These issues came to a head last April when Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights, confronted Will Leitch, then the editor of Deadspin (now with New York Magazine), on HBO’s Costas Now. Bissinger railed against blogs and taunted Leitch, brandishing a folder of vulgar blog posts and asking him if he had ever read the sports writer W. C. Heinz, who was Bissinger’s symbol for a tradition of greatness. “I think blogs are dedicated to cruelty; they’re dedicated to dishonesty; they’re dedicated to speed,” Bissinger said. After the show, Bissinger was ridiculed on the blogosphere and did an about-face, apologizing repeatedly and granting interviews to the blogs he had chastised.
I think Bissinger was on the right track but blaming the wrong medium. It is easy to criticize and stereotype bloggers, but most bloggers and their readers didn’t grow up devouring the latest Red Smith column with their morning coffee. Sports fans under thirty spent their formative years watching shows like ESPN’s Around the Horn, which features newspaper columnists shouting at each other like lunatics.
An interesting thing happened in the wake of the Bissinger-Leitch dustup: Deadspin and other blogs started interviewing older, celebrated sports writers, like Frank Deford. Check out the comments section on these long and fascinating Q&As—the young blog readers loved reading about these guys and seemed to enjoy their long-form narratives. In other words, readers of Deadspin appreciate great writing; it’s the newspapers that have given up on it, feeling as though they have to chase rumors and deliver a ceaseless stream of chicken-nugget news. In marketing parlance, sports sections have degraded their brand.
Like anything, this devolution of sports writing is complicated. People holding AARP cards tell me, “There are no more good sports writers.” That’s just not true. There are excellent writers out there: Buster Olney, Damon Hack, Gary Smith, John Feinstein, and Rick Reilly come immediately to mind, and there are others, some at smaller papers—Terry Pluto, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for example—working under the national radar. So far, the magazine industry hasn’t suffered the same kind of economic devastation that has befallen newspapers, and Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, Sporting News, and The New Yorker still, on occasion, publish put-down-your-iPhone-and-read-this articles. SI and ESPN are publishing some nice narrative work in the magazine, and on the Web, particularly in The Bonus and E-Ticket sections. Yahoo has hired some ex-newspaper stars and done some good investigative stories. In other words, all is not lost.
But here is a typical scenario that illustrates the problem for newspaper sports sections. Beat writers covering a baseball game see a player strain a hamstring. Immediately they are all on their BlackBerries posting an item about the injury and how the batting order was just changed. Something must be posted! Any writer who misses the tidbit will be called on it by his or her editor. But everyone has the same information; no one “scoops” anyone. So why not wait and weave that tidbit into the game story? The reporter would have the chance to go to the locker room and ask questions, talk to the manager about the change in strategy after the injury—to add context and nuance and narrative. These days, that sort of insight is too often lost. “If I were the editor,” says ESPN’s Buster Olney, who also blogs, “I would say, ‘Don’t worry about beating the seven other papers on the hamstring story; focus on developing your thousand-word game story. Remember the great writing you loved as a kid? Write it up like that.’”
Tim McGuire, a former editor and senior vice president of the Minneapolis Star Tribune who now teaches the business of journalism at Arizona State University, says newspaper management is showing a lack of leadership. “It’s a mission problem. The reporters are doing too much, and they’re confused about their mission,” he says. “We’re pouring the same news on people that they can get anywhere.” What’s needed, McGuire says, is for newspapers to play to their strengths. Make statistical information readily available on newspaper Web sites, of course, but it’s time for narrative storytelling and vividly written game stories to make a comeback—because journalists know how to weave tales, put events in context, and act as intermediaries to the firehose of information on the Web. Most bloggers don’t have that skill or, more important, that mission.