Why papers are dying: Lewis Grizzard died first

 

By Dave Lieber

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

 

One of my pet peeves is when people come up to me and say, “It’s a shame that the Internet is killing newspapers.” I heartily disagree. Newspapers survived for 15 years with the Internet offering our stuff for free.

What’s killing newspapers, first and foremost, is the lack of advertisers. They’ve all but disappeared. (Exhibit A: Your thinning newspaper.) And no, legacy print advertisers haven’t moved all their ad money into Internet advertising. Why? The big secret in our business is that online advertising doesn’t work. Yes, it builds “brand awareness.” But people don’t buy because of it. Feel like arguing the point? OK, ask yourself: do you click on ads and actually buy stuff because of the ads? Of course not. When I read online, I don’t even see the ads on a page.

Advertisers have slashed their budgets because of the Great Recession. If the economy were stronger, they’d be back. But that’s not happening.

With Internet, we still have newspapers. Without advertisers, we’ve got nowhere to go but down. And we’re getting there fast.

I submit another reasons why newspapers are dying. There’s no mandatory read in them anymore. And I have two words for that.

Lewis Grizzard.

Aside from Erma Bombeck, he is, in my opinion, the most popular American columnist of the last half of the 20th century. He died in 1994, a year before the Internet began taking over our lives. He never knew what it was like for his stuff to be given away for free. But I submit that if Lewis were still alive and newspapers only offered his stuff in their printed edition, at a cost, we’d still be selling papers.

Yes, the syndicated Atlanta Constitution columnist was THAT good, and his following was that strong. He had fans throughout the nation that looked forward to his columns in a way that no other columnist since has matched. (Apologies to my many NSNC pals.)

I never met Grizzard, but by some strange quirk my memorial column after he died appeared in his final book, The Last Bus to Albuquerque (Longstreet Press, 1994). I had sent a copy of my piece from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to then-Atlanta Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker (Pulitzer for commentary, 2007). She passed it on to the book editor. And there it appeared, following a tribute piece by the legendary sports columnist Furman Bisher. Wow.

My lead: “That summer in Atlanta, 16 years ago, on my very first newspaper job, I discovered the South and hush puppies and Southern belles and okra and pickup trucks and fried catfish. I also discovered the works of a great Southern writer who explained it all to me: Lewis Grizzard.

“The only thing Southern in my hometown, New York City, was the South Bronx. The newspapers there didn’t carry Grizzard’s syndicated column. But reading him for the first time in the Atlanta Constitution made me laugh. Out loud. And when you move to a new region, you need to laugh. Get comfortable. Understand your surroundings.

“I never met Grizzard. He worked in the Constitution‘s eighth-floor newsroom; I was a college-intern reporter down on the sixth floor, at the old Atlanta Journal. But late one night, after a few beers left me feeling bold, I waited for the security guard to pass on his rounds, then sneaked into Grizzard’s office.

“Didn’t touch anything. Just stood and looked at this big, messy desk. Tried to absorb some of the energy in that room. Wondered how one writer could make so many people laugh.”

Now I don’t have the space here to look at the wonderful ways in which he wrote, how his writer’s eye saw things the rest of us didn’t see, how he was, perhaps, the first politically incorrect columnist of our generation.

My only goal here for you, the columnist, is to remind you of him. He’s not talked about anymore. And perhaps inspire you to go to eBay or Amazon and buy yourself a cheap, used collection of one of his many column collections.

He was the best. And although he’s gone to Columnists’ Heaven, the work he left behind is enough to inspire us to be great like he was.

 

Dave Lieber is founder of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Education Foundation. Learn about his newest book at www.BadDadBook.com

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6 comments for “Why papers are dying: Lewis Grizzard died first

  1. Don O'Briant December 15.200
    December 16, 2011 at 2:07 am

    Lewis was a good friend when we worked together at the AJC and his column, along with Celestine Sibley’s and Furman Bisher’s were must reads. I’m sure Lewis would still be writing columns today. Maybe even blogs. Don’t believe he would be a Tweeter, however. Louis’s talent was to say what a lot of people were thinking, but were afraid to say it.

  2. Robin Fitzhugh
    December 15, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    My husband of almost 40 years just “rediscovered” Grizzard in the pages of a dog-eared paperback on our bookshelf. First time I ever heard him laugh out loud reading a book.

  3. December 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Lewis Grizzard is my inspiration. I never forgot what his mama said to him each morning before he left for school: Be Sweet, Lewis, be sweet.
    If only we had more mama’s like Lewis’s mama.

  4. December 13, 2011 at 10:58 am

    I became a Lewis Grizzard fan via an HBO or Showtime special he did in the late 80s or early 90s. He was a funny writer and a funny person. I bought several of his books. I, too, recommend going to Haf.com or Amazon.com or even browsing the shelves of the Goodwill store for copies of his books. Well worth the effort. I gave a copy of “If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I’ll Nail My Feet to the Kitchen Floor” to a co-worker who was a Grizzard fan and was returning to Georgia. He didn’t return to California so maybe he took Grizzard’s advice. There are better known humorists, but not better humorists than Lewis Grizzard.

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