My worst columns of 2017


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Back in July, Free Press sports editor Steve Lyons and I did an edition of ‘Say What?!’ — our bi-weekly email chat/fashion tipsheet — in which we got talking about how sometimes it seems like the only thing Free Press readers want from us is a steady diet of Jets and Bombers news.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/12/2017 (1738 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Back in July, Free Press sports editor Steve Lyons and I did an edition of ‘Say What?!’ — our bi-weekly email chat/fashion tipsheet — in which we got talking about how sometimes it seems like the only thing Free Press readers want from us is a steady diet of Jets and Bombers news.

I made a prediction for the boss. “I will leave you with this. I’m going to write a Canada Games column next week. I’m going to devote some serious time and resources to it — I will familiarize myself with the subject area, talk to some people in and around the Games and try to identify an angle that will make it interesting and relevant to an audience beyond just these kids parents and grandparents.

“And I predict, with almost complete confidence, that it will be the worst-read column I write this year.”

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Readers really do love reading about the Winnipeg Jets.

I am here to confess: that column — which ultimately ran July 28 under the headline ‘Canada Summer Games Chance to See Future OIympians’ — was actually my third worst-read column of the year.

I know this because in a week in which seemingly every columnist in North America is writing ‘listicles’ about their favourite or most memorable moments of 2017, I decided to go the other way and assemble a list of my 10 worst-read columns of the year.

Like all my best ideas, I shamelessly stole this one. The victim in this case was New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who conducted the same experiment earlier this week.

I had three takeaways from Kristof’s column on his worst clunkers:

What a brilliant way to be accountable to your readers, while simultaneously passing off regurgitated old columns as a new one; I wish my best-read column had half the readers of Kristof’s worst-read column; and finally, it turns out Kristof’s must-read dispatches in the Times and my humble little rant in the Free Press do have one thing in common — the metrics of our worst-read columns as compared to our best-read columns are almost identical.

Kristof reported that his worst clunker in 2017 had just three per cent of the online audience that his best-read column attracted, which is exactly what I found too — 2.9 per cent to be exact.

So what was my worst-read column of the year? It was a meditation I did on curler Mike McEwen earlier this month after his team clinched a playoff spot at the Roar of the Rings in Ottawa, where Canada’s men’s and women’s Olympic representatives in curling were determined.

I re-read it this week and I’m still not sure what I would have done differently, except maybe suggest a headline a little more enticing than Fire and desire vital.

If anything, that column was remarkably prescient, setting the stage for what was a dramatic playoff run by McEwen on the final weekend in Ottawa that saw his team come within a last-rock draw to the four-foot by Calgary’s Kevin Koe of becoming the first ever Manitoba-based men’s team to represent Canada in curling at the Winter Olympics.

But while there was no lesson to be learned from that McEwen piece — at least none that I could discern — there was plenty to digest in the nine other eye-glazers I wrote in 2017.

My second worst-read column, a sit-down interview with author and hockey legend Ken Dryden in November, was, in retrospect, doomed from the start: Dryden had already been all over the Canadian media for a month as part of a huge book tour before I finally got him; and my decision to try and come up with something new by making the column about meeting my childhood hero just made a bad situation worse.

Memo to young journalists: Unless you’re Hemingway, you are neither interesting enough nor talented enough to make your journalism about you.

A similar lesson is to be drawn from a “bits” column — a bunch of small items stapled together — that I wrote in August that nobody read: Unless you’re the legendary Cam Cole, who mastered this form over decades in a semi-regular thing he did in the Vancouver Sun called “Small items that may someday grow up to be column,” a bits column is just lazy.

Pick a topic — and then write about in an interesting way. It’s not that hard.

I also wrote a dud this year about Olympic hockey that has me a little worried as I look ahead to 2018 and a trip to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang where I’m going to have to try and make interesting for a Manitoba audience a Winter Games at which there will be no NHL players and that will play out — thanks to a 14-hour time difference — while everyone on the prairies is sound asleep.

I thought I did a pretty good job on that Olympic hockey column, spending a couple days tracking down three Manitoba-born hockey players over in Europe who could potentially be a part of the lunch-bucket crew that will be Canada’s men’s hockey team in Pyeongchang.

And yet — crickets.

I remain convinced Canadians are ultimately going to fall in love with whatever rag-tag group of lovable losers we send over to Korea to wear our flag at the men’s hockey event, but I have to admit I’m not quite as confident now as I was before.

The rest of my flops this year were columns about how the commissioners of sports leagues are overpaid and get undeserved credit for all the TV money that sports is awash in these days; a rumination on how some teams are spying on their players in their off-hours using wearable technology; a critique of how the overuse of video review is ruining the average fan’s experience of watching sports; a column on how Matt Nichols won’t get the respect he deserves until he finally leads a team to the Grey Cup; and a column — and I really wish you’d read this one — about a Manitoban named Kevin Kwasny who was left permanently disabled after his football coach at Bishop’s University forced him to go back into a game after he’d suffered a concussion.

So what was my best read stuff in 2017? Jets, Jets and more Jets.

Paul Wiecek's worst-read column was a meditation on curler Mike McEwen. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

Nine of my ten best-read columns in 2017 were Jets related, with the only exception a column I did last summer berating the voters of the Hockey Hall of Fame for refusing for yet another year to acknowledge with induction Theoren Fleury’s contributions to the sport — on and off the ice.

The Fleury column got a lot of traction on Facebook, which is, by a mile, the most effective way to get your journalism widely read in today’s age of social media. One Facebook post is worth a hundred tweets in my experience.

Now, like the clunkers I wrote this year, there were also lessons to be drawn from the columns you did read. The most obvious: career-wise, the best thing I could do is devote every future column for the rest of my life to the Jets.

While I hear from readers who lament that the Free Press no longer covers curling or other amateur sports the same way that we used to, the metrics I see tell me that you’re saying one thing but reading another.

And that’s too bad because I actually agree with you — I’d way rather write a piece about an amateur athlete grinding it out for the love of sport than the millionaires who have nothing in common with the rest of us that are the pro athletes in this town.

Indeed, while I had a lot better-read pieces this year, I still think the best column I wrote in 2017 was about Alex Honnold, who for my money authored the greatest single athletic achievement in human history this year when he scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope.

Unfortunately, while I was a fan of that Honnold column, not many of the rest of you were: it clocked in at #89 of my best-read columns this year.

Now, there is an important caveat to all this: While I can tell you to a decimal point exactly how many people are reading my work online, I have no idea what you print subscribers are reading in the comfort of your homes.

And I suspect with some confidence that the audiences are very different. That McEwen clunker, for instance, was in all likelihood much better read by a print subscriber demographic that is very similar to the curling fan demographic, which is to say, well, a little grey.

And regardless, I’m not sure clicks is the best barometer of journalism anyway.

Another confession: one of my 10 best-read columns this year ripped Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff last summer for not chasing a free agent goalie — and went to describe how the Jets had missed a great opportunity not cutting a deal to land Scott Darling from the Chicago Blackhawks.

Darling, of course, ultimately landed in Carolina where he is doing a very good impression this season of a pylon, while the goaltending decisions Chevy made are — in my drastically revised current opinion — the single biggest driving force behind the team’s success this season.

All of which is to say two things: 1) Oops; and 2) The only thing worse than writing a good column nobody reads is writing a bad column that everyone reads.

Thanks for reading this year — and, as the case may be, also not reading.

Merry Christmas.

Twitter: @PaulWiecek


Updated on Friday, December 22, 2017 3:49 PM CST: Headline changed.

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