The legendary Frank Deford spoke at an awards ceremony on Friday, and during his acceptance speech he lamented what he believes to be the death of sports journalism.
He was somewhat vague on what he thinks is causing the death, but he goes after sports writing that is primarily about statistics and “texting,” suggesting that he believes internet writing, sabermetric-style analysis and social media based stuff like Twitter are killing sports writing.
This, he says, is creating a class of readers and reporters who are “optionally illiterate.” Those who can read and write weighty things, but choose not to.
And what is lost?
Like everyone else, I have no idea what’s going to happen to the future of our profession. The great thing about sportswriting is that it’s about storytelling. The drama, the glamor …. I don’t want to see sportswriting be overwhelmed by statistics. I want to read about the heart and blood of athletes and their stories, which has made sportswriting so special.
I worry who is going to pay for the expensive stuff. The long, expensive, investigative pieces, the enterprise journalism. The work that matters more than anything else and justifies the whole experience as journalists.
I understand what Deford is talking about, but I think he (a) misidentifies who the consumer of sports media is; and (b) identifies a false choice with respect to what sports media can be.
Deford has obviously enjoyed the hell out of his career, but since when is sports reporting — or any reporting — about that which “justifies the whole experience as journalists?”
Of course it’s more fun to write an in-depth piece on an athlete or a game that conveys a storyline. A story that communicates pathos. Which tells a rich story. Which requires travel to big events and meetings with exciting people. That makes a reporter’s job fun! But it’s the readers who matter, right? What they want is what is important, not what the reporter wants, correct?
Statistics and recaps may bore the hell out of Frank Deford, but based on the consumption patterns of readers — and just how many more eyes are reading more things about sports on the Internet these days than ever subscribed to Sports Illustrated — I’d say that the readers like that stuff just fine. Maybe quickly wanting to learn what will help his fantasy team better during his lunch hour renders a given reader “optionally illiterate,” but it also gives that reader what he wants, and that’s the whole point of any consumer product. And, yes, sports media is a consumer product.*
But that leads to the second part: giving the reader tweets, texts, blurbs, charts or blog posts with that less-glamorous, less-drama-filled content does not mean that the reader cannot also enjoy the writing Deford thinks is disappearing. The investigative stuff. The in-depth features. The things that only a reporter with good access, brains, skills and the ability to tell a good story can provide. It may not be considered the flagship of sports writing like it was in Deford’s heyday, but there’s still an awful lot of that around. Amy Nelson and Jeff Passan do it for online outlets. There are still a lot of others who do it too. And, actually, it’s one area where there is a tremendous opportunity for growth in sports media.
I’ve written about this before, but there is a future in substantive sports media, and it’s not about the bits and pieces that get tweeted today. What we’ve come to call “commodity news,” which teams and leagues themselves are taking over. So much of what I suspect Deford hates actually falls under that category. That day’s lineup; official quotes from players and coaches; other things that can be easily disseminated and more effectively controlled by the team’s increasingly sophisticated media arms and which have turned so many reporters into tweet-first, think-later spokespeople, largely against their will.
The media can and should let the teams and leagues have that stuff, because it does nothing to help any given newspaper, blog or website to simply regurgitate things that will be all over the place in seconds. Rather, the media will do better by concentrating its resources on providing content that differentiates it from the competition. This can be in-depth and investigative stuff. It can be opinion writing like we do a lot of here at HBT. It can be gossip like Deadspin. It can be unique statistical analysis like Fangraphs. Anything, really.
The point is for the writer, newspaper or website to put their particular stamp on the product to make readers want to get it from them specifically as opposed from any old place. Once that unique voice or angle has been established, the opportunity for the money, which Deford specifically worries about, arrives, because you’ve created a unique product that people will come back to. One that can’t be easily repeated or replicated or undermined. All it takes is the will to commit to a given model and stick with it even if the immediate financial benefits aren’t apparent. Online media is maturing. Eventually it’s gonna shake out and there will be winners and losers. Making your outlet a winner requires it to have a plan now.
And the end result of that: a world in which people can read their fantasy updates, their statistical analysis, their in-depth reporting, their rumor mongering, their human interest features, their texts, their tweets, and their long form whatever from anyplace they want.
Not a world like Deford fears in which it’s either this or that, either good or bad, either glamorous and drama-filled or “illiterate.”
*I am aware that there are those who like to think of the press as The Fourth Estate. That it speaks truth to power and all of that stuff. Well, that’s admirable and it may be what has been taught in J-school for the past 40 years or so, but the notion of the press being some greater institution than a mere business is a relatively recent, relatively short-lived and approaching obsolete one. There have always been examples of great journalism rising above mere product and serving a social good — and reporters should clearly strive to write good important stories — but as an overarching purpose of the press, that notion flourished in the 60s and 70s and has been dying pretty slowly for several years.
And it hasn’t been the bloggers and tweeters that killed it. It’s the people and companies who own the newspapers that have done so. If you don’t believe this, ask why your local paper is smaller than it used to be and the newsroom emptier than it used to be. Papers themselves believe that they’re for-profit businesses, and they act accordingly. We pretend that’s an aberration at our peril.