A Critical Look
Would it sell today? No one really knows whether today’s reader would find The National appealing, what with all of the other publications, both online and off, available in today’s world, 15 years after The National printed its first issue. But it’s fun to think that it would be enticing, not just because it’s a kind thought toward the 150 editorial and 100 production staff who worked on the publication, but because a lot of the material in that first issue holds up. In fact, it’s not so hard to think that The National could sell better today, with the newspaper business in a downward transition and more and more sports sections being shortened. This bears out in careful consideration of the sports section in the Raleigh News&Observer, a newspaper that serves a metro area with over a million people. For a sports section aimed at that many people, the N&O comes up short. In fact, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, a region with a huge collegiate athletics presence but a limited professional presence, might be the perfect market for a newspaper like The National. Sports fans in the area probably get enough college basketball coverage from the N&O, but with no major professional sports franchise in town, other than the locked-out Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL, readers who care about major league teams must feel slighted. Are there capsule recaps of each baseball or basketball game? Yes. But aside from 10-inches on a key game here or there, there’s nothing on the Atlanta Braves or the Cleveland Indians on a regular basis. What would the sports fan from Raleigh appreciate from The National each day? Let’s examine the premiere edition’s contents.
There’s a column by West Coast writer Ostler, who moved to The National to from the Los Angeles Times. While some of his one-liners don’t hold up so well today, (“The end of the world is near, but Sly Stallone will come up with a blockbuster sequel.”) many of his observations about the slightly twisted world of sports continue to be on target. Some notes from his first column, written in a folksy get-to-know you style:
* “Bo Jackson is spreading himself too thin, he should give up the guitar.” (Jackson suffered a career-ending hip injury during the 1990 football season.)
* “When man does perfect a time machine, it will mean we can watch sports events on live TV and skip over the commercials.” (TiVo and DVRs have made that possible.)
* “Man someday will cure cancer and stamp out hunger. Long before that, though, he will sell advertising in an athlete’s haircut.” (Haircuts have been done. Now temporary tattoos are being used on boxers’ backs for promotional purposes.)
One thing Ostler appreciated about the attitude at The National was that people weren’t afraid to do untraditional things. Controversy was sometimes appreciated.
“One thing I liked about it was the complete freedom, because Deford had ideas that are still way off of anybody’s charts now, in terms of what beat writers and columnists should do, which was basically: ‘Do whatever you want.’ Let it flow, let it go, have fun and put your heart into it,” Ostler said.
And he did just that. One of Ostler’s columns caused a bit of a rift in the New York newsroom later that year. But the ensuing battle, he said, was evidence of the kind of spirited debate that would go on in the office.
“It was small experience but kind of typical of The National,” Ostler said from his hotel room in San Antonio, where he was preparing to cover the opening game of the NBA Finals for the San Francisco Chronicle. “I decided to do a story on Andre Agassi, a column, because I had always ripped him, but a friend called and said: ‘He’s not a bad guy, you should meet him.’ So I said: ‘Okay, what the hell, I’ll set up an interview.’ And Andre called and invited me to spend a day in Las Vegas with him, he said: ‘Don’t just spend a half hour with me, why don’t you spend a day up here?’ And I wrote what was probably a glowing story about him, just when he was making the conversion from complete asshole to a decent guy. He was making what even now seems like an honest effort to shed that teenage bullshit: spitting at referees and stuff like that. And I thought we could be wrong, we can get fooled in this business, so I spent a whole day with him and I found him to be a charming guy, an engaging person, a real guy. I had a very positive experience. I wrote a very positive article, which was in part, a response to some of the attacks from John Feinstein and Lupica and one or two of the national tennis writers who had been ripping Agassi. Some of (what they wrote) was kind of gratuitous: they were ripping his brother’s wig. So it was a little bit of a response to them, saying: ‘Maybe this guy is not such a bad guy, you can’t necessarily believe all the things you read.’ So anyway, if Feinstein saw the story, I’m sure he didn’t like it, and there was somebody at The National that didn’t like it, and I think they were thinking about killing it. This guy Rob Fleder, who now works at Sports Illustrated, called me up and said: ‘You know, I read that thing and I thought it was sensational, and I talked them into running it.’ It was the kind of thing where at a regular newspaper, it’s the kind of thing that gets killed. But here there was a creative process going on. Somebody looked at it and said, okay, it’s different, but it’s a pretty good story and I think we should go with it. It was something that is still unusual in our business.”