Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gonzo journalism might be newspapers' last hope

WOODY CREEK, Colorado, USA - It was here just three years ago that Hunter S. Thompson blew his brains out, unable to face, well, we'll never really know, except that he was afraid of advancing age, worried that his best years were so far behind him in the rear view mirror that he could barely glance at them.

And then there was the drugs and the booze, of course. There was always the drugs and the booze.

Thompson haunts many journalists because he broke every rule ever taught and in doing so produced some incredibly brilliant writing, brilliant enough that his work flew off the shelves in the late 1960s and through the mid-1970s when the world suddenly became as strange as anything Hunter could imagine.

It was almost as if what many novelists said in the 80s and 90s - real life was so bizarre, who needed fiction?

But a San Francisco Chronicle review of a documentary "Gonzo" - plus the forced 'retirement' of an amigo at the Sacramento Bee - made me wish Thompson were alive to comment on the sad state of journalism in the U.S., and how those in charge of 'saving' it are so unlikely to do so.
  • Gonzo review

  • Hunter S. Thompson
    Hunter S. Thompson

    Thompson had something nearly every journalist/writer today lacks - a voice. You could read a piece of his and know it was him without glancing at the bylines or any of the illustrations Ralph Steadman frequently published with Hunter's scribblings. He had many imitators, but they were just that, imitators.

    Today's journalist/writer - with few exceptions - are mostly worried about mortgage payments, alimony, how their mug shot looks with their column - and simply ensuring that their corporate masters don't get angry and outsource their job to some conglomerate in Bhopal.

    Not that it will make any difference, because in the world of corporate journalism, the emphasis is on corporate, not journalism - profitable corporate, profitable at an overall rate that oil companies envy.

    And so readers are left with such predictable journalistic Pablum that it seems almost like an insult to that bland breakfast cereal.

    Which brings me to my amigo, Bill Moore, who a few days ago left the Sacramento Bee newspaper, a bit of collateral damage to the colossal blunder of that corporation to go into deeply into debt by buying a newspaper chain, then suddenly realizing it was grossly overextended and starting selling assets like at a desperation garage sale.

    It's stock went down so fast after that purchase it made Rite Aid look like a winner.

    So, as it is with corporations, the people making the biggest salaries find a way to cut the jobs of the people way down the food chain, hoping the stockholders will think that these tiny economies - coupled with redesigns, re-packagings and more public relations - God yes, more and more public relations - will somehow fool readers and the public into thinking that less news, written by more timid (and usually largely uninformed) writers into smaller news pages will be worth looking at.

    Yeah, right.

    Hunter S. Thompson would probably admire the balls of these people to sell less for more, even though he would hate what they are doing.

    So what about this fellow named Bill Moore? Who the hell is he?

    Bill Moore had a long career with the newspaper, spending some time out on the news desk before making a gaffe one Sunday many years ago in story choice and placement, a gaffe that eventually pushed him out of news and into the editorial department where he eventually took over as editor of a Sunday section that looked at the world - Forum it was called.

    And, as the expression goes, when it was good, it was very, very good. And when it was bad, it was awful.

    But Bill had a quirky creative mind and it scared a lot of corporate journalistic types. He fell from grace again a few years ago in change of editors and ending up shuffling letters to the editor in the editorial section of the newspaper, keeping his head down, doing his job, working hard.

    And now he is retired, but really just shoved out the door - just when the newspaper needs him the most.

    Needs him the most?

    This morning, as I was reading the latest batch of 'save-the-newspaper's-ass' columns from various editors:
  • The new Forum
  • From The Editor
  • I was struck by how at the exact moment they were turning Bill Moore loose, he is exactly the kind of creative lunatic the Sacramento Bee needs to get them off their collective, smug asses and start publishing stories and photos and information that people would really want to read.

    Could he produce, edit, suggest true Gonzo journalism to make the Sacramento Bee readable? I don't know for sure. But I think so.

    But now that that the newspaper has sent him to the unemployment office, it won't either.