“The reader comments section, it’s a free-for-all. The level of discourse has become so inane and nasty. And it’s not just at the Times, it’s ESPN, everywhere – people, anonymous people, take shots at the story, writers, each other. Whatever you’ve achieved in that story gets drowned out by this chorus of idiots.” -Steve Kelley, in an article by Rick Anderson appearing in Seattle Weekly, Jan. 4, 2013.
It is January 31st, 2013. Today is the final day of Steve Kelley’s employment at The Seattle Times. For four decades, Kelley has been a writer. For 31 of those years, Kelley has been a writer at the Times, first in the old, grey structure at 1120 John Street, then more recently in a neighboring venue across the concrete expanse of a parking lot at 1000 Denny Way.
Over the course of his three-plus decades in those two buildings, the 63-year-old has done exactly what a newspaper asks its columnists to do: he has elicited reactions, and strong ones at that. Love him or hate him (and for most of us, there is no in-between), Kelley has motivated people to vocalize their emotions on a particular topic. Regardless of your opinion on the man, he has been one of few individuals consistently capable of achieving such feedback from readers for more than a generation. No matter the issue being discussed in the sports section each day, one thing always remained certain: Steve Kelley would have an opinion on it.
Yet here we are, on Kelley’s last day of work, staring down the barrel of a conundrum. As Kelley greets an uncertain future, we encounter one of our own, as well. For us, however, that uncertainty revolves around media and where it’s headed. It just so happens that the man leaving media behind, the man who happens to be the subject of these ensuing paragraphs, is a casualty of our uncertainty.
It should be noted that Steve Kelley doesn’t currently have a Twitter account and, to my knowledge, never has. This factoid isn’t insignificant — Twitter has become synonymous with media in the past few years, especially sports media. So to simply shrug off the world of the microblog the way Kelley has, well, it means something. But we’ll get to that later on. For now, let’s travel back to the Eighties.
Back in 1982, when Kelley got his start at the Times, the internet was but a twinkle in a computer nerd’s eye and the word “blog” was still two decades away from meaning something. Readers could consume all the information their hearts desired straight from a newspaper, and no matter how they felt about what they had just digested, their opinions rarely carried any clout beyond the water cooler or a watering hole, depending on one’s preference of libation.
The voice of the sports fan was expressed by journalists like Kelley and his cohorts. If you didn’t agree with the local purveyor of the fan’s voice, you could do one of three things: a) write a letter to the editor and hope for publication the following week, b) bitch and moan about your differences to anyone who would listen, or c) deal with it and move on. Beyond that, there wasn’t much in the way of alternatives for a passionate fanatic. Technology had not yet been invented to bring reader and writer closer together. And so it was that columnists existed in a world unburdened by the cries of dissenters, living in what more or less amounted to a utopian bubble protecting them from the masses.
Fast forward to today and everything has been dramatically altered. Thanks to social media and the internet, the divide between scribe and audience is damn near extinct. As vehicles of change have been introduced to the public spectrum, journalism has adapted. Content is now scripted for an online viewership, rather than a print subscriber. Comments and feedback, once largely ignored, are now encouraged and desired by news providers. The public voice, rather than the voice of one anointed dignitary, is now what drives conversation. If a story is valuable, the public will often deem it so before any columnist can opine on the matter. And unlike many years ago, there is hardly such a thing as a “scoop” anymore. Breaking news is often leaked via Twitter and Facebook, with the subjects of such stories occasionally “scooping” themselves before any media member can do it.
We now live in a world where we are the newsmakers, where we are the content providers, and where we are the ones who decide what’s relevant. So what do we need the Steve Kelleys for, anyway?
The most common definition for the term “obsolete” is “out-of-date.” Some like to say that newspapers are obsolete. In a literal sense, newspapers become obsolete on a daily basis. With each morning’s edition, all previous editions of a paper have become out-of-date. But that’s not what anyone means, of course. Newspapers have attained their obsolescence through the evolving means by which we convey information. Print media just isn’t as relevant as it used to be.
We know what isn’t obsolete. Twitter isn’t obsolete. Blogs aren’t obsolete. This is how we get our news now. And not from traditional sources, either. We scour TMZ and Deadspin for up-to-the-minute stories on things we care about. We trust unpaid semi-professionals to give us tidbits of insider information in 140-character blurbs. We find our way to mainstream outlets only for final confirmation on that which we read elsewhere. This is nothing new. But for those who themselves have become, say, obsolete, this is rather unnerving.
It’s not entirely fair of me to use Steve Kelley as the case study for this piece. He’s a good guy. A better guy than most readers know. On top of that, he’s just one example of a columnist who has run his course in this business. He is certainly not alone. There are thousands of Steve Kelleys across the globe. He just happens to be local and, on this day in history at least, not obsolete.
Scroll back up to the top of this article and read the quote from the Seattle Weekly article on Kelley once more. Pay close attention to the last sentence: “Whatever you’ve achieved in that story,” he says, “gets drowned out by this chorus of idiots.” A chorus of idiots. Let it sink in.
In some ways, he’s right. A vocal group of those who may disagree with you can most certainly portray themselves as a chorus of idiots. And among any group of that ilk, there are most likely going to be a handful of goons who actually are idiots. But to label the entire group in such a way is…curious. Because what Kelley is really saying here is that his readership, or at least that faction of his readership moved to a reaction by his work, is idiotic. Which in turn means that he has made a living out of preaching to idiots. And I highly doubt that a successful 31-year career at one institution could have been supported entirely by idiots. No amount of sheer luck could have allowed that. So what, then, can we take away from Kelley’s comments?
He’s upset. And he has a right to be. The game has changed. He’s still shooting set shots while his peers throw down between-the-legs reverse windmill dunks. And the thing is, his set shots are still going in. And they still count for two points, same as those dunks. His contributions are just as valuable as everyone else’s. So why doesn’t the crowd get excited when he scores? Why don’t they light up the way they used to when he has the ball? What the hell has changed so greatly about this…this…this chorus of idiots that they can’t seem to appreciate the things he does, the things he’s always done?
He’s confused. You can see how he’d be confused. It’s a confusing situation. He scores and they boo him. He writes and they sound off on the comment boards. They don’t agree with what he’s doing even though what he’s doing still has value. They didn’t always react this way. Or did they? We don’t know. Because we never heard them before. We couldn’t. Not in 1982. Not in 1992. Nary a word in 2002, either. These reactions are new. They’re unfamiliar. They’re confusing.
But there’s a certain psychology to it, too. Humans are more compelled to react emotionally to things they disagree with, rather than those things that align with their beliefs. That’s why a comment board, for instance, may saturate itself with negativity. That’s why a consumer of that negative feedback, like Kelley for example, may find himself in the presence of those he deems idiotic. Once upon a time, he had a moat around his castle. That moat is now gone.
As mentioned earlier, Kelley has shunned Twitter. And as I stated before, this is not insignificant. In brushing off social media, Kelley has resisted the changing tide and opted to maintain a distance between himself and his audience. There’s no fault in that, but there are consequences.
One major consequence is that Kelley’s only connection to his readership is via those aforementioned comment boards, wastelands of antagonism that they are. Subjecting oneself to the opinions of those anonymous, unaccountable malcontents day in and day out borders on torturous. Wading through that cesspool of anger and ignorance on a regular basis would take its toll on even the strongest person. Kelley has been slogging through that graveyard for a few years now, and that may have impacted him. Contrast that to the pre-internet days, when the vitriol was much more limited in every sense of its being. The change is night and day.
And it doesn’t just end there. Part of social media is about inviting the world to get to know you, to better understand you, to relate to you. By failing to extend that invitation to those who may have wanted to know more about the man whose work they’d been reading, Kelley has let only his printed opinions on sports stand as the reflection of his personality. Basically, in this virtual society where everyone can be made available and where availability is the key to gaining fans (or making “friends,” earning “followers,” accruing “Likes,” receiving “Favorites,” and gaining “Retweets”), Kelley has severely limited that access. And that, in turn, has led to today, a day in which we bid adieu to one of the greatest wordsmiths in our city’s history.
It’s microcosmic, really. Kelley’s exit signifies a much larger departure from a culture of media that stood alone, apart from the layman, in its quest for knowledge and information. He carried over from a previous generation and never really seemed comfortable in the one we now reside in. He existed in this era of new media, but he never adapted to it. And that, more than anything else, probably signaled the end for Steve Kelley.
There is no right or wrong about where we go from here. Like I said before, we’re facing an uncertain future. Who decides what’s news anymore? There are average people all over the world who have been deputized as reporters without even knowing it. We, as a collective audience of consumers, have extended that power unto them. A generation ago, no one gave us that right. None of us approved Steve Kelley’s hire or decided that he would be our voice. We had it thrust upon us and we dealt with it. We were subjects to an ever-churning machine of news that was controlled by a conglomerate. But that isn’t the case anymore.
The only thing certain about the future of media, besides its relative uncertainty, is that we dictate what occurs now. Like the saying goes, the inmates are running the asylum. It may be anarchy to some. It may be heaven to others. But good or bad, agree or disagree, this is our reality. This is media’s changing landscape. This is the song that we, as one chorus of idiots, have decided to sing.