Friday, August 27, 2010

Jason Whitlock's 'Explanation' is a week old, and we're all still dumber for it

Posted By on Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 10:59 AM

click to enlarge Jason Whitlock will take his explaining to Fox Sports.
  • Jason Whitlock will take his explaining to Fox Sports.

The Explanation is a week old now, and has mostly unscrewed itself from the brains of Kansas City sports fans. Soon Jason Whitlock's drive-time exit interview will blend in with his other exit interviews, wherein he always confuses speaking "truth to power" with speaking "a lot."

Bloggers (like me) and navel-staring journalists (still me) will keep talking about the most salacious missiles launched during Whitlock's scorched-newsroom campaign, mostly regarding editor Mike Fannin. And since bloggers interpreted Whitlock's 5,000-watt bridge-burning escapade as the official start to hunting season, they'll keep mining Fannin's closet for irrelevant skeletons, somehow convinced that readers care about the editor-in-chief's capacity for partying.

This just in: they don't. Most readers don't even know Fannin's name, and they don't care to. All they know is what readers everywhere know: There are fewer faces in the paper they recognize, and fewer pages to thumb through.

Besides, all the drugs in LiLo's drug drawer couldn't hurt -- or help -- Fannin's chances of saving the Star from its fate, whatever that is. This is a business story, after all, and it's one Whitlock proved himself fully incapable of telling during the Explanation.

It didn't leave the same aftertaste as the rest of his rant, but it was there: Jason Whitlock's Plan to Save the Star. He'd approached Star management with a blueprint for preserving the paper, he said, and I expected to hear faulty-but-earnest theory on micro-payments or content re-investment. Instead, it was just more Whitlockian gibberish. To save the paper, he said out loud, they needed to do a better job of marketing its No. 1 asset: Jason Whitlock.

Alas, Fannin did not heed his advice, so Whitlock had to leave behind his great love, newspapers. With an apparently gaudy contract awaiting him at Fox, and his colleagues at the Star staring down another round of heartache, he should have sprinted away from the newspaper business with a smiling face full of spare ribs and twenties. Instead, he backed his way out slowly, with the safety on his mouth disengaged as always.

It wasn't just Fannin who got caught in the crossfire, either.

A central theme in Whitlock's diatribe was that the paper, rather than hunting the best stories, was "chasing awards." It's a common complaint among disgruntled newspaper people, who, being newspaper people, need a simple villain for every story, sort of how romance novelists need pool boys. And "management's chasing awards" makes a much cleaner narrative than than "eroding business models" and "shifting reader habits."

(The awards-ruined-newspapers theory is, by the way, a favorite of David Simon's, the creator of The Wire, who happens to the patron saint of Whitlock's cable box.)

The theory's logic falls apart when when you read the stories that win awards, which are often, you know, good. And while writers love to get them, most don't chase them. Columnists are a different breed, but most reporters chase a stat called Time Between Stories (T.B.S.). It works like this: The guys who input high school scores or make cop calls want to cover a beat some day; beat writers want to write features. Feature writers want to write for magazines, and magazine writers want to write books. Book authors? They go insane and start Tweeting.

Whitlock's rant mostly pinned the "awards culture" on management, but as there tends to be with Whitlock, there was collateral damage. Sam Mellinger, the Star's remaining sports columnist, resents the suggestion the staff has been sidetracked by awards. "I have felt some of what he's talking about over the years; it's so subjective, who wins and who doesn't," Mellinger says. "But I don't think that it ever got in the way of journalism."

Mellinger joined the Star 10 years ago as a lowly high schools reporter, and walked into a sports section that was actively -- vocally -- trying to put out the best sports section in the country. I wasn't here to witness it, but it's widely held that they did. And, yes, the hardware backs them up.

In the first half of this decade, when the Associated Press Sports Editors named the country' best sections, they always singled out the Star. Meanwhile bigger-city papers like my hometown San Francisco Chronicle and Mercury News were often shut out, and rightfully so. Individual writers piled up the plaques too, many of them on their way to bigger (and safer) jobs: Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski, Yahoo's Jeff Passan, ESPN's Wright Thompson and, yes, Fox Sport's Jason Whitlock.

Who was the sports editor back then? Mike Fannin.

"Mike is a big reason that [those reporters] came here," Mellinger says.

Fannin declined to comment about Whitlock's rant. Oddly enough, he was probably busy putting together a week-long special report on the Kansas City schools. Have you see it? It's not bad. Might even pick up an award or two.

I emailed Whitlock too, and asked if he wanted to talk more about all this. He didn't, although he did manage to call me racist for not immediately printing the rumors he was working so hard to spread, which I obviously was ignoring in deference to my fellow white man, Fannin.

So: If you thought all that outgoing anger was some elaborate piece of performance art, it wasn't. Or maybe it was and it was just incredibly well executed.

Either way, I'm glad it's over.

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