In a previous post, I wrote of my enthusiasm for football and my favorite team, the Detroit Lions. As a die-hard fan, I follow the team year round and I read every single article written about the team via the web sites of the various Michigan newspapers. In fact, ever since these papers started publishing web content, I think I can safely say I’ve read every word they’ve published about the Detroit Lions.
As blogs, podcasts, chats, message boards, and other web content delivery systems emerged over the past fifteen years or so, one of the Lions’ beat reporters, Tom Kowalski, embraced these new ways of bringing content to the fans. While I’ve read the work of many sports writers, I’ve read more content by Tom Kowalski than any other reporter. In part, this is because of Kowalski’s use of new media platforms—his daily web articles, opinion columns and blogs, fan chats, video blogs, email Q & A sessions, comment rebuttals, Twitter, radio interviews, and podcasts provided Lions fans with a bounty of material to devour.
Sadly, the operative word in that last sentence is “provided.” Last Monday, August 29, I was spending a few free minutes scanning Twitter as I often do. I was stunned when I came across this tweet in my feed:
espn_nfcnblog ESPN Blogs NFC North: No words for death of Tom Kowalski.
This news had a profoundly strange effect on me. Of course I’ve dealt with death before: friends and family, students, teachers, and many others. And obviously I read about death every day, including people in the public eye who I admire or whose work I enjoy. But my internal reaction to the death of Kowalski, affectionately known as “Killer” by his readers, took me by surprise. My experience was not like the death of other journalists and writers I remember. I was sad when playwright Arthur Miller died but my reaction was not visceral. Miller’s work certainly moved me—it continues to move me—but I did not feel a sense of personal loss when he passed. For Kowalski, I felt. It didn’t feel as if a stranger had died.
I didn’t understand why my reaction was so extraordinary. And while I’m not sure if I’ll ever know for sure, I’m now convinced that I actually did know Tom Kowalski. He certainly did not know me, but he shared a lot with his readers. Personally, I read every word he wrote for at least twelve years, maybe more—and he wrote a lot. And because he used so many interactive tools to deliver content, he ended up having real conversations with his readers. In fact, the night before his death he was tweeting with readers who didn’t understand the difference between man coverage and two-deep zone coverage. Over time, readers learned more and more about his personality. For instance, almost every night he signed off of Twitter by writing, “Sleep well and dream of large women,” a quote from his favorite movie (The Princess Bride, which he quoted frequently). In fact, his final sign-off from Twitter was a sadly ironic quote from the film:
TomKowalski36 Tom Kowalski OK fellas, here we go … Sleep well, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning …
Kowalski did something special as a writer and a journalist: he actually revealed his personality to his audience. As writers, we are always thinking about audience—who is actually supposed to read this writing? Knowing one’s audience is crucial in determining what to write, how to write, and the proper format for writing. Because Kowalski was so highly interactive with his audience, he eventually got to know them as a group and he allowed the group to get to know him as well. He didn’t write for a theoretical audience but rather wrote for the specific audience with whom he had interacted for years.
I’m not a journalist and don’t know if Kowalski’s personal touch would be considered “good journalism” by professional standards—but that’s not the point. There are many stories today about how social media and virtual communication threaten human interaction, yet Kowalski’s work demonstrates the best potential of these technologies. Kowalski used these tools to better understand his audience, to better serve them as a writer, and to interact with them genuinely, as a real human being.
Technology gives us tremendous ability to hide from each other. We can remain anonymous, faceless, or even invisible. Kowalski, on the other hand, demonstrated that technology can allow us share our humanity. Given that the BLS program at UNCG is online and that students and professors never actually meet each other face-to-face, what steps can instructors and students take to keep classrooms human? What can we learn from Kowalski? And what are some other examples of people using technology to express their humanity?