Sunday, August 23, 2009

DanyWatch: Talking about the game for a change ... but there's a time and place

How about that: On Saturday, when Ottawa Senators designated quitter Dany Heatley dominated in headlines and on sports networks, the Ottawa Citizen dedicated an editorial to sports. Only it was about Dave Smart and the Carleton Ravens!

It is freakin' sweet to see the "Eastern Ontario Ravens" get that kind of love. Carleton could not buy that kind of publicity. When else will Odessa be mentioned in the editorial page of a newspaper in Canada's capital city? Effin' A. It would not do to soak the blanket, wring it out and rant about sports being on the editorial page, or why newspapers still have editorial pages. That seems to be where this is headed. Come along, let's all be contrarian bastards!

First off, the op-ed pages are a huge space-waster. People make up their own minds rightly or wrongly. The Simpsons nailed it 10 years ago when Ned Flanders told Lisa he read everything in the newspaper, "but the opinion page. I don't need to be told what to think — by anyone living."

What Spencer Hall recently said at The Sporting Blog about the death of the general sports columnist goes triple for the op-ed pages. (Pete Toms, always an early adopter, pointed out in conversation a couple years ago there was no reason for him to read a general sports columnist.)
"... the audience is no longer captive. They can roam the internet looking for whatever they like, and if they're under 40, they're not waiting for it to come to them on their doorstep. They are still prisoner to one constant, however: the hunger for quality ... it's not because the audience lost the taste for something necessary. It is because they were making do all along with what they had, and left the instant they got a better offer.
There are practical reasons. Reporters and editors are having a tough time finding enough space for good storytelling. The high cost of paper, for instance, has meant some newspapers have reduced their paper size. The Ottawa Sun recently lost an inch.

Day after day, though, two perfectly good "opens" (newsroom argot for pages with no ads) are tossed away for no good reason other than it's always been done that way. To hell with that. First and foremost, op-ed pages do nothing for advertisers, due to the outdated view advertising and editorial must be separate. Meantime, it is inefficient use of space:
  • Editorials: A media outlet's stance can be expressed by betting blending analysis and insight into the articles at the front of the paper. There is a reporter at the Simcoe (Ont.) Reformer, Monte Sonnenberg, who has always worked on that principle. Monte always had his facts together while realizing it is more fun and rewarding for all if the reporter lends a certain philosophical bent to the process (to borrow Heatley's favourite word). .

    Monte won a National Newspaper Award recently in the local reporting category. It was not by happenstance. It was something he built up to by refining his pitch.

  • Letters to the editor: Put them on the Internet or direct users to message boards which is what newspapers should have started doing in 1995. Instead, they got started about 10 years late trying to democratize the media and even then, stopped about a quarter of the way.

  • Opinion columists: 95 per cent of the time, any reader worth having knows what the opinion columnist is going to say just by the headline. Most just preach to the converted. To borrow some Flandersese, they have become that gosh-darn pre-dilly-ictable. It is the media equivalent of plain white bread with a glass of water for dippin'.
You see the irony. The era of the general sports columnist is over because people can get sports opinions so fast and furious. Yet newspapers, and the Citizen is not being singled out here because it happens quite often, are putting sports opinions in place of news coverage. They are chasing a percentage they cannot catch. What a waste.

Normally, what the Citizen puts in editorials would not matter much to me. It only came to attention via That kind of proves the point. As Hall says, the model now for opinion writing is "a devoted specialist ... or even a tangent-hopping single-topic writer ... or heaven forbid, writers who didn't write about sports at all."

An editorial on a sports really should be reserved for when it will affect people who don't follow sports. A good example is when politicians are mulling whether to spend taxpayers' money on a new stadium (and isn't that a going concern in Ottawa right now?)

This more about the mentality, than the Citizen's choice of topic. It was ballsy for it to break the Hockey Reflex. It was a bit of an oasis at a time when the hockey sweater Canada will wear at the Vancouver Olympics is a lead story on a CBC national newscast (take it away, TSM).

There is the argument that media outlets should be more responsive to readers' issues. The Globe & Mail's profile of's founder, David Beers, mentioned how it once "posted a request for donations, with the twist that donors could vote for which political issues they would like the site to cover, with the money divided accordingly. Over $10,000 poured in."

In Ottawa's case, everyone and her/his cat allegedly wanted to hear about what's to be done with this Dany Heatley. All summer, anything Heatley-related has usually been one of the most popular stories on

It does not matter that nothing new whatsoever came out of Friday's clusterfudge. It is even more irrelevant that expecting anything of worth to come out of an athlete's conference call is absurd and anyone who tried to trade off should feel ashamed. Dany Heatley needs to ask his agents what his opinion is on toothpaste, so why are we wasting our beautiful minds hanging on his every word? There is still a far greater audience for Senators non-news than there is for Canadian university basketball. And that's fine.

It was wicked to read about the Eastern Ontario Ravens. Never mind that someone working for free coined the phrase "flinty Eastern Ontario toughness" before the Kingston trio of Rob Saunders, Stu Turnbull and Aaron Doornekamp completed their eligibility. It can also be excused that Syracuse was not included among the big-time Big East basketball schools, even though it did have NBA lottery pick Jonny Flynn playing for them last season.

This is Dave Smart's due, for certain:
"There is the sportsmanship that the team shows in its wins and rare losses. And there is also the pedigree of the players. If you look down the Ravens roster, you will see, not unlike other years, that of the 14 listed players on the program, only two are from outside Eastern Ontario. They are not the Carleton Ravens but the Eastern Ontario Ravens. They are players grown at home.

" ... Smart suffers no fools, accepts no mistakes, will not countenance any bad sportsmanship on the court. He rides referees like cowboy on a bronco. He is single-willed and accepts nothing less from his players. You must be a patient man to play for Smart but the rewards are great and he garners respect from his charges. He makes his players better people."
OK, so here's a simple answer about the article that seemed to be the spur under one's fingernail: Carleton cannot buy that kind of publicity.

Of course, that's because op-ed pages don't bring in any advertisers and don't add any value. You see the artificially created dilemma.


Dennis Prouse said...

Well, I can assure you that politicians religiously read the newspapers and op-eds. It is often said that letters to the editor and the op-ed pages are the best read sections of the newspaper.

Here's a contrarian move for you - at a time when many bands are essentially abandoning the studio album, Blue Rodeo is putting out a double album this fall. I'll bet their loyal fan base is all over it.

sager said...


Politicians? Why don't you cite people whose way of thinking is actually helpful and relevant?

Good on Blue Rodeo, but I'm a Tragically Hip person. Never the twain shall meet.

dzuunmod said...

Funny, when I pick up a paper these days, the only things I read are the editorials, letters, op-eds and columns. Basically, these are the blogs of the generation before mine. And I read blogs, so why wouldn't I read opinion pieces simply because they come on a printed page?

I'm not exactly sure what I think should be in the hard copy Citizen tomorrow, but I know for sure it shouldn't include:
-A game story (not even a brief!) about tonight's Rays/Jays contest (if I really care to, I'll watch the highlights before then)
-A piece about the coroner's report on Michael Jackson's death.
-The "latest" on the fires in Greece (I can just turn on BBC World, thanks).

I can go a lot of places for more current reporting on anything that's of interest to people outside of Ottawa. In the Citizen, I want lots of city news, because it has - still - the biggest newsroom in the city by a country mile, and I also want to know what David Reevely thinks about what's going on in town, because I like him. Local news and local opinion - that's what I want in a newspaper.

sager said...

dzuunmod: Those are all very good points about how papers need to be hyperlocal to survive.

It is not the same thing as justifying the editorial page form, whatsoever. It's kind of funny you and Dennis both point to Blue Rodeo and its "loyal fans" or to David Reevely "because I like him." It sort of proves the point I made about preaching to the converted, does it not?

Most people who read columnists are only going to get their own worldview confirm. A good in-depth story can go much farther toward opening minds.

A paper should try to get its editorial stance into how it covers stories. The write-what-they-said, churn-and-spit school of journalism is on the way out. It has no safety switch for when one or more of the people being quoted is lying or being untruthful.