Sportswriting is dead. Long live … ?

The Internet is changing sports journalism.

No kidding.

Television changed sports journalism. A good bit more than the Internet, actually.

In 1955, the newspaper was the way most people found out what happened with their favorite teams. TV sports were not yet ubiquitous. If you weren’t listening on the radio, the newspaper’s game story (and the box score, in much simpler form than you see today) was the only way to know what happened.

“Gamers” are still being written, and enterprising writer Arik Parnass did a semi-sociological piece on the reporters who are still doing them at a Washington Capitals game. (We’ll miss you, Braden Holtby.) Though deadlines can be a constraint, there’s a certain beauty to the art form of writing a game story as the game happens, tearing up your lead as the situation warrants, then racing to plug in quotes.

But anyone who needs a straight “gamer” can get it from the league’s sites, which have turned into some of the more reliable employers of sportswriters who don’t mind straddling the fence between covering and working for, even indirectly, the same league. The Washington Post still runs game stories, but they’re not as important as everything else a beat writer produces.

Today, if you’re good at play-by-play game stories, your two best options are:

  1. Something off the beaten track, maybe in Olympic sports. Even then, it’s tough to grab attention to something that isn’t already on TV.
  2. High school sports.

Aspiring sportswriters really should get out and cover high schools at some point. When you don’t have a squadron of PR personnel handing over stats and notes, you’re forced to pay attention on a deeper level. You also get the added sense of responsibility of writing within a community. Not people who might drag you on Twitter. People who might bump into you at the gym.

Good luck asking the aspiring sportswriters of today to go out and cover high schools. But it’s not all their fault. Local newspapers are operating with skeleton crews. The pipeline from local papers to mid-sized papers to big news organizations is all but dead, with national organizations scouring … the ranks of the kids who can afford to work in free internships over the summers.

So remind me to start an Olympic sports site and hire people from local papers who can write game stories, even if they’re making a hard turn from high school football to Olympic biathlon. (World Cup season has started!)

But in reality, the ship has sailed, and to the dismay of Flat Earthers, it’s gone over the horizon.

This piece at Axios traces the changes pretty well — sportswriters have needed to adapt by giving less play-by-play and more analysis. That transition has happened gradually as each new disruption in media takes its toll. And it’s accelerating with COVID keeping us all at home.

Parnass’ piece opens with Michael Wilbon complaining about people in their parents’ basements who aren’t there in the locker room. That’s a bit rich — it’s not as if Wilbon and the other daytime pundits are out getting personal observations on every event on which they pontificate.

And access to the inner sanctum of a locker room is a hot issue. As far as I know, that’s unique to the United States. If you cover the Olympics, you chat with athletes as they stroll through the mixed zone — after they’ve already answered questions from all the broadcasters.

In MMA, the people who can’t / don’t get credentials tend to view themselves as purer than those of us who were “in.” Part of it is that the UFC’s Dana White has a longstanding tendency of booting reporters he doesn’t like. Part of it is a misunderstanding of what “access” is like, as if we’re all buddies or something.

It’s not either/or, anyway. Readers benefit from both perspectives. If you’re covering the UFC, you have a better view at home anyway — camera crews block the view from press row.

But it’s a moot point now. Thanks to COVID, we’re all in our basements. And the view isn’t bad.


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