Contra-Journalism, or My One-Step Program to Save Internet Writing
CK: “…track and field will always matter, even if no one in America seems to care.”
Since posting my Usain Bolt/track and field column, I’ve received a surprising amount of feedback via email, Twitter, blog posts, video diaries, Gchat, Facebook wall, craigslist ads and coded messages on adultfriendfinder. To me, Bolt is a fascinating figure, a rare athlete with the ideal combination of talent, panache, will, ego, self-awareness, dedication, marketability, bravado, and curves in spandex nothing short of sublime. Sure, the 100-meter dash, and every other track event, is maybe only interesting three times every four years (the Olympics and the couple times someone either breaks a world record or tests positive for PEDs), and while corporations like Puma, Nike and ESPN (all praises due) may want us to believe otherwise, it’s just not that compelling to watch people run in a circle, no matter how fast they’re going. Maybe if they were being chased by velociraptors or if they were hauling ass while shredding out the guitar solo to “Crazy Train,” we would all watch religiously. But until that magical day, it’s really just Kenyans and Jamaicans running 25 mph like it’s nothing while we collectively yawn and shove another Cheeto in the toothy food hole.
But with Grantland, a limitless forum with which to express my cornucopia of thoughts on sports, fame, culture, music, the abject reality that human existence is ultimately futile, etc., why choose track and field, a marginal sport at best, this early in the game? Why not come out guns blazing with Klassic Klosterman topics like “why Joey from Blossom is the final step in the evolution of the sitcom sibling” or “if Neil Young’s voice doesn’t make you somber and reflective then you’re an android” or “contemporary online culture is crrraaaaaazy!”? All in due time, my pretties. This thing is a marathon, not a sprint. Klostermaniacs, I understand that you’re not used to me having a regular forum, and you’ve come to expect every piece to be pure solid gold dancers. But when you have to crank out a couple articles a week, you need to make some concessions. Not every post is going to be as well-considered and fully-developed as you might like. There simply isn’t time to mull over the implications of every concept, statement, sentence and footnote (man, do I love those fucking footnotes). At times, you just have to let the baby bird fly out of the nest and hope it can survive out there on its own, even if you gave birth to a blind, one-winged cripple with Down syndrome.
There’s a bright side to all of this as well. With the need for more output comes the freedom to try new things, to experiment, to stretch your wings and build an addition onto whatever pigeon hole you’ve created for yourself as a journalist (experiment one: I’m strictly using track and bird inspired metaphors in this piece). If you haven’t noticed, we’ve got a pretty heady crew over here with Gladwell and Eggers and Rany Jazayerli (Wait, who the hell is that? Is that Joe House’s pseudonym? Seriously, what the fuck? I thought all hires had to be run by me. They’re going over my head already? John Walsh is about to “consult” my motherfucking balls in a second.). Things get pretty philosophical around the ol’ break room, and we’ve gotten comfortable enough with each other as colleagues that we’re beginning to push one another to try new things and to explore uncharted territory. I know what you’re thinking, “Oh, writing about track and field as opposed to one of the four major sports is such a daring, inscrutable paradigm shift. I can barely articulate the wonderment I felt while squinting to read your 300 word footnote. The ground was shifting beneath my very feet. Somebody resurrect David Foster Wallace.” Well, not so fast, tiger…
We are currently living in an age where all media is becoming more and more tailored to the “individual.” News networks like CNN, Fox and MSNBC all shape their narratives based on what they believe will interest their audiences and keep them watching. Instead of reading newspapers where stories are reported, sourced and fact-checked, readers in droves are choosing to click on blogs that are speculative, unsubstantiated and purely subjective. Content for every niche taste, whether it be television (and whatever you call episodic filmed entertainment on the web… telewebfunstertime?), news, gossip, porn, music, or pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, sprouts up faster than it can reasonably be consumed. With the inundation and ubiquity of social media quietly whispering in everyone’s ear, “You are special. Unique. Every single mundane action you perform during the course of your day is important and should be communicated with the world lest it be lost forever. If you eat a fantastic hoagie then, goddamn it, the world has a right to know!” people every day are writing their own news feeds, creating their own forms of entertainment for their social sphere. With news outlets evolving into infotainment, with media pandering to taste, with all this choice, consumers choose what is easiest, what fits their worldview, what appeals to them, and what their friends like. The days of hard reporting, of confronting uncomfortable truths in print and on television and reconciling them within one’s own reality, are slipping away. People want their “Cheetos” and there are thousands of media outlets jockeying to give them the bag with the most extreme crunchtastic cheesy flavor blast.
Our society no longer has tolerance for depth – it forgoes the medicine and simply sucks down the spoonful of sugar. Having earned my stripes as a print journalist, watching these transformations has been difficult, to say the least. Back at Grantland HQ, we kick labyrinthine problems like these around on a regular basis, and finally I decided it was time I took action. This brings me back to my Bolt article. Why write about something that most people couldn’t care less about? Because I’m trying to save our culture, that’s why.
In concert with some of my new colleagues (Simmons was in the other room watching Vision Quest, eating Baked Lays and drinking a Bud Light Lime, but he yelled back “Yeah, whatever,” which we took as unconditional approval) we crafted a bold, insurgent movement – the kind that, if successful, will be chronicled in textbooks for years to come. Let me be the first to welcome you to the advent of a new era, the era of contra-journalism (or up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start journalism if I’ve had too many pumpkin spice low-fat iced macchiatos). While a reactionary movement, contra-journalism looks not to the past but to creating a future where active readers exist to ponder unfamiliar or uncomfortable topics and reconcile these within their own experience. Going back to my metaphor from before, we want to bring the “medicine” to web-based writing. And how better to do that than to begin writing about topics no one has any interest in reading? The very courage it takes to publish like this will serve as a beacon for further epiphany, ushering readers into a new appreciation of the written word, even if they don’t enjoy a single second of it.
Allow me to provide an example of pre-contra-journalisticism in action, through celebrated newspaperman, author and television scribe David Simon. Simon famously worked for years as a crime reporter on the harrowing inner-city streets of Baltimore before creating the universally acclaimed HBO series The Wire. Anyone who has completed the first season of the series and is not stunned by the writing, captivated by the humanity of its characters, and helplessly compelled to watch the remainder of the series should immediately be placed under surveillance under suspicion of being either a sociopath, an alien or terminally stupid. True human beings who continue to season two are notoriously thrown, as the focus shifts from “the streets” to “the docks.” As such, many viewers have deemed this season to be the weakest of the five. Having watched The Wire all the way through several times, I have to concede that season two is, in many ways, LESS enjoyable. But doesn’t that make it valuable? Sure, at first you’re thinking “Who are these dipshits? I hate every one of these fat dock workers,” but over time you develop a begrudging respect for Simon’s gutsy decision to dramatically shift focus to a world that viewers will probably appreciate measurably less. In a way, it’s glorious in its disregard for the audience. As an audience member, you experience little carrots along the way to encourage you to stick with these sacks of shit (Nicky Sobotka’s girlfriend’s boobs, that dickhead Ziggy finally getting what he deserves) but ultimately it is a test of the viewer’s wherewithal to get to the reward, which is a resounding commentary on the abandonment of America’s blue collar industries and the collapse of the backbone of the country’s middle class. That reward doesn’t make it fun, but it’s important. Simon takes this approach a step further with his subsequent series Treme, again shining light on a human experience that is uncommon, under-represented and fascinating, but also very unenjoyable to watch. But isn’t that a good thing? Should everything really be as sweet and easy as a Butterfinger Blizzard? Shouldn’t some things taste like broccoli?
And this is what we hope to accomplish with contra-journalism. By writing pieces about uninteresting and unappreciated topics on a forum as heavily trafficked as Grantland, we will be pushing audiences to venture outside their fluffy Deadspin and Huffington Post-pillowed comfort zone to engage in a world they’d rather not acknowledge or give any attention. We will refuse to give them an easy I.V. of saccharine sweet snark and will force-feed them article after article that actively bores, irritates and infuriates them. They may despise every moment of it, but they’ll read it because ESPN and Simmons and Klondike told them to. And when the dust settles, we will be lauded for saving the minds of a generation. Either that, or the website will go down in flames and I’ll be forced to write overwrought pieces on Ellio’s pizza for Esquire again. Either way.