20 years later, I still miss The National

The Cover of the final issue of The NationalBud Shaw has a great story over at Mental Floss on the rise and fall of The National, a short-lived national daily sports newspaper.

I read it regularly and loved it, before it died a year after it sprang into existence. It was supposed to be the USA Today of sports, covering both national and local sports every day. It was loaded with some of the best sports writers of any era: Frank Deford, Scott Ostler, and Dave Kindred.

At the time the National was on newsstands, I was a Lakers fan living in Chicago. Back then, if you wanted to follow another team other than the local teams, you had no real options. This was before the Internet. But I fondly remember sitting at lunch, reading the National for daily, in-depth coverage of my hometown Lakers from 2000 miles away, an idea that was revolutionary at the time.

Not only did The National precede the Web, it nearly preceded the desktop publishing revolution, so, as Shaw details in his story, the technological challenges they were trying to overcome in 1990 were daunting. Ultimately, it was a bold, journalistic idea with a bad business plan. But it was great while it lasted…

Check out the full, entertaining article here.

Long-form narrative and the art of cooking slow food

In the Washington Post last week, Joel Achenbach wrote an interesting feature on the diminishing opportunities for long-form narrative nonfiction in the newspaper-death-spiral/Twitter/iPhone era.

As seems to be the case anytime that I read about trends in the magazine and news business world these days, the outlook isn’t promising.

There seem to be two lines of thought: one is that modern audiences don’t have the patience or the attention span for longer narratives, which is why they watch reality TV shows and love Twitter. The other line says that people still want good journalism and storytelling: the problem has to do with the business model of publishing, not with the demand for good narrative. Achenbach gets to the heart of the problem:

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

And that’s part of the challenge as a writer. There are lots of opportunities to deliver “fast food” writing: short, punchy pieces. Sidebars. Lists. Examiner.com would rather I write five short posts a week than one long, thoughtful one. Getting the chance to write good, long-form narrative is a big challenge.

For what its worth, call me a optimist. There’s no question that there are a lot of ADD Americans out there who lose interest after 140 characters. But most people still crave good stories, true ones or fiction. It’s in our DNA. I see it with co-workers who are counting down the days until return of Lost, gripped with “what’s going to happen next.” I see it on the Metro, with commuters nose down in Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer books. I see in in my 18-month old daughter when she begs me to keep reading to her at night.

Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day Two, P.M.

Over lunch, a bunch of strangers and I tried to figure out how to save the newspaper business. We didn’t succeed in finding a solution, but the brownies were quite tasty.

For the first afternoon session, went to “Conversation on Craft” on Magazines. The conversation focused on this powerful feature story from the New Yorker: The Last Tour by William Finnegan. Interesting session, from which my biggest take away is that William Finnegan is a hell of writer.

The second afternoon session was a tough call. I wanted to attend five of the seven sessions, but ultimately wound up in Tom French’s talk on “getting organized, mapping a story, finding a structure.” This handout is a great summary. Again, I was really impressed with Tom French. A few interesting tidbits you won’t find on the handout:

  • Cover of 'D.C. Comics Guide to Writing Comics'The best book on structure, according to French, is the D.C. Comics Guide to Writing Comics. Seriously.
  • Readers are smarter and more open to new approaches than we think. Reader are often ready for a lot more than editors and writers expect. The conventional wisdom about what they read or won’t read is often wrong. Sometimes, you can bury the lede and the world wont come to the end…
  • Even great writers often think their work sucks, especially when their working on it. It is common, he says, to be frequently “fighting off panic and terror.” “It’s good to be scared,” French says. “That means that you’re pushing yourself.”
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