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The Telegram
  • Jim Hillibish: Plimpton set suffering journalists a-twitter

  • Remembering the journalist who rocked the boat before social media.

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  • Everybody needs a shot of adrenaline. It's the only way to avoid burnout.
    For journalists weary of the traditional inverted pyramid, there's the inverted brain of the late George Plimpton. He was a fantastic writer who never fit the mold at Sports Illustrated, so he cast a new mold. Like most sports writers, he spent his days collecting brain-numbing quotes from athletes and coaches. Then he'd pass judgment on them from the ivory tower of his mag. Yawn.
    One day, he awoke to a brain burp: Instead of writing the story, why not be the story.
    This caused great scorning among his news-traditional bosses and almost cost him his job. George pressed ahead. He tried out for the Detroit Lions. He got in a TV game. He lost 32 yards in four plays. But what a story. He achieved the fantasy of every one of his fans, and the magazines sold like gold.
    Traditional journalists sniffed and went back to their daily sermons. George then captivated us with more participatory journalism. He became a bullfighter, baseball player, boxer, PGA golfer, tennis pro and, ahem, a circus performer.
    That ahem is your clue that this piece soon will take a less-celebratory turn.
    News executives and journalism profs credited George for launching a golden era of public writing in the 1970s.
    Everybody at my newspaper scoured the town for participatory journalism. Our city editor Jim Weber made it mandatory. My big chance arrived with the Clyde-Beatty Cole Bros. Circus. I was No. 13 in its 12-member Congress of Clowns, for a day. Yes, it ran on A-1, above the fold. It must have been OK, because George Plimpton did it before me.
    (I was going to include a few grafs from the story here, but the whole darned thing is just too silly.)
    George sucked us into a lot more participatory journalism epics: cop, firefighter, paramedic, junior-high teacher, Hall of Fame Parade clown (me again, of course), soldier, asphalt paver, steelworker, snowplow driver, trash collector, all for a day. Sweaty, gritty, smelly, captivating if smartly written, embarrassing if not.
    Our photographers craved it. At last, a chance to shoot something other than endless mayoral proclamations.
    Who doesn't wonder how things get done? What are the secrets of a diner cook, a car salesman, a working mom? How do cabbies stay awake all night on the job (many don't.)
    Our stories discovered the most overlooked theme in our coverage scheme, you folks out there who read us.
    If you're thinking this is old hat, let me direct you to Facebook, Twitter and all their pretenders. These are the most personable editions of personal journalism, unconventional reporterage on people. They're so incredibly popular all the other media drool. I've seen estimates that in a few years, some 80 percent of the world will be reading each other's posts.
    Page 2 of 2 - George Plimpton would have thought social media perfectly cool. It took another 25 years for his bosses to agree. By then, George was writing the definitive book about another passion, making fireworks. As if he had not already.
    Contact Jim Hillibish at jim.hillibish@cantonrep.com.
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