Thoughts on Hal … and the newspaper industry

This is going to read like an obit, and that’s probably appropriate. In some ways, everybody who knows, reads and loves Hal McCoy will die a little bit at the end of the season.

Another tiny portion of this quickly-collapsing business stopped breathing Thursday. Hal McCoy – famed Cincinnati Reds beat writer for the Dayton Daily News, a mainstay in press boxes across the country since the early 1970s – will retire at the end of this season. He’s not retiring because he’s tired of the business and ready to leave (though he’s been talking about retiring ever since I’ve known him). He’s not retiring because his eyesight continues to worsen (McCoy is legally blind). He’s retiring because the newspaper will not be covering the Reds next year. Too expensive, so the upper management has said his services are no longer needed. The big-wigs don’t care about the readership; they care about the bottom line. This, of course, is nothing new or surprising.

A sampling of what some of Hal’s colleagues have said the past two days:

C. Trent Rosecrans: “Hal has been more than a mentor to me, he’s been a friend.”

Jeff Wallner: “As a know-nothing rookie roughly 10 years ago, I benefited greatly from Hal’s guidance, most of which was provided without my prompting.”

Bill Koch: “I knew this day was coming but it’s still sad to see him go out this way because I always assumed the DDN would let him leave on his own terms. He deserved that.”

This business is funny* like that. You love it all your life, you sacrifice the hours and days you could be spending with your family (I know this was a regret of Hal’s), you work all hours of the day and night. But it doesn’t love you back. It doesn’t care about your sacrifices. Spend 37 years on a beat, bringing daily joy to a community’s life, and this is how you’re treated at the end.

*Not funny ha-ha. Funny like the Holocaust**.

**OK, that might be a bit much.

I think we’re all taking this pretty personally, because Hal was always very good to us. When I was at the Cincinnati Post, I spent parts of three spring trainings in Sarasota, Fla., helping cover the Reds and providing relief for the main beat writer. Since the Post was Hal’s designated driver these past few years because of his deteriorating eye site***, I played Hal’s chauffeur for home and away games. He was always good for a gag and a laugh, always good with a story, always good for helping out another scribe in need. And don’t even think about pulling out your wallet for gas or a meal. Hal seriously would get pissed. He was going to pay, and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it.

***You should see that guy’s computer, by the way. The screen on that thing is absolutely ri-freakin-diculously huge.

Four ideas strike me about Hal when I think about him:

1. He has a goofy way of laughing. His shoulders actually shake and his face gets really scrunched up and animated and he laughs the hell out of a good joke.

2. He loves shoes. This is a passion we share. I’d show him my new Johnston & Murphy’s. He’d show me his new Cole-Haan’s. I’d show him my new Calvin Klein’s. He’d show me his new Ecco’s.

3. The man could hold a grudge. The famous story was that, for whatever reason, Hal and Joe Morgan had some sort of disagreement in the late 1970s, and they decided they wouldn’t ever speak to each other again. They’ve been in the same elevator and haven’t uttered a single syllable. They’ve played against each other in a tennis double’s match, and they didn’t share a single word. They’ve been within inches of each other, and yet, they don’t acknowledge the other’s existence. How great is that?

4. I never saw him big-time anybody. Hal, you have to understand, is usually the most-loved guy in the press box. He’s been around for so damn long and he’s so damn nice that everybody goes out of their way to say hello. And for all that popularity, for all that love, he never let his head swell. Sure, he has an ego, but he’d act the same way to a New York Times writer as he would to a community weekly reporter. In my eyes, that might be his greatest attribute.

Now that he’s leaving, Dayton journalism won’t be the same. Now, the Daily News will use the Cincinnati Enquirer for much of its Reds and Bengals coverage, which is a shame. I’m not saying the Enquirer isn’t more than capable, because it is. But Dayton readers aren’t well-served by this cost-cutting idea. The less voices available, the less news that’s broken, the less commentary given, the less eyeballs that are around to serve watch is not good.

People, I think, know this. Watch what happens. The Dayton Daily News will lose subscriptions because of this. The web site will lose hits. The advertising revenue will drop. The Dayton Daily News will be worse off.

I feel bad for the readers. I feel bad for DDN sports editor Brian Kollars, a good man in a tough spot. I feel bad, most of all, for Hal.

Sometimes, it seems that the Internet isn’t going to kill newspapers. It won’t be the declining ad revenue or the loss of classified ads. It won’t be the lost interest of the newest generations, the bad-for-the-times news cycle schedule, the failure to understand how to make money online. Sometimes, it seems that the people who manage the newspapers, they’re the culprits. They’re the heels. They’re the ones who are slowly driving the newspapers into extinction.

It’s like Hal said the other day. The hammer fell. And it hurts like hell.

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