The State of Corn Nation - Help Us Get Better At What We Do Here


Newspapers are dying all around the country. It’s not just the New York Times looking for a bail out from a Mexican billionaire, it’s hitting you right where you live. A while back the Omaha World Herald decided that western Nebraska could go screw itself. The Lincoln Journal Star is owned by Lee Enterprises, a company who’s seen their stock drop like a rock this past year and is rumored to be on the brink of bankruptcy.

I’ve been watching the newspaper issue for quite a while - it’s interesting to me not only because I’ve been writing here for the past three years, but because of my earlier life as a computer industry sometimes-pundit.

I spent several years (18, but who’s counting) writing mostly for magazines, explaining the early fundamentals of network communications, server technology, the internet, you name it, if it was infrastructure stuff, I wrote about it. Around ‘92, I wrote a 600-page book about Novell Netware in about three and a half months while working full time as a consultant. 20 hours a day, seven days a week, it was exhausting. In fact, I woke up one time sitting in my easy chair writing the narrative to a dream I was having about a knight coming after me in a forest. It was right there in the middle of a paragraph about the differences between IPX and SPX protocols. Why would I do this? The easy answer - I had a pretty good contract.

There was a time I could sit down and bang out a 2,000 world article in a few hours, and at 50 or 60 cents a word and pick up an extra grand without breaking a sweat. Then along came the Internet (damn you Al Gore!) and with it, online support forums, communities and blogs.

As more sites came online the magazines I wrote for died off one by one. As they died the money I used to make writing went with them. I tried to keep writing, but I really resented getting $25 or $50 for something that went a lot further just a few years earlier, so I quit for a while. More on this in a bit.

What I don’t get is how newspapers got themselves into this position when print died for the computer industry ten years ago. Did they not see what had happened or did they blindly think that it wouldn’t apply to them - that what they were doing was so important that mere market forces and change could not destroy them? Their future was in plain sight ten years ago, ample time enough for them to come up with bad ideas, throw them away and try something else.

Instead they’ve been doing much of the same, somehow believing we’ve all made some horrible mistake, that print is good and we’d only discover it if we’d search through the attic and find those old World Herald’s where they show us photographic sequences of a running play as it unfolded down the field. The sad thing is that we’d all be flocking to the World Herald site on a weekly basis if they’d bothered to do the same thing online, but alas, they have not even tried. Even if the business model for newspapers can't survive into today’s world, don’t you think they would have at least done that?

This is coming to a head for me because I recently stumbled across an article about sports writing done by Gary Poole, the author of the Red Grange book I recently reviewed. Poole laments the condition of current sports writing these days, particularly in this passage:

But here is a typical scenario that illustrates the problem for newspaper sports sections. Beat writers covering a baseball game see a player strain a hamstring. Immediately they are all on their BlackBerries posting an item about the injury and how the batting order was just changed. Something must be posted! Any writer who misses the tidbit will be called on it by his or her editor. But everyone has the same information; no one “scoops” anyone. So why not wait and weave that tidbit into the game story?
The reporter would have the chance to go to the locker room and ask questions, talk to the manager about the change in strategy after the injury—to add context and nuance and narrative. These days, that sort of insight is too often lost. “If I were the editor,” says ESPN’s Buster Olney, who also blogs, “I would say, ‘Don’t worry about beating the seven other papers on the hamstring story; focus on developing your thousand-word game story. Remember the great writing you loved as a kid? Write it up like that.’”

I’m here because when I quit writing I found I wasn’t as happy (maybe "well-adjusted" or "sane" are better terms). I started writing again about the computer industry on my own blog, but found my heart wasn’t in that kind of writing anymore, so I started blogging about my biggest passion - Husker football. Out of chance or divine intervention the SB Nation guys found me and thus began Corn Nation.

Whatever happens with the Omaha World Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, or countless other newspapers, how we consume information about Husker sports is going to change over the next few years. I want to be part of that change, and I want to get better at what I'm doing. This time it isn't about the money (although that'd be nice), it's about being better at an art.

There ain’t a whole lot going on in the world of Nebraska football these days. There’s no coaching staff changes.  We didn’t do so bad this season that we can complain about being horrible while at the same time we weren’t so good we made it onto the national stage. We’re in-betweeners - the worst place to be for being interesting.

Things were a helluva lot easier last year. We had Bill and Kevin to kick around. We had Bo, Barney, Carl, and Tom coming on board with a whole new attitude, new coaching staff, and a whole lot of speculation about what the 2008 season would look like. It wasn’t that difficult to put together the outline for the inaugural issue of “A Sea of Red”. There were plenty of new topics to cover. This year’s book and this off-season present a much greater challenge.

I’ve figured out that I can’t quit writing, so I plan on being here for a while. If it’s going to be interesting around Corn Nation it means we’re going to have to get creative. And no, that doesn’t mean creative as in “making things up” (although it could - in a fun way) - it means using more imagination, finding more angles, and learning more about what our readers want to know, what they’re interested in, or what they want.

So, this is my invitation to you - what can we here at Corn Nation do better? What can we do to make it interesting? What would you like to see happen that we’re not doing? I know what I’d like to see, and what I’m happy with, but I am interested in hearing more about you.

Ultimately you choose what you want to read, and with the community-based system we have here, what you want to be involved in. So please help us get better.

Thank you.

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