The Art of Boxing and the Science of Studying Journalism

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.

                                                                                                                              -- Orson Welles


I

When I decided in January 1994 to change my career trajectory, it was not an easy decision.

I wanted to be a jury psychologist, long before I ever heard of Dr. Phil or watched the fictionalized version of his career in the television show Bull.

The idea of studying people and figuring out which configuration of personalities would most likely give one side of a court trial an advantage was fascinating to me. It was a game of Go, in many respects, but also a game of Dominos. Those stones were tiles that you have to line up in a certain way, within the boundaries of the law, and then have those tiles surround toward hearing information in a certain way.

It was a complex job that required a keen understanding of truth, reality, and the perceptions of both; so that you give the side you are working for a fighting chance.

The information the jury heard could be interpreted in numerous ways, and the point was to ensure those who made it on the jury would be most likely to give your side of the dividing line a fair listening.

And then I was compelled to abandon that original goal, deciding instead to study something else -- journalism.

But not in the traditional sense. 

Journalists were giving information to the court of public opinion -- and what they were telling those citizens was appalling -- hiding information or downplaying it, inflating and distorting other pieces of the puzzle.

I wanted to become a journalist in order to study it because I knew this was a very unfair system.

But one of the first things I learned was that it was also an archaic system. It was worse than being in the Stone Age.

I studied psychology, and there were schools of thought. Nature versus Nurture versus Diathesis-Stress, for starters. There were no schools of thought in journalism.

There were no studies. There was no debate or experiments. You did not have researchers studying the best way to interview people or how audiences interpreted or retained information. There was no study of word choice or how information emotionally impacted people, let alone teaching students how to verify information or learn to spot a lie from a truth.

Absolutely nothing.

J-schools might as well have held their classes in caves.

So I decided to conduct a very long series of experiments on how bad the profession was.

But I didn't just use my degree in psychology to do it.

I also used knowledge of my favourite sport a a guide.

Boxing.

II

I boxed as a hobby on and off over the years, and it was to me, an intellectual exercise. If you know the Art of War or even chess, you are using the same structure of logic with the Sweet Science. The difference is reading a book is the worst way to understand anything because a book presents theory. Chess is one step up, but not by much because pieces and games are mere stand-ins -- and you are merely building a prototype of a campaign. It is an experiment in a laboratory, but not actual application.

But boxing makes you put your money where your mouth is.

It is instant feedback. You apply your theory in a ring, and if you are wrong, you get a painful smack. There is no making excuses or using sophistry to explain away anything. You are active, and your body is constantly moving, the way nature intended.

You cannot sit there for hours pondering your next move -- you have a second to react.

If you win, your theory becomes Truth.

If you lose, your theory is wrong. The end.

You keep your guard up, or you are vulnerable to defeat.

You avoid going against the ropes, or you become trapped.

You have to have a plan. You have to know your opponent.

And you have to know your own strengths and weaknesses.

I always said if Hillary Clinton's and Donald Trump's campaigns were translated into a boxing match, it would be extremely easy to see why Clinton's campaign was doomed to fail from Day One. She made every mistake an amateur boxer makes in a fight. Trump didn't.

He won by TKO.

She never kept her guard up, and it showed.

The first time I forgot to keep my guard up, my trainer took his punch mitt and smacked me in the face all with a big, goofy grin.

And I earned it.

It made me think in a very different way. Every move counted. There was no do-over.

But there were ways you could think, even in such a stressed environment.

And the biggest help, of course, was the Left Jab.

The Probe Punch.

The Probe is the way you assess yourself, your opponent, and the lay of the battlefield. You see how your opponent reacts, how far you are, and how you react as an aggressor. Can you take this opponent down? What is his weakness? What is his pattern of fighting? How is he better than you? How are you better than him?

The left jab told you all, if you knew how to interpret the information.

Boxing is an applied science. The left jab is your experiment punch. Everything hinges on knowing how to use it to its fullest advantage.

That got me thinking when I decided to study journalism by becoming a journalist.

I was in a ring, and I had to make full use of probe punches.

The question was how.

III

Most people fear rejection. They get broken by them, and avoid them to prevent their egos from deflating.

When I decided to become a journalist, I realized rejections could be a wealth of information for me.

I could actually understand what the industry was looking for.

I could either just apply for positions I knew I could get, or I could expand the pool to include the long shots by sending pitches that I had a snowball's chance of getting.

In communications, there is a concept of "fit". Your pitch has to fit in the publication's scope and interpretation of reality. A woman's fashion magazine isn't likely to have articles about how to fix your own car. It doesn't fit.

But pitches were left jabs, if used correctly. If I could send the right sort of pitch, even a rejection could tell me a lot about the media outlet in question.

So I sent strategic pitches, and plenty of them, knowing ahead of time they'd be shot down.

Sometimes they weren't rejected outright. A lot were accepted, to my surprise, meaning my initial hypothesis was wrong.

Other times, what should have been a shoo-in was rudely shot down.

Again, I had to revise my hypothesis in light of the data I was receiving.

But the kinds of rejections I got were a treasure trove of data. I had ideas stolen, meaning the idea was accepted, but the publication wasn't going to let me have the credit -- instead, giving it to someone else, often a friend of the editor, or an unpaid intern.

Some rejections were form letters. Many were very personal.

Some were downright rude.

Others were oblivious.

And some were enthusiastically accepted by one editor, only to be rejected by a higher-up, and often, the one who gave initial green light was more than a little confused and upset over the axing. There was no overt reason for declining the story, but something else was in play. Sometimes, I would find out why -- and usually, the reason was less than scrupulous.

I charted the rejections and the acceptances. There were several patterns that I noticed.

One, hard news stories about women were the most likely to be shot down. Two, unflattering stories about certain cities were violently rejected with Toronto-area publications being particularly thin-skinned. Three, hard news stories about people under 30 that spoke to them were seen as unimportant.

There were other patterns, but those were the ones that stood out the most.

I was frustrated that I couldn't get access to rejected pitches from other journalists, both freelance, and those on-staff because there was a wealth of information left untouched.

I would love to know what kind of stories were snubbed -- and why.

The most famous of the snubs was the pre-#MeToo story about Harvey Weinstein, for instance.

How many important stories were dismissed? We don't know, and most likely, never will.

The Internet has allowed for an alternative for those rejected stories, but often, they cannot be done properly or have full impact because it costs money to investigate things thoroughly.

But often, when a story goes viral, people who know more will often give missing details and flesh it out.

And it still gets out in the open, while so much of what destroyed journalism remains buried.

IV

The art of boxing helped me form the science of studying journalism. I always had to be moving and on my toes, probing with jabs to breakthrough.

I have done many things with that knowledge, but right now, I am working on another phase.

Because if I just kept pointing out the rot, it would make for a very depressing ending.

Journalism collapsed and died. The end.

Downer, to say the least.

So I am not ending anything, but changing my focus to creating something new.

Journalism needs an alternative.

And there are various ways to bring this alternative to life because this isn't the end of gathering information and disseminating it.

It just needs a different kind of discipline.

One that journalism never provided, and one that citizen journalism hasn't provided, either.

And it's time...