crucial to her success. We should all find a calling that complements our character so well.
  2. May is Money, not a legend—Floyd Mayweather is boxing’s standard bearer but has a desperately warped view of his place in the sport. The divisions he’s in or adjacent to are as packed with talent today as at any time in the last 20 years and he’s managed to duck challengers and handpick guys before they hit their primes or just after they’ve been on top. This year’s first tilt with Marcos Maidana left Floyd looking bored and almost beaten; their second throwdown merely marked his recognition that he’s better than anyone he chooses to fight by degrees of magnitude. Floyd’s always going to have ‘what if’ written about his career, and I don’t think he even cares.
  3. The Illusory Michigan Man—Michigan football presented us with a fascinating story this year. Coach Brady Hoke flamed out miserably after being chosen largely for his past connections to the once-proud football program. Many of the schools fans, alums and admins fetishize the Bo Schembechler/Lloyd Carr era and thought an insider with ties to that period would lead them back to the promised land (forgetting that all of Rich Rodriguez’s recruits paved the way for Hoke’s most successful season in 2011.) I thought it was interesting that RichRod was driven away as an outsider and Hoke was so embraced before being heaped with scorn when fans realized what a disaster the hire became. I caught a lot of shit for this column from my Michigan fan friends who say Hoke was the right hire at the time regardless of his connections, but I’ve long found a distrust of outsiders emanating from Ann Arbor that’s one part arrogance and one part fear.

Here are a few of the clickthroughs that didn’t get made that I hope you’ll catch up on:

  1. Detroit Tigers Beat Writer Matt Mowery on covering MLB in the post-print era—Matt brought me along as a stringer in my very first foray into the world of paid journalism. He now covers the Tigers at the Oakland Press in the Detroit suburbs. His was our first Q&A for the site, a practice AJ was unsure about at the time–and so was I. These things can frequently turn into an uncritical forum for the question-answerer to spout whatever they’d like to say without providing a lot of insights into their personality. Matt disabused that notion right away. He talks about the realities of covering a professional baseball team today–when fans have so many other outlets to watch and read about their squad, including team-owned outlets. Matt’s had to become ubiquitous–constant updates on Twitter, working the beat while helping out on the preps desk and generally responding to a lot of challenges and technological opportunities his predecessors would have never been comfortable with. His insights and diligent work as a reporter are why readers go to him and they made him an intriguing read here at DPB.
  2. Evil Olympic Honchos, Ranked—We know the Olympics are a wretched hive of scum and villany today, pockmarked with scandal, corruption, massive costs and a few questionable personalities. Until embarking on this project, I didn’t really know they’d always been that way. The games have been in the hands of the most infamous dictator of all time (Hitler), a bigot and reactionary from the Windy City (Avery Brundage) and, most recently, a national park-razing strongman (Vlad Putin). It was, I guess edifying is the best word for it, to learn the Olympics have always looked to terrible people to stage our amusement.
  3. The Five People you Meet in Vegas—I love Las Vegas the first week of NCAA tournament time. It’s not a new sentiment, but the city’s like a drug–you’re up, you’re down, bright lights, weird people. Here I focused on the weirdos you’re likely to meet when you head down to Sin City with your boys for tourney time. The well-informed and fish-out-of-water alike never cease to entertain when thousands descend on the city to celebrate unpaid kids breaking their legs for your amusement. Do Vegas at tournament time at least once, strictly for the people-watching. You may see Pete Rose with an Asian hooker on his lap and you’d be better for it.

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