Monday, June 13, 2011
Alex French and Howie Kahn's "The Greatest Newspaper That Ever Died" recounts the early 1990s sports news startup The National Sports Daily during its short, experimental, and ultimately failed run. Mexican billionaire Emilio Azcárraga dreamed up the grandiose plan for the paper, which aspired to provide national coverage and achieve widespread circulation, with much of the writing done by the best-known sports writers of the moment.
The story is worth a read for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a semi-coherent narrative woven not through co-authorial smoothing of transitions (think: prose cortisone shots) but instead by the arrangement of discrete interview snippets. That is, the story is parsed and assembled (more than conventionally written) from a cacophony of contributors who were directly involved with the experiment. Second, contributors (or interviewees?) say over and over that the failure of The National was caused not by the quality of the writing or the innovative vision but by the business side (sales and ad revenues unequal to expenses). I understand the failure was as much a matter of technological infrastructure--the fact that the publishers were attempting to route content from various cities to printing houses using sattelite transmissions that were just too slow. One anecdote has staffers accessing the sattelite equipment on the roof to knock ice and snow off of it with hopes of improving relay speeds. Basically, The National was the right idea in the wrong year. A third reason for reading: this story rolled out on Bill Simmons' new ESPN-sponsored sports writing site, Grantland, which, considering its renowned writers and editors, amounts to a modern day equivalent of The National. Grantland is, in effect, The National twenty years later.
I suppose "The Greatest Newspaper That Ever Died" will not be all that surprising to anyone who remembers The National's hype. But the story of The National is promisingly rivaled, to my mind, by the subtext here about the forces inhibiting fast, large-scale circulation for news. Sure, hindsight makes it easy for us to know all about this now, but the story (a play-by-play, really) condenses and suspends that tension--right idea, wrong year--holding it up like a Jordan-era floater for a compelling sense of that-was-then.