The Upper East Side's slushy streets were deserted last Thursday night, but the New York Society Library, on 79th street between Madison and Park, was hopping. A roomful of Buzz Bissinger's family, friends, and fans, a fashionable sea of worsteds and silks, blazers and neckties, shiny gold jewels and glittery diamonds, of riding and hiking boots, gathered in the Member's Room to listen to the author speak about the future of long form journalism in a blogger's world. Bissinger, a New York City native who lives in Philadelphia, grew up surrounded by newspapers. His mother, father, and grandfather all had their favorites -- the Herald Tribune, The Times, the Daily News. "What did uncle my Uncle Winky read?" he asked the audience. "The Post" someone shouted. "Trust me, if you have an Uncle Winky he reads The Post," affirmed Buzz.
Buzz's lifelong love affair with journalism has reaped him a Pulitzer Prize, two bestselling books, and even a sprinkling of controversy. The first time he discussed the changes in sports journalism and the impact of bloggers was on HBO's Costas Now in 2008. Bullying the other guests with long-winded rants, his performance was memorable for all the wrong reasons. "It was fascinating, important subject matter except for the fact that I had a psychotic breakdown," said Bissinger, admitting his passion got the best of him.
Bissinger's second act at the historic NYSL went much better. With a wider perspective, he addressed the hot question: Will the machine gun fire of blog posts kill off 10,000-word investigative pieces that patrol the power players or will the two find a way to peacefully co-exist? Provocative and emphatic, Bissinger, whose heart is in long form, appreciates Bill Simmons' and Henry Abbott's blogs, but pointed out that they are part of guideline-abiding ESPN. Given the Internet's freedom, many unaffiliated blogs operate in a lawless Wild West. "Most have no adherence to standards. Most rely on information from newspapers they detest, and they hate and they vilify and they do no reporting," said Bissinger. "That's the fear that I have. What they do will become the norm. It's increasingly becoming the norm."
A blog's one-sided maliciousness can often be seen in the comment section. Bissinger has frequently been on the receiving end of attacks sidestepping his articles. "The readers never comment on the story. Most of it is abusive. A lot of it is racist and incredibly personal. I mean some woman said I look like Leona Helmsley! And I wrote her back and I said, 'If that's the best insult you can give me, they go screw yourself.'"
With newspapers and magazines cutting jobs and decreasing word counts, investigative reporting teams and their stories are often the first to go because they don't immediately pull in profits, if at all. "The kind of things that got me into journalism, which is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Those types of stories take months, sometimes years. As someone who has done them, trust me, they're not fun to do. They are laborious, endless, and painstaking. But they are worth doing." He paused and added, "I think in our society they may be dead."
Despite the way the industry is moving, there are young journalists bursting to write weighty stories in the footsteps of a Buzz Bissinger. Brooklyn author Gabriel Thompson, 31, recently spent a year working undercover in a lettuce field in Arizona and a chicken slaughterhouse in Alabama to learn about the plight of immigrants. His new book, Working in the Shadows, is built by rubber-sole reporting, the kind that sticks with readers for the long run. Bissinger researched Friday Night Lights for over a year. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the 357-page masterpiece has sold over two million copies. In the sugary-sweet blogosphere, how many sites will be around in 20 years? In 20 months?
Bissinger finished the evening by reflecting on the beginning of his career. "I started in 1976. It was the height of Watergate. I started at The Norfolk Ledger Star. Every paper wanted investigative reporting. They had rookie reporters like myself doing 100 new stories. Right from the beginning you were learning about narrative and plot and developing characters. It was filled with funky characters, saints and sinners and drunks and people who were brilliant and still had it and people who were brilliant and had lost it. Newsrooms were weird. They had rats. But they were these wonderful places of electric energy."
The energy in media today feels more nervous than electric. However, despite facing an uncertain future, one element will remain constant in the evolution of storytelling: There will always be another gumshoe aspiring to be the next the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein or David Halberstam or Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson or Buzz Bissinger. But where will they turn to learn the craft?
After the lecture, a journalism student from Hunter College nervously approached Bissinger and asked for career advice. As easily as the veteran could have extended a clichéd answer, he looked the rookie in the eye and said, "Here's my email. Send me a note, remind me about tonight, and I can help."