David Crisp: The Internet and the death of simple pleasures

I was thinking the other day about how much I hate computers. It’s not just that they have turned every American worker into a computer maintenance technician, or that ads pop up in the middle of the screen while I am trying to read something.

It isn’t even that the only language computers seem to understand is profanity, nor that the screen may suddenly go blank at some crucial point.

Crisp

David Crisp

Rather, it is the way computers have destroyed some of the simpler pleasures. This came to mind as I read the hard-copy column of Gazette Sports Editor Jeff Welsch on Sunday, Sept. 6. Welsch was defending the decision to leave baseball box scores out of the paper on consecutive days recently.

He noted that readers could find those box scores, and much more besides, by going to the Gazette website. True enough, and I often go to the internet to find box scores—although never to the Gazette’s web site, which I largely abandoned when it began asking me questions before giving me access to stories.

As a subscriber, I am, apparently, entitled to full access to the Gazette web site with no additional charge and no pesky questions. I even tried to sign up once, but the site told me it couldn’t find any record that I had an account. That was a hard blow to someone who has subscribed for more than 20 years, but as long as the carrier can still find my house, I will muddle on.

None of that is a criticism of Welsch, except, perhaps, for his slightly “get over it” attitude. I’m often unhappy with what I find, or fail to find, on the Gazette’s sports pages, but as an old sportswriter myself, I know that I would make pretty much the same decisions the Gazette’s editors make about what goes in and what gets left out.

The Gazette’s priority has to be to print as much local sports news as possible. It would be insane to take any other approach.

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But my sports roots are still anchored in Texas. As my brother Joe argues, sports loyalties formed early in life are essentially unchangeable, a form of imprinting as impervious to reform as the conviction that my mother was a human being and not a goose.

As it happened, on one of those days with no box scores, I hadn’t checked online, and I really wanted to see the Houston Astros box score in the paper, over breakfast, next to my cup of coffee. No such luck.

“Baseball box scores are the last bastion of a dying format,” Welsch wrote. By “format,” I assume that he meant newspapers. It’s a hard proposition to argue against. Joshua Benton of Nieman Reports wrote this month that the stock of the Gazette’s parent company, Lee Enterprises, is down about 48 percent this year.

Nationwide, newsroom employment fell 10 percent in 2014, according to Ken Doctor of Nieman Lab. About 32,900 fulltime journalists now work at American daily newspapers, down from a peak of 56,900 just 25 years ago. Papers the Gazette’s size have been hit particularly hard—too small to attract a national audience, too large to fly under the radar of online competition.

Benton worries that shrinking newspapers will lead to shrinking local news. Local web startups, such as Ed Kemmick’s admirable Last Best News, may not be prolific enough to fill the hole left by shrinking dailies, he says. Even local TV news is getting hurt by millennials, who are more than twice as likely to get political news from Facebook as from local TV.

Indeed, the whole idea that the internet would open up a vast new playing field, level to all comers, seems to be falling apart, Benton writes.

He writes, “The free and open web, architected for equal access, is instead dominated by a few large media companies who, in turn, are dominated by a few large technology platforms. Ad dollars flow up the chain to a few companies with headquarters between San Francisco and San Jose.”

Meanwhile, as I approach Official Curmudgeon Age, I find my own horizons contracting toward print. I read a steadily diminishing roll of bloggers, and I find major web news sites—the Huffington Post, Salon, Slate, the Daily Caller—insufferably trivial and one-sided. Reading an actual newspaper on the web still feels odd and inappropriate, like dressing a horse in a tutu.

Much like the geezers who called to complain to the Gazette about the missing box scores, I grew up astounded by a Sunday paper that brought me college football scores—with photos—from all over the country. I didn’t need those stories and rarely read them, but it was thrilling, and worth a few coins, to know they were there.

Now those stories bloom in unweeded abundance on the web. And I am having a hard time finding a reason to look.

David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.

 

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