"Tomato Can Blues," a New York Times journotainment property

An Attila Futaki illustration from the New York Times’ “Tomato Can Blues”

Over the past year or so, I’ve really admired some of the future-of-big-journalism pieces published in the Sunday New York Times. Snow Fall, their interactive multimedia feature about an avalanche in Washington State that killed several members of a backcountry skiing party, for instance, was as stunning and innovative as it was gripping and informative. Not least among its groundbreaking attributes was that it was best  consumed online, either on the web or on iPad. It offered lots of interactive features and sidebars that weren’t just cool—they enhanced the information being presented. And the paper edition couldn’t come close to doing them justice. It was as if the Times was making a statement about how newspapers could stay relevant in the interactive age.

So I looked forward yesterday to reading Tomato Can Blues, a sports feature the paper spent quite a few days and column inches promoting. It went online late last week, and though I didn’t read it until I got yesterday’s dead tree edition, I did take a peek at the web version, and was impressed by the large comic art illustrations by Attila Futaki—they mimic the parallax of 3D as you scroll down the page. Neat. I thoroughly expected the accompanying story, by Mary Pilon, to live up to the compelling presentation.

No such luck. Though Tomato Can Blues ran in the sports section, it is only tangentially about sports. And even then, the field of competition in question, mixed martial arts cage fighting, is not everyone’s idea of “sport.”

But cage fighting is more or less just the sensationalist angle that elevates this story of a small-time sociopathic crook into something the Times could build a big feature around. Without the marginal mixed martial arts tie-in, this would be just another crime story about the lives damaged by a hardscrabble thug.

But this is 21st century journalism, designed to be repurposed for profit. And so Tomato Can Blues doesn’t offer much of the victims’ perspective. Instead, the protagonist of the story is the thug. He’s Charlie Rowan, a lowlife violent criminal who also happened to occasionally seek a measure of fame and glory by getting beat up in front of the crowds at cage fighting matches held in small town Michigan bars.

As I finished the story, I wondered, “What in the hell was that?” Though Rowan’s story has a unique twist to it—he tried to fake his own death to escape from drug dealers he had ripped off—there is nothing redeeming or even very interesting about his tale to warrant the thousands of Pilon’s words, Futaki’s arresting graphics and the standout packaging the New York Times devotes to him. I came away from the story thinking he was just another violent loser.

And then it hit me. The comic art illustrations are meant to suggest film storyboards. Nine out of ten Hollywood films are already based on comic books. That must be it—Tomato Can Blues is an elaborate Hollywood movie pitch disguised as journalism. Charlie Rowan is the perfect empty vessel antihero for the smoldering blank good looks of someone like Ryan Gosling, if not Ryan Gosling himself. Sure, he does some very bad things, but maybe there’s a spark of goodness behind that dour blank facade. At any rate, he sure is pretty to look at. And should the story make it to film, or even if it’s just optioned, this investment in extensible journotainment will have paid off for the Times.

Check it out. What do you think? Who’s being cynical, me or the producers at the New York Times responsible for Tomato Can Blues?