March 17, 2009. St. Patrick’s Day, usually a happy day for most people. You drink green beer and wear green clothes so you won’t get pinched – it’s just a fun day all around.
But St. Patrick’s Day will never be the same for me anymore. On this date last year, my newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ceased print operations and went online only. I’ve seen those terms used when in reality it died. That’s the way it felt to me and many others who worked there for a long time.
I spent half my life at the Post-Intelligencer, and I still can’t figure out if that’s pathetic or commendable, but I lean toward the latter because I enjoyed it immensely. For 26 years I went to games and practices and interviewed athletes and got paid to write stories. The paper sent me to Augusta, Ga., to cover the Masters four times, and it paid for my road trips to cover the Seattle SuperSonics, and boy is there irony there.
I grew up in the Seattle area and wanted to work for the Post-Intelligencer someday. My dream was to cover the Sonics, my favorite team as a kid. I was the beat writer from 1990-96, and I sat courtside to some of the best years in franchise history, culminating with the NBA Finals against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
And now, like the P-I, the Sonics are gone from Seattle and have become the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that I can’t root for anymore because the bitterness surrounding their departure lingers.
Professionally, bitterness and feeling sorry for yourself gets you nowhere, though it’s not like this is some kind of epiphany that has led to huge strides toward future Pulitzers. The path I’ve taken in the past 14 months has been filled with uncertainty because I truly don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going.
There are days when I want to crawl in a hole or head to a bar, but I haven’t. Well, I have, back in those early stages of the grief process, but not lately. I know I’m a dinosaur dude, and I’d be thrilled to remain the curmudgeon that I’ve become. But that won’t get me anywhere in this new world of journalism so I’m learning to adapt. What I’m doing is trying to “reinvent myself,” yeah, that’s it. One of my least-favorite buzz-phrases has turned into something I’ve been forced to embrace to survive.
Truth be known, if you pinned me down and liquored me up and tortured me into telling you what I really think, the death of the P-I in print was good for me. It made me grow as a journalist and a person. Don’t get me wrong — I miss the steady paychecks, the newsroom, my colleagues in the sports department and of course the free meals at sporting events.
But I’m proud of myself in a way. I haven’t landed on my feet yet, but I haven’t ended up in a funny farm either, though I still could — I guess that’s what keeps me going every day, the thought of what could happen. “Geez, did you hear about Moore? He’s in a straitjacket!”
That’s not what this story is supposed to be about. No one wants to know about my prospects for the looney bin. In the instructions from the editor, I’m supposed to talk about my transition to other forms of reporting and writing after the newspaper closed, and explore current issues facing sportswriters such as getting too close to our subjects.
I’m well versed in all of this stuff, so let’s get started.
My “transition” to other forms of reporting and writing, if you want to call it that, has been interesting and frustrating at the same time. In November I started a website — doesn’t everyone? — and I can’t begin to tell you how rewarding and enriching that whole experience has been.
I “belong” to a network of websites that are operated by other golf and travel writers. The guy who got me involved with this thing has big plans for it — I forget what they are exactly, but he explained them to me. What really got me to sign on with the program was the last thing he said to me:
“Besides, Jim, what else have you got going on?”
The answer to that question, unfortunately, was: “Not much.”
When the tech guy was walking me through everything I needed to know to run the site, I asked him if he really thought that this would work.
“Of course,” he said. “On the Internet, content is king.”
I was also told to post something new every single day because it would increase readership and/or the likelihood that search engines would direct people to the site.
OK, so I’ve followed instructions and done everything these guys have told me to do, and I’m here to tell you that in six months time, I’ve made a mini-fortune. It’s so mini, it’s microscopic. It’s so microscopic, you can’t even see it because I’ve made a grand total of $0. I made more yesterday when I found a penny in a parking lot.
Now I’ve been told that I need to be patient, that these things take time, that all of my efforts will be worthwhile someday. But I’m highly skeptical, especially when bills keep rolling in; I can’t get rid of the thought that my time might be better spent pursuing jobs instead of weaving dreams in cyberspace.
Some of my former colleagues have given up on the idea of continuing to write for a living. I haven’t. A media consultant talked to me about the importance of having a Facebook page and a Twitter account. So I’ve gotten involved with the social media craze, mainly because a media consultant told me I should because it helps to build “your brand.” That’s apparently a big deal these days too — shameless self-promotion on the Internet.
I hate to come across as the cynic that I am because I understand that it’s the way of the world. And I’m convinced that I could be a company’s social media expert if I could convince a company to feel the same way.
The following seems like a plausible proposition if you ask me — there are, after all, many out-of-work journalists. How about hiring one of these journalists to handle your blog, Facebook page and Twitter account? We can write about all kinds of topics that pertain to your company. We can promote your company, and instead of paying for conventional advertising, we will build relationships with your customers, and all you have to do in return is give us moderate compensation. Seems like a win-win for everyone, and it’s been proven to work over time.
But the one time I pitched the idea to a local casino, it fell through. I met with the casino’s CEO and PR director, and I knew early on that the selling of my social media self was not going to be purchased by their establishment. I literally laughed as I walked out of the casino and headed to my truck where at least my dog was happy to see me.
Here’s the thing: I’ve been a sportswriter for 30 years. I have never been a salesman or an entrepreneur or any of those kinds of things, but when you’re reinventing yourself, that’s what you have to be: someone you’re not.
Another avenue I’ve taken is trying to sell myself to athletic department websites at major universities. Here’s the thought process there: Athletic departments would like to promote their teams and players. But there are fewer and fewer media outlets that run stories about their teams and players. So you have someone write the stories for you and post them on your website.
Colorado, New Mexico and North Carolina State are examples of athletic departments where former sportswriters have been hired to do this. I approached the University of Idaho to write about the Vandals and got a good reception. I’ve written one story and have another pending but nothing in terms of full-time employment.
Where I really thought I might have a shot is at my alma mater, Washington State University. I bleed crimson and love my school. In January I met with athletic director Jim Sterk and sports information director Bill Stevens. Sterk liked the idea of employing me somehow and said he would get back to me with the particulars. I drove out of Pullman, Wash., in a state of euphoria.
A few weeks later while still waiting to hear from Sterk, I caught wind of rumors that he might be leaving WSU to take the athletic director job at San Diego State. Sure enough, that’s what happened, and my possible job at WSU is officially in limbo.
I don’t get bent out of shape about stuff not working out — it’s reached a point of being comical. And I tell myself that these things weren’t meant to be, though there have sure been a lot of not meant to be’s, and you start to wonder if anything is.
Clare Farnsworth is a more fortunate former colleague. For years he covered the Seahawks for the P-I. When the paper closed, the Seahawks had a job opening at their website for a reporter to write stories about their team. Perfect situation, perfect fit, and Clare got the job.
It’s been an interesting transition for him. We’re trained to be objective reporters. At the P-I, he wrote features about players and occasionally criticized them when warranted. He would also question moves that the team or coach made.
With Seahawks.com, he writes all positive stories — nothing can be negative or critical. As a freelancer, I still write columns for the P-I’s website, seattlepi.com, and it’s fine for me to question why the team would select a pot-smoking tight end with their sixth pick in the NFL draft, but Clare can’t. Which is OK with Clare, as it would be with me — he’s back to getting steady paychecks, and he’s got his health care covered, too.
But even when you’re a supposedly objective journalist, it’s sometimes hard to be. You can get too close to the athletes and teams that you’re covering.
A few examples: Several years ago I wrote a story about steroids in baseball before steroids in baseball became a very big deal and obvious problem. I interviewed Seattle Mariners second baseman Bret Boone for the story. He gave me general thoughts on the issue, and I wrote the story and sent it in to my editor.
That night, Boone called and asked if I could take any comments he made regarding steroids out of the story. I agreed only because I had a good relationship with Boone and didn’t want to spoil that — the guy was a heck of a quote, and there was a long season ahead. Looking back, I blew that completely. Boone, as it turned out, is one of the most highly suspected steroid users of that era, and to give him a pass that day was wrong.
I’ve gotten too close to several other athletes over the years, and it has clouded my objectivity if I’m being totally honest. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is at the top of the list. I’ve never socialized with him, but I’ve grown to like the guy so much that I cut him more slack than I should when he has a poor performance.
On the flip side of that, when I covered the Sonics in the 1990s, I disliked their star point guard Gary Payton so much that I probably did not give him the credit he deserved in stories I wrote about him.
Now, as a freelancer, I still cover the Seattle sports scene, but not as closely as I did as a full-time sportswriter. What hasn’t changed: I still try to write about topics that will interest the most readers. And more than before, with so many alternatives for readers on the Internet, I try to be unique or offer a perspective you can’t find anywhere else.
This has led to criticism from peers and readers because it’s about as far away from Journalism 101 as you can get since I write about really, really offbeat stuff. When the Mariners hired Mike Hargrove several years ago, everyone was writing about his strengths as manager. I talked to him and asked him about the craziest thing he’d ever done. He told me he once rode a horse into a bar, and I wrote an entire column about that.
When Mike Holmgren was coaching the Seahawks, I wrote about the relationship he had with his two dogs. We can’t relate to Holmgren and his football expertise, but we can relate to him as a dog owner because many of us are too.
Bottom line, I’m doing my best to adapt. I tell high schoolers and college kids the same thing I tell myself: If you can write, there will be jobs for you somewhere even if newspapers become extinct. The Internet may have caused the death of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but it just might throw me a lifeline someday soon.
Jim Moore writes sports columns for seattlepi.com and his website jimmoorethego2guy.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can listen to him on 710 ESPN Seattle weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. PST on “The Kevin Calabro Show” at mynorthwest.com.