Dustin Parkes penned a thought-provoking essay today. It’s about the fate of writers in a world that seems to value longer, more in-depth writing and reporting less and less as time goes on and values shorter, bloggier, clickable content more and more.
Parkes has some recent experience with this. He used to write for the sports site The Score where he specialized in longer form writing. Deeper dives. A year or two ago, however, that site let Parkes and a lot of other good writers go, deleted their archives and has attempted to pursue a more flashy, gossip-driven and viral content existence. Parkes uses the term “snackable content,” which I believe was actually coined by people who like the shorter stuff, even if it sounds like something of an insult.
A lot of people who have done the sort of work Parkes did at The Score but who are finding it harder to make a go of it these days aren’t terribly happy with the demand for shorter, fluffier content. Indeed, many in journalism who have found themselves on that side of this content divide have taken to disparaging modern tastes and modern media and have chalked it up to the dumbing down of the culture. Parkes gives some excellent examples of this based on some recent controversial changes to The New Republic.
But rather than join in that chorus, as many a smart, deep-thinking writer has done of late, Parkes calls for an end to that. Or at least points out how useless it is for a writer to take that stance. And it’s not just a surrendering, hands-up, “well, the mob has spoken” kind of thing. Parkes acknowledges that journalistic form will, inevitably, follow the function its readers want it to serve:
“It’s absurd to imagine changes in the production and accessibility of writing not affecting how we read it … Being willing to experiment and innovate will propel us much farther than wallowing in the fact that current trends don’t match our sensibilities. As our reaction to the changes at The New Republic illustrates, it’s easier to bemoan what was great about the past than adapt to the future. We’d rather shame the people looking to make writing economically viable than consider how content is being consumed. And that’s to our detriment.”
Adapt or perish, Mr. or Ms. Writer Person, because this is a business.
It’s a sentiment with which I completely agree. As I found in my previous career, if you think you’re part of some greater noble calling which should be immune to commercial considerations, you’re gonna find yourself on the unemployment line eventually.
But knowing that you need to get with the times and actually doing it are two different things. Parkes spends a lot of time wrestling with it, but even he concedes at the end that it’s easier said than done. The path to being a decently-compensated writer in this new world is still shaking out, really, and that was the case even before Facebook started wading into things, which is likely to cause even greater disruption in existing models.
Though I got and have, somehow, managed to keep a job in the world of snackable content, I can’t say that I have any monopoly on wisdom here. Especially wisdom that allows writers to continue to keep working and keeps them from having to reduce themselves to the lowest common denominator to do it. But I can say what has worked for me over the past six years.
While my writing in this space often skews long and while I, personally, am quite comfortable with more in-depth analysis, the media consumption landscape doesn’t really tolerate that anymore. Unless you’re Gary Smith or unless you have a particularly compelling story, people won’t read 3,000 words from you on anything approaching a regular basis. And if people aren’t reading you on a regular basis, no one will want to give you a regular outlet for your work. Writing three cool things a year just doesn’t pay anyone’s bills.
But people will read 200 or 400 words over and over and over again. If you have a distinct point of view and a decent set of principles you can write 200 or 400 word pops every day – or multiple times a day – and manage to attract readers who keep coming back for those little snacks. If you keep your mind on what is important and maintain that distinct point of view and that decent set of principles, you can say a few things in the process that matter. At least in the aggregate.
Sure, there are some tradeoffs involved here. You have to pay the bills, so you you may have to play videos. Or write a list once in a while. You have to make jokes or embed Vines and assorted crap like that. And, apart from the rare indulgence, you won’t be able to hold up a brilliant 3,000 word essay and say “I did this; this is important!” But you will have a body of work which, while no one single thing may be earth-shatteringly important, amounts to something that you can call your own and which your readers can say gave them something valuable.
In my experience, I probably write something of any serious length a couple of times a year. A couple of times a week I may write something that exceeds 1,000 words. Mostly I’m writing 15-20 short hits, some of which are just links to other articles, some of which are jokes or pictures or videos. A few of which are short bursts of sharp opinion. All of that taken together provides something my employers can monetize and which my readers willingly and easily consume.
But I think it’s also fair to say that all of these short bits amount to something of substance. Yes, my readers come for laughs and videos and little snacks, but they also know that I stand for some things and that I can be trusted to offer some wisdom or insight on the things that are more or less in my wheelhouse.
Maybe it’s not as writerly or noble as the stuff a house columnist at a prestigious periodical produced in the 1950s through the 1990s. Maybe some of it is base and commercial and calculated to get people click, click, click. But it’s a way to get ideas out there while simultaneously giving readers and publishers what they want. And that’s about as good as someone can hope in these strange new times.
Baseball lends itself to nostalgia. It’s a sport with a rich history and a tendency to embrace (and sometimes exploit) that history so you really can’t escape its past.
Not that most people want to escape baseball’s past. Many fans are introduced to the sport when they’re young, wander off for a few years in their late teens and twenties and then wander back, often at the same time they’re trying to find some sort of greater meaning or stability in their lives. It’s understandable, then, that people tend to look back a bit when taking it all in. It’s nice to remember the past sometimes. To remember things from back when life wasn’t so complicated.
But some people can’t stop with a fond glance backward or the invocation of a pleasant memory. Some people get caught up in a more toxic strain of nostalgia that blinds them to the beauties and wonders of the present and chains them to the past. Surprisingly, it’s often the people who are closest to the game who most easily fall prey to this habit. Indeed, it’s not uncommon at all among baseball writers who have been around the block a time or two to do so. To come to decide that they no longer like or understand what they see in our national pastime and come to pine for a time in baseball’s past when everything seemed to make so much more sense. Of course it’s rarely couched in the terms of such a dilemma. Usually it’s defensively couched in terms of a rejection of the allegedly flawed present and is followed by a demand that the game be returned to its idyllic past.
Earlier today I came across a particularly egregious example of “back in my day-ism” from an established baseball writer, complete with lamentations of all that the game has become and wishes – hard, sincere wishes – that it could once again be like it used to be. This particular writer was ostensibly trying to address the legitimately pressing matter of Major League Baseball’s diminishing appeal to children, and no doubt believed he was being helpful by prescribing changes in the game which would make it much more like it was when he was a kid. Which is not surprising as the timeframe for “baseball like it used to be” is, invariably, the time when the speaker was about 12 years old. That’s when it was perfect and it should be just like that today. Most people who talk like this will deny that, but the writer today didn’t. He came right out and said “the kids need to see the game we saw as kids. That’s what we fell in love with.”
If I were writing this over at my baseball blog, I’d probably launch into an argument about how baseball today is, despite popular sentiment to the contrary, really fantastic and how the writer is blind to the fact that baseball in his day had problems of its own that are often ignored. I’d point out his factual errors (the Oakland Athletics didn’t just used to wear white shoes, they still do) or make note of his intellectual dishonesty (Bill “Spaceman” Lee, whom the writer holds up as a “colorful character” of baseball’s past, was actively loathed by a baseball establishment that, then and now, discourages individuality and eccentricity and that writer knows that very damn well). But I’ve written that column a hundred times and I’m sort of bored with it. I can write that takedown in my sleep. Sometimes I almost do.
Tonight my thoughts are bigger than baseball. Tonight I’m less inclined to be sharply critical of such a mindset – past criticism in this regard has won me no friends and has changed precisely zero minds – than I am to be sad about it.
Sad that so many people seem reluctant to let time march on. Sad that they don’t want to try to keep up or, if keeping up is too hard, which it sometimes can be, they are unwilling to acknowledge that time and progress is bigger than they are and that it’s OK to let it march on. Sad that they cannot abide things moving beyond their reach and their mastery and that, despite this, they must nonetheless attempt to impose their authority on the subject at hand via any means available, even if that authority comes by virtue of intellectually erroneous things like their own subjective memory of an allegedly idealistic past.
I suspect that this reluctance is a product of fear. Fear that, if their authority over a subject ceases to be recognized, they cease to exist in some way. It’s a fear which is necessarily premised on the notion that their very existence is a function of their authority and that their authority is a product of their job. With said job being given to them decades ago and, well, now here we are. If all of that all goes up in smoke then what is left? Death, I guess. Because certain middle-to-upper middle class parts of our culture have largely decided that when you cease to be professionally relevant and useful all that is left is death. And, holy shit, death is scary! So let’s fight it off with any weapon at hand, even if the only weapon at hand is questionable nostalgia.
But it’s wrong to fear death. At least that narrowly-defined bit of professional death I just described. Because if we’re doing things right, we die a little every day and at no time should we be premising our existence and vitality on who we were when we were younger, let alone when we were twelve years old.
John Updike, in his 1996 memoir “Self Consciousness” got at this notion pretty damn well. He noted that human beings’ very identities are, or at least should be, a product of incremental evolution. Daily evolution, even. And that for this reason we should not fear the passage of time or the changing of our opinions based on the changing of realities in the world we observe:
Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, those disposable ancestors of ours.
There are old versions of me I don’t much like. Ignorant Craigs who didn’t know then what I know now. Intolerant Craigs who had not yet opened themselves up to new experiences. Wrongheaded Craigs who didn’t value that which current Craig values. In turn, I suspect that future Craigs will hate aspects of current Craig. Or, at the very least, shake their heads, wondering what on Earth he was thinking.
But there’s another way to think about this concept. To think that, every time you look back to the good old days (or the good old you) and either claim them to be superior to the present or wish you were still back enjoying them, you’re killing all of the selves you have become since then. You’re killing those incarnations of you which leaned and evolved and, per Updike’s construction, became born anew with fresh knowledge or perspective. And that’s a best case scenario. An alternate one is that you have never learned, changed or evolved and that your callback to the good old days is a signal of your defiance against all of the forces that, in the normal course, help humanity advance and evolve. “I’ve learned nothing and experienced nothing new worth mentioning” you’re smugly saying. “And I’m damn proud of it!” That’s about the saddest thing I can imagine.
None of which is to say that we’re all going to be able to keep up and stay relevant forever. We should certainly endeavor to, but at some point you or I may truly not understand what these kids today are going on about. You or I may not be quick enough to pick up on every new trick. You or I may simply not understand what’s going on in, say, baseball anymore because it may have gotten too damn complicated for us or it may have ceased to hold our interest.
But if that does happen, we have a choice to make. On the one hand we can choose to live in denial, claim that we are still interested in the subject at hand, claim that we still know everything worth knowing about it and proceed as if we learned it all by the time we were 12 years old. Or we can accept the fact that we’re no longer able to or interested in keeping up, be comfortable with that fact and then go on to find new things to care about and new selves to become.
Personally, I want to find new selves to become. I want to die thousands of more times and wake up a new person thousands of more times before my actual life is over. I want to do everything I can to know and experience new things. If there comes I time when I can no longer really do that, I want to be happy with how far I’ve come and admit to myself that others will continue to do so rather than falsely claimed that, really, there is nothing new to learn or experience.
Because if we believe that there is nothing new to learn or experience, then we truly die. Long before our time.