Monday, April 14, 2008

On Rick Reilly, Big Daddy Drew and the Demise of the Newspaper Sports Columnist

So Big Daddy Drew had this post on Deadspin last week talking about Rick Reilly's rant against bloggers, among others. It's worth a read, and I wanted to add on a few thoughts that are by no means complete, but possibly pushing the discussion forward:

I used to think that sports reporting -- beat-writing -- had become commodified: As fast as a story could be "broken," I could have the story and my opinion about it on my blog.

Then I reminded myself that punditry everywhere -- on blogs, TV, the back of SI, whatever -- would be nowhere without that initial reporting. It is less valuable to the original source, but not commodified. Whether you are a mainstream sports columnist or a blogger, you really don't have much to say without that beat reporting.

No, where the real commodification exists is in sports opinion.

Platform no longer matters, really. It used to be that your local newspaper columnist had the authoritative say, if only because he was the only one with the platform.

Now, not only does anyone have a platform, but the best opinion on any given subject is better than what the traditional columnists will put out. The numbers won't let it happen: The more participants, the more entries at BOTH ends of the spectrum:

Obviously, some blog sports opinion is terrible. (As has been pointed out, just like some traditional media sports opinion is terrible.)

But when you find the best, it is better than anything coming from a single mainstream sports voice -- particularly when that single voice is addicted to suckling the teats of either conventional wisdom or kneejerk contrarianism.

Back to my original point: Finding great sports commentary is really really hard. (For a real treat, try transcribing any argument made on TV by a sports pundit -- then remember that sports punditry on TV is typically about entertainment, not smart.)

What is great? Fresh helps (although I build my Quickie franchise on being first, but the decision to be shallow totally undercut that effort).

But "fresh" is more than first: It's a new way of looking at a story -- and it only gets harder as more voices join the cacaphony.

(I love PTI as much as everyone else, but that show is really about the relationship between the hosts; it almost doesn't matter WHAT they say. Consider the last time they advanced something where you said, "Hadn't heard THAT before!")

Within the mainstream sports media opinion world, the emphasis on TV has been on being entertaining, not being interesting or thought-provoking; the emphasis in newspapers has been, let's face it, on trying to get on TV.

Even within blogs, the emphasis mostly has been on being fast or first -- I appreciate that helps to become (or drive) the conversation (and it might even help a site's traffic), but it doesn't necessarily lend itself to consistently great posts.

(It's funny: In the same way that the best blog posts on a particular topic are better than the average mainstream local sports columnist on a particular topic, the best blog comments are regularly better than the best blog post itself -- why great "comments" sections create as much value for a site as the original posts themselves.)

Here is why sports columnists are the ones who rip bloggers: It is THEIR job -- way more than the beat reporter's job -- that is being obliterated by the open-access platforms like blogging. Those columnists are, as they should be, freaked.

They are highly paid -- often the highest-paid people in the sports department. Their ability to drive readers or sales or advertising dollars is, at best, sketchy (if not mythical altogether). Most have one eye on the TV camera or radio deal (which has always made me consider the paradox of the sports-TV pundit who doubles as a full-time newspaper columnist: Either they are phoning in their column now that their time is spent on TV or they were phoning it in before they went on TV -- which was it? It has to be one.)

The best newspapers get it: They let the beat reporters blog, injecting their constant reports with as much opinion (and often clever insights) as their otherwise stodgy editors will allow. It's actually a fantastic model: Give the guys with their ear closest to the ground the additional opportunity to offer opinion -- why do you need a columnist?

(Now, granted, newspaper sports sections are still mostly run by change-averse drones who have little grasp of the power of new-media platforms. However, the newspapers doing this best are REALLY doing great work. One example: The Washington Post's experiments with a beat guy like Svrluga. It takes a reporter who has the time, effort and confidence to pull it off.)

Either that, or finally admit that the 800-word column is dead: 90 percent of the time, the columnist is filling the space with extraneous filler. The "Quickie" style may be TOO shallow, but the reason its brevity connected with so many consumers is because they recognized that, in the end, if you can't make your point in 50 words or less, it ain't worth making. The only reason mainstream sports columnists can't get away with that now is because they and their editors somehow equate length with quality (and, presumably, length with compensation).

That, and the fact that an almighty mainstream sports columnist writing 50-word opinions would be exposed as... just another mediocre blogger.

And why should fans bother to read the mediocre ones when they have so many better choices right now?

That's what should scare columnists about their future: As more people enter the punditry game, the existing players move further and further from the top Nth percentile. When they were the only game in town, that place was theirs exclusively; now that they aren't, they slide down the scale -- decreased column quality because of their TV and radio gigs doesn't help.

But even if they were at the very top of their game, the best of the new voices would provide an equal -- if not more compelling -- alternative.

Big Daddy Drew's post -- a take-down of the quintessential sports columnist of the last quarter-century, in addition to the system that he represents -- was more symbolic than Drew probably intended, and it reinforces what we have seen coming for the last few years. With apologies to John Lennon:

The Era of the Mainstream Sports Columnist is Over. (If you want it to be.) Every time you find a better take on a story from a blogger than the one proffered by your local sports columnist -- or national TV pundit -- you contribute to it.

-- D.S.


sigszilla said...

Great points, all. But I'll reiterate my point from the New Year's post. The 'leaders' in the sports blogosphere should tread lightly, lest they slip through the thin ice into the vacuum created by the old-school columnists.

Dan Shanoff said...

I was JUST having that discussion over the weekend: Tread lightly? They've already slipped!

Most of the "leaders" have had the good fortune to stumble into "mainstream" gigs -- Yahoo, Sporting News, ESPN, SportsLine, Fox, SI, Fanhouse... hell, even Deadspin counts as "mainstream," to the extent that Will can pay bloggers to contribute to the site.

By any "market economy" reading, their void should already be filled by younger, hungrier (and more talented) bloggers. But that really hasn't happened. Oh, sure, there are a million more sports blogs than there were 18 months ago, but very few have found traction that allows their editors claim "filling a vacuum."

I don't have any answers, really (I do, but they're just theories that need more fleshing out), but my question is: Why is that happening?

sigszilla said...

But how have the bloggers who went mainstream fared? I can't remember the last time I read an MJD column on Yahoo!, honestly, and ESPN is currently a joke, no matter how many fresh, former bloggers they bring in. The point I'm making is this: if AOL were to recognize the value of talent among the 'good' bloggers and hire Blogger X to replace Jim Armstrong because he's an old hack, would AOL allow Blogger X to continue to refine this brand of sports analysis via dick jokes, or would Blogger X eventually gain enough access that he would lapse into discretion and/or favor?
Also, even as a 'professional sports journalist' you maintain a loyal following because of your longstanding Quickie, so it doesn't matter if it's on Page 2, blogspot or on SN. However, we want Ufford and BDD and FJM to entertain us and, sometimes more so, the commenters on their posts to make us laugh, but to expect them to hold down a 'real' job while they do it is asking too much. Isn't that, ostensibly, one of the original premises of what these blogs are about? According to BDD's column it is: No access, no favor, no discretion; just shared experience.

/dick joke