The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

Sliding away

My brother Randy is a craftsman.

Randy Youngman

The younger Youngman

Randy started in the newspaper business the same way I did, as a high school sportswriter in Ashtabula, Ohio. “High school” in this case means a high school student writing about high school sports for a daily newspaper, the Ashtabula Star-Beacon. When I left for North Park College in 1971, Randy took over the job I had filled since 1969 and stayed at until he came to North Park in 1973.

Recently, what had been a brand-new printing press at the Star-Beacon – it was installed just months before I started working there – stopped running for the last time. It was halted by the current economics of the news business; the Star-Beacon is still publishing, but the current owners determined it would be more efficient to outsource their printing to a newspaper in nearby Warren. (The elegiac story about the last call for this particular piece of big iron is heartwarming and sad at once, and quotes people I know who were still working there. Those people, too, are craftsmen.)

For more than 25 years, the younger Youngman, as I am wont to call him, has been writing a sports column for the Orange County Register, where his career as a baseball writer had taken him in 1984. Along the way, he covered sports for the St. Petersburg Times, the Orlando Sentinel, the (late lamented) Baltimore News American, and the (late lamented) Dallas Times Herald. He has been in the business for 40 years.

Would have been. Like the aforementioned press in Ashtabula, the current economics of the news business caught up to him yesterday. The Register is still publishing, but the current owners determined he was among around 10 employees whose services it no longer required.

Mark Whicker on Facebook

What he said. Click image to see comments, if you are on FB.

A precipitating fact may have been a recent decision by the NBA’s Sacramento Kings … and the league … that the team would not move to Anaheim anytime soon. Randy had broken the news last year that negotiations to make that happen were underway, and he had been reporting it out ever since, but it now appears that Orange County NBA fans will have to be content with the nearby Lakers and Clippers for a while longer. (Here’s one Orange County blogger’s take.)

So was it the economics? Or was it the craft? Or was it . . .

Recently I noticed that his columns had been morphing. Suddenly his reporting on local teams and coaches and athletes and issues was appearing less. Instead I was seeing what we in the trade call “slideshows” (like this one, in advance of the Oscars about bad acting performances by athletes, and this one, the flip side of the same topic). What’s up?, I asked him.

“Slide shows like that get more page views,” he said. “Mine are shockingly low.”

Of course. The same reason that his long-standing weekly column during football season, predicting the winners of NFL games against a selected reader each week, two years ago had turned into a weekly series of slideshows featuring cheerleaders for nearly every individual pick: page views, far more quantifiable than scoops and, yes, craftsmanship. I know no other sportswriter who prizes the language more or uses it more carefully, or whose turns of phrase can be so simultaneously witty and withering. (And I know lots of sportswriters.)

Now, as a professor of digital media strategy, I am all for strategic use of digital media. But I have to say, trying to filter out as much familial bias as possible, that this feels an awful lot like what my Medill colleague Rachel Davis Mersey decried in a letter to the New York Times two weeks ago: “Newspapers aren’t in trouble because the digital space is more competitive,” she wrote. “Newspapers are in trouble because they have defined their missions as being everything to everyone. . . .Newspapers should not try to compete in this celebrity space to satisfy the potential fringe reader. For such fodder, there are less expensive competitors who do it better.”

Rachel was writing about the Washington Post, subject of a story in the Times the previous Sunday, but she was also writing about the general urge for such sites to cover the Kardashians (and to view Lamar Odom as a Kardashian adjunct instead of a basketball player, as long as we’re talking about Southern California sports). Randy’s deeply sourced, carefully wordsmithed columns about Orange County teams and Orange County players and Orange County golf made for satisfying reading in the print newspaper, and connected viscerally with a community that turned to the Register as a better way to understand that milieu than any alternative, past or present. The comments on Whicker’s Facebook post, and Al Solomon’s, would seem to bear that out. But the page views were “shockingly low.”

So, good luck to the Register, as it does its best to be the best way for people to understand Orange County in the future, too. I think that both the older and the younger Youngmans hope that future isn’t sliding away. Or slideshowing.

The Youngmans and Tom Lasorda

Younger Youngman, Older Youngman, Tommy Lasorda: Wrigley Field, 1985

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  • Scott Michaux says:

    Very sad to hear Randy. I feel your pain (a little too close to home for my journalistic comfort). Hope to find you opining again soon for an audience that appreciates it more than the bean counters.

    March 8, 2012 at 8:59 am
  • Rob in Costa Mesa says:

    How stupid! I always compared my results with Randy’s picks! He supported the Cleveland Browns even though they sucked, and that is what a true fan always does. He doesn’t jump on a band wagon just because a team won the Super Bowl. He was honest, wrote a great column that I always enjoyed and he could always back it up with facts! Not at all like the kids who the Register are hiring now. I believe now the time to switch over to the LA Times Randy, its like when the Browns moved to Baltimore it’s total crap! I will change my subscription to support you!

    Randy Rules!

    March 5, 2012 at 3:31 pm
  • Sean says:

    Sad, sad day for journalism.

    I have been reading the Register since the early 70′s and I have seen that newspaper change (a LOT) over the decades.

    Mark Whicker, John Hall, Steve Bisheff, Jeff Miller and of course, Randy Youngman, are (were) the reasons that I would even bother reading the sports section. Their columns could be sarcastic, heartfelt, intriguing, funny, irrelevant (Turkey Bowling, anyone?), informative… and genuine.

    I don’t bother reading the Register on the web, because that just isn’t the way to read a newspaper. For a ‘newspaper’ to determine that you are expendable as a reporter because your on-line column doesn’t get enough traffic is disgusting.

    The few times I have looked at an article on the Register’s site were very disappointing… I don’t want to keep clicking ‘here’ or ‘here’ to see a slideshow of pictures… I want NEWS! That is what a NEWSpaper is about!

    Randy, my heartfelt condolences go out to you. You did not deserve anything like this. I wish you nothing but the best.

    I look forward to reading more columns by you… someday.

    March 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm
  • Stephen Judge says:

    I have thought this for a long time. The market penetration of newspapers has never been that high. The internet has allowed newspapers to “get” users who were never really theirs in the first place, and never really cared about the product. I think paywalls are an aknowledgement that newspapers need to go back to their original, minority audience.

    March 2, 2012 at 11:14 am
  • Frank D says:

    Randy was one of the reasons I subscribe to the OC Register. He understands the OC sports scene and will be truly missed. I hope the paper doesn’t lose the OC “feel”. If it does, I might as well switch to the LA Times.

    March 2, 2012 at 8:33 am
  • Ed Puskas says:

    Best wishes to Randy from another Ashtabula County native and Star-Beacon alumnus. This is truly a sad day, especially after following the careers of both Youngman brothers over the years.

    March 2, 2012 at 12:17 am
  • Glenn Craven says:

    My sympathy to the younger Youngman, and a good job in detailing journalism’s woes here by the older Youngman.

    For 20 years in the small-town newspaper business, I told readers (from individual callers to gathered Rotary Clubs) that it was impossible for the local paper to be everything to everyone. BUT, I did believe that we could offer at least a little something for everyone, and endeavored every day to do it.

    “Page views,” Facebook fans, Twitter followers … we’re evaluating our news operations these days by every measure except the ones that matter most: “Is it timely, relevant, accurate and compelling.”

    Best wishes, Randy Youngman. May you find a gig and an audience that deserve your talent, experience and professionalism.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:02 pm

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