Thursday, August 20, 2009

I know I'm belaboring the writing point a bit, but...

first a gratuitos photograph from last night. It's still a bit early for the fall severe weather season to start up, but we were in a tornado watch last night so I thought I'd take a little drive and see what I could see.

Not much, as it turns out. Just a wee bit 'o rotation in this storm that never did do much of anything but dump rain and hail. Highly electrified storm, though, and so I tried to get a few lightning shots.

And this is what happens when you attempt a three-second handheld exposure because you were too stupid to remember your tripod and remote shutter release...

So anyway...There's an interesting article this week in - of all places - The New York Observer on the demise of the old-fashioned sports columnist. And while the story doesn't directly address or otherwise have anything to do with outdoors columnists the parallels are too similar to ignore.

I'm not a sports guy so I didn't grow up reading the great sports columnists, but I did grow up reading their equally great counterparts in the hook-and-bullet world.

But I didn't read them because they were "experts" from whom I might glean some tip or technique. I read them first and foremost because they were great storytellers, great writers and because they had something to say and could say it with wit, intelligence and grace. And if I happened to learn something of a technical nature along the way, so much the better.

But here's what I don't get: No one, apparently, wants that kind of writing any more. They want "experts." They want specifics. They want results. They want attitude. They want formulas for success, some A plus B equals C and high-fives all-around equation focused on the mechanics and end-result of the act rather than any boring contemplations of or subtle musing on the act itself.

Which is fine, of course, to a point. Everyone wants to have success in the field or on the water. God knows I could use some more myself. But is there no longer room for both kinds of writing? Has our collective attention span atrophied to the point that we as readers are unable to process anything beyond the tightly-focused byte-sized single-serving story?

I don't know the answer to that, but I believe traditional print-based outdoors magazines are going to live or die by good, insightful writing. It's the only hand they have left, because as a medium for showcasing or announcing the latest, the greatest or the hottest, they're essentially dead. And as an instructional or informational medium they're increasingly irrelevant.

For example, If I want specific information on hunting, fishing, shooting, reloading, new products or whatever, all I have to do is click the mouse and right there at my fingertips are literally millions of hunting and fishing websites out there that can answer my questions, absolutely free.

There is simply no way magazines can compete with that. The web is now essentially what the magazines were twenty years ago, but with one exception: great writers telling great stories.

I won't pay five bucks for a magazine that gives me four-hundred word articles on, for example, the latest technique for Texas-rigging a duck decoy or the hottest bass lure. By the time I get the issue in my hand it's already old news, but I'll damn sure pay five bucks for a magazine that gives me a great duck-hunting or bass-fishing story; a rousing adventure, or perhaps a story or essay that speaks to the intangibles of why we do what we do.

And magazines have a built-in format advantage for longer-form journalism. It's easy to read a three or four hundred-word blog on a monitor. It's not so easy reading a 1,500-word essay or a three thousand-word story on that same monitor. Again, don't compete where you can't win and do compete where you can.

But of course, it all goes back to the fundamental question of "Is that what readers want?"

I'm a reader. That's what I want. But structuring a business model on the demographic I represent is kind of like structuring your retirement portfolio around winning the lottery: sounds great but not quite reality-based.

Of course, someone has to win the damn thing, right?


    I started plumbing to get away from people like you.

    PS Oh well we'll have a great time hunting rats for food down at the dump in our dotage.

  2. Hey, SBW, back already? How was France?

  3. I tried to comment on this post last week, but you have the security settings so tight that "post comment" did not work!

    Anyway, haven't I been hearing this complaint from my outdoor-writer friends since pre-Internet days? Writers want to write literary, meditative pieces for something like the old Gray's Journal, while editors want "Ten Ways to Fool Hawg Bass" with lots of product mentions.

    And book editors -- at many univ. presses and larger houses -- think that hunters and anglers are knuckle-draggers who can barely read their beer-can labels.

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  5. I too lament the dearth of quality outdoor writing. About this time each year I re-re-reread all my old Gene Hills and Robert Ruarks and others in anticipation of first doves, then (when in my adoptive state of Kansas) prairie chickens, pheasants, remnant quail, the occasional rabbit or squirrel, the odd hare, and certainly deer (which, due to my peculiar obsession with handmade selfbows, indicates other authors, such as Jimm Hamm or Dave Peterson). This year, however, the unseasonably cool June and July threw off my circadian rhythm and I began rereading too soon, thereby depleting my stock of quality outdoor literature. I'm now scouring the internet in search of quality wordsmithing of the non-right-wingnut-black-rifle-freak-show variety, and it is a vexing search. I am very glad to have found your blog. Please keep up the good work. Pendulums swing, so we can hope that sometime soon the vapidity of current "pop-outdoors" writing will be seen for what it is and that quality authors can get some page space again. Verve on!

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