Got talent?

By Mark Coomes

College football is almost ready to kick off, and it’s finally starting to sink in: For the first time in 20 years, The Courier-Journal will provide one sports columnist instead of two.

And for the first time in 34 years, the crisp prose of Rick Bozich won’t ink the papyrus produced at 525 W. Broadway.

But this is not a weepy ode to days gone by. It’s a hearty welcome to a new world order.

You can still read Rick Bozich. You just can’t read him in The Courier-Journal – and that doesn’t matter so much anymore.

It used to. Boy, did it ever.

For 100 years, no sportswriter in his right mind would even consider leaving a big newspaper (unless it was to work for a bigger newspaper). Even as radio grew and TV metastasized, metropolitan newspapers remained the ambitious writer’s platform of choice. It gave his voice the farthest reach and the greatest credibility.

That has changed. Has it ever.

We could argue ad nauseum about the relative reach and credibility of The Courier-Journal and, say, WDRB-TV and WDRB.com, the properties to which Bozich and his top-notch colleague, Eric Crawford, simultaneously defected in June.

It’s an argument that on straight dope – readership, brand awareness and such – the Courier might win. But that’s the battle, not the war.

The war isn’t over, but the Courier continues to lose more ground – and more people – than it gains. In sports, the remaining staff must cope in months to come with having fewer teammates and more competitors – several of whom played for Team C-J last season.

The Courier has been losing readers, writers and “newshole,” the amount of space devoted to editorial content, for decades. But when Bozich and Crawford bolted three months ago, the Courier also lost face.

Fair or not, in the dusty corners of our middle-aged minds, many lifelong Louisvillians still think of WDRB as the home of Presto the Clown and “Fright Night Theater.” Now it’s home to the city’s most prominent sports columnists? Really?

You’ve come a long way, baby. Both of you.

In the 1970s, The Courier-Journal was a place to win Pulitzer Prizes; WDRB was the place to watch reruns of “Gilligan’s Island.” Forty years later, WDRB has increased in stature. The Courier has decreased, as have all newspapers, save The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

The old gray mares ain’t what they used to be. But I wouldn’t ship them to the glue factory just yet. Many fine journalists still work at Sixth and Broadway, and I admire the depleted troops who dig in every day to fight the old fight without the old weapons.

I read on Insider Louisville that in the latest buyout, the Courier staff lost about 200 years of collective experience. Countless gigabytes of institutional memory were deleted and erased.

Or transferred to another machine

Bozich and Crawford just took their jump drives and left. A few weeks later, so did sports reporter Jody Demling, a jack-of-all-trades who had been with the paper for 22 years.

They weren’t bought out or pushed out. They just got out.

Therein lies the crux of the new world order.

The Courier has suffered major brain drain in every department, but the depletion has been more visible – and voluntary – in sports.

Pat Forde left for ESPN.com in 2004. U of L beat writer Brian Bennett joined him in 2008. UK beat writer Brett Dawson left last year for Rivals.com, as publisher of Cats Illustrated. Demling is now at a Fox Sports site called Cardinal Authority. Bozich and Crawford, of course, are at WDRB.

People come and go in every business, but the Courier was once a place where people came and stayed. The recent turnover in sportswriters is unprecedented.

Each scribe was replaced by capable, diligent men. But a newspaper can’t lose old hands by the dozen without flagging.

Not every Courier reader had the warm and fuzzies for Bozich, Forde, Bob Hill or David Hawpe, but their years of service required a grudging respect. Continuity creates credibility.

Credibility is a portable asset, and the Courier’s portfolio keeps fattening other accounts. It’s not a healthy trend – and it’s a big reason why newspapers are not a healthy business.

Like most newspapers, the Courier rarely if ever made serious counteroffers to talented staffers coveted by electronic media properties. This is partly because newspapers are cheap. And they regard TV and the Internet as inferior platforms.

But it’s mostly because newspapers believe that the institution is the franchise, not the people who work there. It’s the brand, not the bylines.

Wrong.

Who has prospered more in recent years, The Washington Post or former Post reporters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon?

The grass is so much greener – and the future so much brighter – that maybe nothing could have stopped the mass emigration of top sportswriters from print to electronic. But no one believes that newspapers really tried.

The bang-bang defections of Bozich, Crawford and Demling surprised everyone. I asked a mutual friend why they left.

“More money, less bullshit,” he said.

By refusing to pay competitive wages – and by aggravating the talent to death with Gannettoid nonsense – the Courier has deeply weakened an important chunk of their franchise.

Thus did the Yankees become a farm team for the minor leagues. A-Rod now plays for the Trenton Thunder; Derek Jeter is a Charleston RiverDog.

I haven’t worked at the Courier since 2006, and I have no idea what leadership makes of the personnel losses the paper has suffered this year. But from what I read (online) and hear from friends who work for other newspapers, the industry is still struggling to acknowledge that its monopoly on writers and readers is dead.

Newspapers are still foundering under the illusion that their brand supersedes the people who built the brand. They don’t seem to realize that the game has changed – profoundly and permanently.

I’ll cut the Courier some slack for still being in denial when Forde bolted for ESPN eight years ago, but there’s been a nationwide exodus from print to Internet ever since. There’s no excuse for letting Bozich and Crawford walk in 2012.

Those two were the only widely recognizable faces the paper had left. Surely that counts for something.

Or not.

I haven’t spoken to Rick or Eric about their departures. (Eric wrote a terrific piece about it for WDRB.) Maybe there’s nothing the Courier could have done to convince them to stay. If true, that speaks volumes.

It also speaks volumes that the Courier refused to let either man write a farewell column. They were longtime fixtures in readers’ daily lives. Hard to believe those readers didn’t want to hear an explanation, or a simple goodbye.

The message from Sixth & Broadway was clear: We’re The Courier-Journal. We’re bigger than any writer (or editor or subscriber). Thanks for the memories, fellas. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

That’s the old-school newspaper mindset: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, no matter how gifted or celebrated the parts might be.

Once upon a time, that was true. The whole really was greater than the sum of its parts. Then the whole began to shrink in every measurable way: staff size, paper size, circulation, awards.

Some of the parts, however, didn’t shrink. Their work was as good as ever.

So as newspapers shrunk in stature, the stature of their best writers actually grew. It became clearer than ever that these were talented individuals, not just replaceable cogs in a monopoly’s machine.

Every time the Courier chased off or bought out a strong, distinctive voice – Forde, Hawpe, Hill, Jim Adams, Byron Crawford, Bettye Winston Baye — it not only diminished the paper as a whole, it further increased the value of its few remaining stars.

Stars like to hang with other stars, and not only on South Beach. They grow tired of enduring teeny-tiny raises and big, pounding headaches inflicted by the overpaid overlords at corporate HQ. They take their talents elsewhere.

The brands that matter now are more individual than institutional.

Over the past 10 years, the market has recognized that certain writers are stars in their own right – and that they could shine just as brightly for a website as for a newspaper. And that readers could and would follow them wherever they went.

The writers’ credibility is their own. It has ceased to matter who they work for.

There was a day when people read Rick Bozich, Earl Cox and Billy Reed at least partly because they wrote for The Courier-Journal, the state’s largest newspaper and august winner of multiple Pulitzer Prizes. I, for one, definitely benefited from the instant credibility that the Courier bestowed on a young buck from a Class AA paper in Florida. The Courier’s cache didn’t hurt young Forde or Crawford either.

But the Courier, firmly in Gannett’s pinchpenny clutches by then, set about diminishing its own brand and its own credibility.

It stopped winning Pulitzers. It stopped delivering papers to every county in the state. It closed its bureaus in Pikeville, Paducah, Bowling Green and other cities – operations that allowed the Courier to cover this diverse state in a uniquely competent fashion.

It lost readers. It lost presence. It lost face.

As early as 1995, when I was covering the UK sports beat, it was damned hard to find a copy of The Courier-Journal in Lexington, the state’s second-largest city and only 80 miles east of the C-J press. Some bean counters at Gannett headquarters decided that trucking papers to Lexington wasn’t worth the cost.

From a strict dollars and cents perspective, I’m sure they were right. But there’s a cost to saving certain costs. The Courier paid with a lower profile that lowered its credibility in central Kentucky.

It became The Tree That Fell in the Forest. If nobody reads a newspaper, does that newspaper truly exist?

How credible is a newspaper that you don’t need to read? Central Kentucky is a large and important market in this region and, trust me, the vast majority of Central Kentuckians survived the Courier’s pullback just fine.

The movers and shakers still read it, I think, via home delivery or easy access to the C-J newsstands that were still well stocked downtown. But if you didn’t work in the business district, finding a Courier-Journal some days required a scavenger hunt.

I lived in a suburb situated just three miles from Blue Grass Airport and Keeneland Race Course. Yet there were days I had to drive all the way downtown to get a copy of my own paper.

This was pre-Internet. You either read the actual newspaper or you read nothing at all.

Most Lexingtonians read nothing at all. The Courier-Journal to them was like a rich and distant uncle of whom you are vaguely aware but totally unfamiliar.

My point is this: The sea change is cresting now, but the tide started to turn long before Al Gore invented the Internet. Newspapers have been diminishing themselves for 25 years. Cyberspace is merely delivering the coup de grace.

By reducing their reach, shrinking their product and failing to adapt to new technology, newspapers voluntarily surrendered vast amounts of power and presence. In doing so, they unwittingly bolstered the profile of staffers whose work stayed strong even as the surrounding product grew weak.

In time, many of the best and the brightest outgrew newspapers. A tipping point was reached. Power slipped from the institution to the individual — and print institutions refused to see it. Or stop it.

Newspapers have been hemorrhaging top talent for years. They don’t pay enough. They won’t improve working conditions. They are handcuffed financially and philosophically by corporate owners like Gannett.

“(There were) too many ‘news’ initiatives dictated from afar that detracted from news needs on the ground here,” Crawford wrote, explaining why he defected to WDRB. “And in the end, there were too few of my colleagues left in the building, too many gifted people with productive years left being spun back into the community instead of staying where they belonged, inside that building to cover it.”

Newspaper buildings have emptied from coast to coast. Most staffers were jettisoned against their will but have, in some cases, come to pity the colleagues who hung on.

The microscopic raises grudgingly given to longtime employees lag inflation so badly that veteran reporters are poorer today than they were 10 years ago. Yet they are required to do more work.

It’s not enough anymore to simply file daily stories from your beat, which is a full-time job and then some. Now reporters also have to blog. And Tweet. And shoot video and take photographs.

For a long time, a mindset prevailed at major newspapers that said, “You should feel lucky to work at The Courier-Journal.” Or the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times.

Now the mindset has devolved to, “You should feel lucky to have a job.”

In this economy, a person is indeed lucky to have a decent job. And back in the day, a reporter was indeed lucky to work for a big paper. It meant more money, more prestige, better editors and a bigger stage for displaying your craft.

Print journalists don’t feel so lucky these days. They are finding better jobs, better pay and bigger stages elsewhere. They are discovering that newspapers don’t have them over a barrel anymore.

Readers are too.

Newspapers have rarely bent over backwards to keep standouts in the fold. It was an article of fact and faith that gilded institutions like The Courier-Journal were bigger than any fancy wordsmith or dogged news-breaker.

That’s no longer the case. The parts make the whole, and the Courier has too many valuable parts now working for the competition.

About Mark Coomes: Contributing blogger Mark Coomes covered sports from 1988 to 2000 for The Courier-Journal, USA Today, Florida Today and The Monroe News Star.

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4 thoughts on “Mark Coomes: 'Every time the Courier-Journal chases off a distinctive voice, it diminishes the paper as a whole'

  1. Months ago, I was invited to contribute full-time to a new blog taking
    shape on the CJ website. “There will be no pay,” was the beginning of
    the second sentence of their pitch. It went on to say if I would just
    crank out a few features a week – on time- I would really get my name
    out there and have “instant access to the CJ’s audience” that would
    build my personal brand.

    It was all very pompous, as if the Queen had asked me to brunch or
    something and I should have been grateful I was even considered for such
    a high honor – to write original content on a blog for the state’s
    largest newspaper. For free. I politely declined.

    I haven’t met a person yet who said I made a bad decision. It is as
    though they are the only ones who aren’t in on the joke. It is a very
    sad situation. I wish those professionals who remain the best of luck
    and better opportunities.

  2. Months ago, I was invited to contribute full-time to a new blog taking
    shape on the CJ website. “There will be no pay,” was the beginning of
    the second sentence of their pitch. It went on to say if I would just
    crank out a few features a week – on time- I would really get my name
    out there and have “instant access to the CJ’s audience” that would
    build my personal brand.

    It was all very pompous, as if the Queen had asked me to brunch or
    something and I should have been grateful I was even considered for such
    a high honor – to write original content on a blog for the state’s
    largest newspaper. For free. I politely declined.

    I haven’t met a person yet who said I made a bad decision. It is as
    though they are the only ones who aren’t in on the joke. It is a very
    sad situation. I wish those professionals who remain the best of luck
    and better opportunities.

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