Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lisa Olson lists all the wrong reasons for FanHouse's end

This piece from Dave Kindred, which relays the thoughts of FanHouse's Lisa Olson on the forthcoming demise of that institution, has been gnawing at me for a few weeks; this is a delayed reaction to it, but I think it's still worth writing about. Kindred's article begins in promising fashion, eviscerating Bleacher Report for the lack of interest they've historically shown towards quality control, and I don't really disagree with the general theory that it would be nice to see quality material rewarded with more pageviews. However, it goes on to arbitrarily draw the line to blast all bloggers, and uses Olsen's words to do so:

She thought of FanHouse that way, a gathering of veterans on a journalistic adventure. "We were all experienced and qualified, not some 25-year-old bloggers," she said. "The motto was, ‘Go, go, go. Grow, grow, grow.' And we did. Then, this. It's devastating."

If you believe Olson, it was the mainstream journalists who made the bold move to jump to FanHouse who were involved in making that site something new and exciting before it was tragically sold by AOL. I don't buy that, though. Yes, FanHouse was making a lot of progress and had some great people, but I think that was as much in spite of the "big names" they recruited as because of them.

FanHouse does have some talented "mainstream" writers I frequently read, including Dan Graziano and Brett McMurphy, and I'd take them over any of the big-name columnists they regularly featured on the front page. However, I don't think FanHouse's success was entirely due to them, and I know it's not because of the likes of Jay Mariotti, who drew huge salaries only to write useless trolling columns, bring the brand into disrepute through their actions and then blame conspiracies for their actions. Instead, I think FanHouse's success owes a lot to the very bloggers Olsen blasted; Jamie Mottram initally did a terrific job of putting people like Greg Wyshynski, Dave Warner and others into place before leaving for Yahoo!, and guys like Matt Moore, Tom Ziller, Bruce Ciskie, Brandon Stroud and many others have carried on that legacy since. Those guys have been putting out great stuff for years without a lot of recognition, and I think they're at least as responsible for the success of FanHouse as Olsen and her well-paid fellow columnists.

It's a finicky world these days, and one where your paycheque often doesn't reflect your true value. For all the people out there who have managed to land good jobs, there are many who are just as talented but aren't drawing a corporate salary. As I've written before, writing professionally these days isn't necessarily about skill, but rather more about the breaks you get. I like Chris Jones, but I don't buy his argument about professionalism as a criterion in and of itself; there are lots of great writers out there who don't have paying gigs, and then there are lesser writers like me who do.

I was thinking about this earlier this month thanks to going out to dinner with the parents of a friend whose concerts I used to go to. His band was huge for a while, and they did national tours and signed a record deal in Toronto, but they never really broke through and eventually wound up disbanding. Meanwhile, the likes of Nickelback, far less talented and interesting, continue to crank out albums and bathe in money. Is this fair? Hell no. I'd put my friend and plenty of other people I know well above Chad Kroeger et al for sheer talent, but they don't have well-paying musical gigs, and Nickelback does. Things fall apart all the time, but success doesn't mean something's "good" and failure doesn't mean it was "bad"; so much of everything is down to circumstances, timing, and factors beyond anyone's control. Some things collapse because they were inherently bad ideas; others go down for all the wrong reasons.

What can we do about these inequities? Well, except for those who have large sums of money stored up, not a hell of a lot. As Terry Pratchett once wrote, it's sometimes better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness, and I think that applies to those of us in the creative fields. We should keep doing our paying jobs to the best of our abilities.

At the same time, though, I think it behooves those of us who do have those paying gigs to recognize that our current jobs may be as reliant on luck as they are on skill, and to frequently think of those who haven't been as fortunate despite terrific talent. You know, Ms. Olsen, it was those "25-year-old bloggers" who built FanHouse to a place where it could throw vast sums at you for worse work than they were already providing for far less money. Now that the operation's gone down the tubes, they're far more likely to be left out in the cold than you are. How about sparing a thought for them when you cash your next paycheque?

Some of this is awfully critical, but my larger point is not to rail against anyone, but rather to try and promote the idea that creative or journalism success isn't necessarily purely based on talent. Talent plays a role, for sure, but so does luck; getting paid doesn't make you a great writer or musician, and not getting paid doesn't mean you're awful. Olson and company should keep that in mind when bashing those who built their company, and they should remember that some of those "25-year-old bloggers" could write circles around them given the opportunity. So, to all the aspiring writers, musicians, artists and the rest out there, I'd urge you to keep at it even if you're not drawing a huge paycheque. The Lisa Olsons of this world may make more than you for a while, but they cannot triumph forever...

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