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Can the decline of newspapers be attributed to less boozing?

by Mike McFeely

Tim Cowlishaw currently is one of those talking-head guys on ESPN, which probably pays quite well and would explain why many former newspaper types have taken jobs in broadcasting. But for years, Cowlishaw was a tremendous sportswriter and columnist for the Dallas Morning News. He covered the Cowboys during the heyday of both the football team and the newspaper business.

Tim Cowlishaw was also a raging alcoholic, which he outlines in a new book titled "Drunk on Sports." As a sports fan and former sportswriter, this book has been added to my must-read list. It sounds tremendous. You can read a nice review of it by clicking here and visiting one of my favorite Web sites, Awful Announcing .

Cowlishaw has been sober for four years and, according to the review, he uses that perspective to reflect on his alcoholism, sobriety and -- perhaps most -- his love for sports. It's all good.

But a paragraph in Awful Announcing's review caught my eye and got me to thinking. It was a quote from Cowlishaw regarding how he used to get some of his inside scoops from the Cowboys -- he was a drinking buddy of head coach Jimmy Johnson. The writer asked Cowlishaw whether this was common practice in the business.

"It was much more a part of the newspaper experience than it is now. Access to everyone -- coaches, players at the pro and college level -- is completely controlled. Nearly everything happens during the week and after games in press conference settings. The idea of having a few drinks with Cowboys coaches or players is impossible to fathom now. There are also a lot more younger writers that don't drink. At least I seem to have noticed that over the last 10-15 years. The number of really big drinkers in the media seems to have diminished. But the opportunity to do what I did with Jimmy 20 years ago is gone." 

Cowlishaw's statement summarizes something I noticed in my last few years in the newspaper industry (I was a copy editor, reporter and sports columnist for The Forum for about 20 years): There is a lot less drinking and smoking and carousing in newspapers these days than there was when I first broke into the industry. I assume that means there was a lot less of those activities when I started than 20 years prior.

Disclaimer: I am not glorifying booze or minimizing alcoholism. 

But ... I'll admit it. I wanted to be a sportswriter for as long as I could remember as a kid. I loved sports, sure, and loved to read and write. But there was also an attraction to newspapers and reporting because it seemed like a fun profession filled with rough-and-tumble guys who smoked hard, drank hard and swore hard. I certainly was not a smoker and drinker as a kid (swearing was, and is, a different story), but it seemed like a business not worried about how you dressed or how you looked or what your personal habits were -- it was all about having fun and getting the job done.

And the characters. Oh, the characters. Newspaper reporters had the stereotyped reputation of being the hard-boiled realists, a bunch of guys sitting around a ratty bar drinking and telling stories from the front lines. Sometimes they'd do this with their sources. As I got into the business, I learned this was sometimes true.

It was wonderful.

But somewhere along the line, it seems to me, newspaper newsrooms became much more corporate and uptight. Dress codes and haircut policies were put into place. Dress codes in a newsroom, for God's sake! I remember when The Forum implemented a policy that required all employees who came into contact with the public to WEAR A TIE (which I think has since been rescinded). So I was supposed to wear a tie if I went to a Class B town to write a column on the wrestling team?

I don't think so. Wasn't going to happen.

The life, the creativity, the chaos, the energy, the character, the wackiness seemed to exit the newsroom.

A newspaper newsroom, once the bastion of independence and edginess, had become an insurance office. Filled by a bunch of well-dressed, nicely-coiffed insurance agents.

I left the newspaper business four years ago, so I can't speak to what is happening in The Forum newsroom curently. Or in any other newspaper newsroom. 

And I know the newspaper industry has dozens of challenges it needs to overcome if it wants to survive and remain relevant into the 21st Century.

But could part of newspapers' problems be traced to the observation both Tim Cowlishaw and I have made? That the hard-drinking, hard-living culture that thrived during the glory days of newspapers is a thing of the past and it's been replaced by the Starbucks-sipping, buttoned-down culture of today?

Could it be that newspapers have become BORING because the characters who made them interesting and lively have either a) died, b) retired or c) moved on to other media that pay better and are more accepting of some zaniness and non-conformity?

I contend that it's not the only reason or even the main reason why newspapers are struggling to retain circulation, but it is a factor. Where are the characters? Where is the life?

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)