Monday, June 29, 2009

What do readers know?

In explaining his approach to telling jokes for the Tonight Show audience, Andy Richter mentioned something that could relate to the newspaper industry.

Richter, who reunited with Conan O’Brien to replace Jay Leno, was featured in an NPR segment over the weekend that obviously had nothing to do with examining the mentality of today’s newspaper executives.

But Richter’s comment makes sense for print journalists who are constantly being told they are losing their readers. Here’s the quote:

“If you start to just aim for what the audience wants to hear, you’re already hamstrung because you don’t have any freedom,” he says. “So the only thing you can do is do something that you think is funny. And I don't mean, become a big artist, but do try to tickle your own funny bone as much as you can, and hope that you have a sense of humor people can relate to.”

Just replace “funny” with “interesting” and that sums up the approach I tried to take for stories I pursued. I figured if I found something interesting, readers would too. Maybe not all of them, but enough of them.

It’s an approach that works well for feature writers. We try to find a topic that will interest as many readers as possible. But I also know it’s impossible to write something every reader will find interesting.

A newspaper’s audience is too fragmented to appease everybody. Yet newspaper executives seem to believe it’s possible. They think they have the answers by talking to each other during endless meetings and regurgitating what the other geniuses have said.

Readers want local stories. Local, local, local.
Readers don’t have time for in-depth stories.
Readers want information they can use.
Readers want less opinion.
Readers want more opinion.
Readers want pictures of puppies.

Some say readership surveys are needed. Find out what readers want and then give them that. That’s an admirable notion – if it was possible.

But in today’s environment that could lead to a newspaper geared toward the loudmouths and online trolls who make the most noise. That leads to a continuous dumbing-down of the product, further alienating sophisticated readers. You know, the ones who are more likely to actually buy and read a newspaper.

Maybe I’m wrong about this. I freely admit the problems of the newspaper industry far exceed my ability to solve. But I know as a reader, newspapers continue to offer me less and less.

I spend fewer than 15 minutes a day reading the two newspapers that come to my door. Not because I don't have time. But because that's all the time it takes to get through. Give me something to read, dammit.

When I was back in Duluth earlier this month I thought someone had stolen the sports section from my mom’s paper. I soon discovered it was buried inside the front section. The paper I grew up reading, where I worked my first job in journalism, no longer has a separate sports section most days of the week.

Here in Chicago, the Tribune continues to shrink. This weekend they printed their final Sunday magazine, a supplement to the Sunday newspaper that was always anchored with a piece of narrative, or long-form, journalism.

Staff writer Rick Kogan – who is the epitome of what a Chicago journalist should be – wrote the article announcing the changes. His ending grabbed me.

"To wander through the McCutcheon show is to understand how much newspapers, specifically this one, which was born in 1847, have remade themselves over the years in response to events and currents and tastes. Like McCutcheon and his many contemporaries, we remain in the business of trying to provide, as the title of the exhibition states, 'Chronicles of a Changing World.'

That about says it. The world changes. So do we. And we move on."
Readers do, too. Keep giving them less and we won't have to worry about satisfying them anymore. There won't be any left.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Lost in the moments

When I was a freshman in high school, my parents allowed me to go on an overnight trip to the Twin Cities with one of my brother’s friends for a Cars concert. It was the first concert I saw outside of Duluth.

I don’t remember how many shows I’d seen at that point, but I’m guessing only one. Three years earlier my aunt and one of her friends took me to see Kiss at the Duluth Arena.

We sat in those single-row seats around the bend of the arena, right up from the stage. I can still see the bright red fake blood that oozed from Gene Simmons’ trademark tongue during the show.

That was 1979 – damn, 30 years ago. The Cars concert I went to with Dean – and two girls who were juniors (that’s a story for another place, if only because the truth is far less intriguing than the air of mystery I’m leaving it at here) – was in 1982.

I’ve been hooked on live music ever since. I have no idea how many shows I’ve seen in the ensuing years. And I don’t intend to figure it out now. I’m sure it’s close to a couple hundred.

In the past eight or nine years, very few of those have been stadium concerts. The majority of the shows I see now are in clubs. There’s a connection fostered in those smaller venues between the bands and fans.

Springsteen might be able to grab hold of 25,000 people in an arena and pull them up to the stage with him. But very few other artists can. In a club, the band is right there, so close even the people in the back of the room can tell which musician needs a shave or which one stuffed a zucchini wrapped in foil into his pants.

At a show I wait for that moment when I forget where I am. That’s much harder to do now that I don’t drink anymore. But if a band is good, it can happen. The best part is when you have no idea it is coming.

Like when I went to Milwaukee to see the Drive-By Truckers in late February 2008. I had never heard of their opening act, The Felice Brothers, but I always make it a point to see the entire bill, not just the headliners. This is why.

The Felice Brothers took the stage and launched into “Run, Chicken, Run,” a raucous song that appears on their latest CD. The five of them attacked the song with such ferocity I couldn’t help but get caught up in it. Over the remainder of their set they did nothing to diminish that feeling. It was one of the few times I hoped the opening act would just keep playing.

I had another one of those moments Saturday night while watching the Waco Brothers at Taste of Chicago (that's them at the top of this post). When they ripped into “Folsom Prison Blues,” I was prepared for the excitement. The song is one of their live-show staples.

Band member Dean Schlabowske once referred to their sound as country music informed by punk rock. Their version of “Folsom Prison Blues” illustrates what he meant. They swept me up Saturday inside the wave of energy they created while pounding out the song.

By the end of it I found myself actually dancing. Well, what passes as dancing for me. My arms did leave my side – though I was careful to make sure they didn’t get too high – and my legs did move a bit. Sorry, but even when I’m lost in the moment, that’s about the most you’ll see. The rest of the action is churning on the inside.

I pursue moments like that, moments that snatch you from your life and put you down smack-dab in the middle of a song, a sound, a note. If I leave a show without at least one of those moments I’m disappointed.

But I leave knowing another one is always waiting down the road for me in some club with some band during some song.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Weekly Musical Interlude

So this is the Waco Brothers. The guys are not from Waco and they are not brothers. Instead they are one of the best live club bands you'll ever see, and I'm fortunate to do that often in their adopted hometown of Chicago. We'll be seeing them again Saturday when they close out the "Bloodshot Records Day" at the Taste of Chicago in Grant Park.

I highly recommend going to see the Wacos if you get the chance. You won't be disappointed. Check out Bloodshot Records, too. It's an independent label based in Chicago focusing on "insurgent country" music, which beats the hell out of the crap passing for country music these days.

On that note, check out this video of a song that reflects my feelings toward Nashville as well. Jon Langford does a much better job expressing those than I ever could.

Please enjoy.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

My so-called man-love for Joe Mauer

A couple of years ago my nieces gave me a present. It was a poster of Twins catcher Joe Mauer. Somehow they’d gotten the impression I had a crush on Mauer.

They giggled hysterically when my wife, Kristin, joked I was going to hang the poster next to our bed so that every night I could give Mauer smooches before going to sleep. At least I think she was joking.

In any event, the poster is not in the bedroom. I haven’t even found a place to hang it, actually. So it remains rolled up, waiting for its chance to join the rest of my Twins memorabilia on display in our TV room and guest room/office.

Just to set the record straight, though: I do not have a crush on Joe Mauer. But even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t be alone. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci penned a pretty nice love letter to Mauer in this week’s SI.

That marks the second SI cover story on Mauer. Kelli Anderson wrote a pretty fawning article of her own three years ago.

Then there was this piece I found written by Teddy Mitrosilis, a staff writer for Around the Majors. In it Mitrosilis writes:
"There’s a guy in Minnesota who is making the leap from special to legendary, and it’s time we take notice. My money says in fifteen years, we won’t be thinking of Mike Piazza as the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history."
Like these writers, I appreciate Mauer and his ability. He's simply my favorite player on my favorite team. I have no desire to smooch his poster before I go to sleep. But I do keep those two SIs on my nightstand.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Camping, networking and re-entering the work force

Put me in a room full of strangers and I’ll immediately recede to the background. I’ll find a place to sit with my back to a wall so I can survey the area. I prefer to observe my surroundings while deciding whether or not it’s worth participating.

That allows me to look at the others. I can often pick up details of their personalities this way. It’s something I've always done. As a reporter it became a valuable skill. The fewer people who knew I was in a room the better.

Take last Wednesday. I attended LaidOffCamp Chicago at Loyola University’s Water Tower campus. I arrived a bit early and was told to wait in the lobby with the others until we could be brought up to the 15th floor where they had the sign-in tables and held opening and closing remarks.

So I found a chair at the far end of the lobby, sat down and began scanning the room. I discovered most of the people must have the same feelings as I do about small talk. They looked up, down, to the left, to the right. But never directly at anybody else. Heaven forbid we make eye contact and have to nod a hello or – gasp! – engage in brief conversation.

Some were smart – they pecked away on their laptops or flashed their Blackberries and iPhones in desperate attempts to seem important. The young woman in a dark skirt sitting next to me kept her nose buried in a Wally Lamb book. A man paced around, making it very clear he intended to be first on the elevator when we were given the OK to go up.

As the day went on, I became more comfortable in the settings. The camp was a series of break-out sessions designed to help with the job search. It wasn’t a job fair. Instead we heard from experts in topics like writing a resume, organizing your job search and how to succeed as a freelancer.

The biggest thing I took from the event was the advice about networking. The topic came up again and again, from session to session, from sign-in to closing remarks. Apparently it’s the key to success in the 21st century.

As you may have guessed, networking is not my strong suit. It’s hard to strike up a conversation when I’m parked against the far wall scanning the room. Which, now that I think about it, could seem a bit stalkerish to some people. At the very least it's a tad creepy.

In reflecting about the event, something dawned on me. It turns out I actually do network. I even did it at the camp, meeting several people and exchanging business cards. Well, I didn’t have any business cards to exchange, so I basically just collected cards (again, that sounds vaguely creepy).

But more than that, I’m networking all the time. I have profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook, which I’m constantly checking and updating. I have profiles on Twitter and MySpace, too, though I don’t utilize them much.

It’s not just social networking either. I have tried to keep in touch with former co-workers, especially those who have escaped the newspaper industry. You never know who can help you down the road.

Case in point, my new job. I used to work with Jennifer Golz Dooley at the Sun. She was a news reporter who left to take a position in the communications department at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.

I stayed in touch with her through Facebook. Last month she contacted me to write a couple articles for a monthly employee newsletter produced by her department. She must have liked my work because last week she called to offer me a three-month assignment, which I accepted and began today.

It’s not full-time work and it’s temporary. But it gives me more hands-on experience outside of newspapers. I hope that continues to expand enough where I can confidently say I am self-employed.

So maybe I'm more sociable than I thought. Now if I can only stop standing against walls or sitting in corners.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Weekly Music Interlude -- Twins style

It was nearly 12 years ago when Kristin and I watched the Minnesota Twins play their first series at Wrigley Field. We were on our honeymoon and as part of our trip to Chicago we took in all three games. Is it any wonder why I love that woman?

Anyway, the Twins are back in Wrigley this weekend, preparing for a sweep of the Cubs. For inspiration, I dug up an mp3 version of my favorite -- and possibly only -- Twins song.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Out of shape and out of sorts

This may come as a surprise to those who know me well, but I’m not in very good shape.

My trip to Duluth last week added a few pounds to my waistline, further obscuring whatever abdominal muscles I have hiding behind my belly.

Then today I nearly fell over when I climbed out of bed. I walked around the room hunched over, moving with stiff legs as if I was a distorted combination of Igor and Frankenstein’s monster. A dull pain throbbed in my right shoulder.

A mid-morning trip to the chiropractor helped matters, but I was still left with a sad realization about my participation in a church softball league each Sunday. That realization is I need to spend more time preparing to play than actually playing. I guess that’s what happens to a guy in his 40s who rarely exercises.

The same thing happens to a guy who stops writing regularly. This point – that writing is a muscle that has to be developed and maintained – was reiterated to me Saturday morning during the Printer’s Row Lit Fest (do we really need to call it a lit fest? Wasn’t Printer’s Row Book Fair a good enough name?).

For the first time, I caught some of the sessions held in conjunction with the book sale. I attended a morning talk about memoir writing that featured three gifted writers – Rick Bragg, David Carr and Neil Steinberg.

When the session ended I ran into Dan McGrath, the former sports editor at the Chicago Tribune who is now a senior writer there. I’ve gotten to know McGrath over the years at various sports writing conferences and seminars, including the annual APSE national convention.

We only talked briefly, but long enough for me to tell him I’m no longer working at the Sun. He offered encouraging words about the future of journalism, while admitting the current situation is worse than any he’s experienced in his long career.

Then he reminded me to keep writing. “It’s like a muscle,” he said. “You just have to keep exercising it.”

This was certainly not a revelation to me. I’ve heard or read similar sentiments in many places. But it was good to hear it again, especially because it made me realize I hadn’t written anything in several days, other than a quick blog entry while in Duluth.

I also realized I’d been in a funk for several days. Part of that was being tired from the drive to Duluth and back. Part of it was the gray, cold weather at the book fair (sorry, but I'm with Mr. Steinberg on this one – I’m not calling it a lit fest).

But more of it had to do with letting my writing muscle go soft. As a reporter, that was never a concern. Even if I didn’t love everything I wrote, I was still writing every day, especially in the last two months at the Sun.

So while I try to work off all the pizza I ate in Duluth, and remember to stretch before playing softball, I also must keep exercising that writing muscle. Before long maybe I’ll even be in shape.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Weekly musical interlude

DULUTH, Minn. -- I've been hanging out in my hometown this week which is why I've been neglecting my blog. I'm working on something I planned to post while I'm here, but it doesn't look like I'll have it done in time. This will have to do for now.

When I lived in Duluth I never fully appreciated how good the music scene was in this state. Of course we all knew about Dylan and Prince and then Soul Asylum broke out nationally for a bit. The Jayhawks was an influential band in the early days of the alt-country movement.

But only recently have I rediscovered some of the music I overlooked in my youth. Bands like the Replacements and the Suburbs have found their way into my CD or mp3 players more and more often these days.

This week's musical interlude doesn't involve any of those bands, though. I was all set to find a clip of the Replacements, preferably "Here Comes a Regular" or "Unsatisfied," but didn't want to spend too much time digging up a good, non-cover version. The Suburbs' "I Like Cows" would have been good, too, because it provides the perfect soundtrack for the drive through Wisconsin I took to get here.

Alas, I've settled on something from The Hold Steady, a band based in Brooklyn but with roots in Minneapolis. Lead singer Craig Finn's voice is an acquired taste, so be warned. But the song -- "Constructive Summer" -- feels right for the occasion.

It should come as no surprise that I'm drawn to the lyrics as much as the music. Of particular interest to me in "Constructive" is the line, "Let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger."

Enjoy. See you back in Chicago!