“All I ever wanted to be was a newspaper writer.”
Those were the self-eulogizing words of Tony Kornheiser upon accepting a buyout from his newspaper home of nearly three decades, The Washington Post, in mid-May. Truthfully, the bon vivant known to fans as “Mr. Tony” had long since surrendered his perch as the top sports columnist in the nation’s capital for the increased riches and visibility of the electronic media. Aside from his high-profile spot in the Monday Night Football booth, Kornheiser also fronts a three-hour syndicated daily radio show and co-hosts Pardon the Interruption on ESPN. That schedule, and Kornheiser’s focus on national sporting affairs, didn’t leave much room for columns for local readers about the Redskins and Wizards. The Post, bleeding readers and ad dollars like the rest of the newspaper industry, belatedly decided that the occasional piece it got from Kornheiser didn’t justify his huge salary (even if his online chats and other WaPo-related work undoubtedly drove traffic to the paper’s Web site).
Days before Kornheiser’s buyout was announced, another big-name columnist (and occasional PTI host), Dan Le Batard of The Miami Herald, announced that he was leaving for a yearlong sabbatical. Like Kornheiser, the cherub-cheeked Le Batard is a multimedia opiner, working on TV and radio in addition to his column. And like Kornheiser, who famously says he goes to sleep long before most games finish and mocks anyone who bothers to know a great deal about sports, Le Batard seems to have grown disenchanted with the fun and games that have made him rich. In his farewell column, Le Batard wrote, “I’m doing you, the reader, a disservice when I go to write from an NFL draft that could not possibly bore me more at this point in my life.”
In other words, once considered the highest rung on the sports media ladder, the big-city newspaper columnist now can’t wait to move on to something else. Like Kornheiser, Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune, Jackie MacMullan of The Boston Globe, and Murray Chass of The New York Times accepted buyouts. Selena Roberts bolted the Times for Sports Illustrated, and Jemele Hill left the Orlando Sentinel for ESPN.com. The stentorian Stephen A. Smith, meanwhile, was fired by The Philadelphia Inquirer after spending too much time on his ESPN and radio gigs while ignoring the more prosaic doings back in Philly. (Smith once infamously tapped out a column on his BlackBerry while in a TV studio.) And that thundering in the distance? The stampede of columnists from newspapers to the Internet. A sampling: J. A. Adande, Los Angeles Times to ESPN.com; Howard Bryant, The Washington Post to ESPN.com; Adrian Wojnarowski, The Record (in Bergen County, New Jersey) to Yahoo! Sports; David DuPree, USA Today to SI.com.
The idea that the sports columnist may no longer be a crucial part of the nation’s best newspapers is something to be lamented. The gifted sports columnist often delivered the best writing in the entire paper (and often commanded the highest salary, as fans bought papers to read his take on the local action). Freed from the Journalism 101 tropes, the sports column was home to more emotional and livelier prose than that in, say, the local political columns. At his or her best, a Kornheiser or a MacMullan weaved artistry and insights into 750 words. That blend of beauty and concision is a dying art. By contrast, there is ESPN.com’s popular Bill Simmons, who is knowledgeable and funny, but reading his sprawling pieces can consume an entire lunch hour. The Internet’s boundless newshole is a boon to information delivery, but less so to crisp, disciplined writing.
Also likely to be lost is the identification of a particular team or season with a writer, an aspect of sports’ arguably unique ability to bring a city together. Washington football fans still talk about the pieces Kornheiser wrote in 1991 on the city’s slow but sure acceptance of the notion that the Redskins were Super Bowl contenders. They are known as the “bandwagon” articles, as Kornheiser wrote week after week about jumping aboard the proverbial vehicle with both feet, all the way to a title. Kornheiser perfectly captured the mood of the city, from cautious optimism to justified confidence.
More often, the columnist writes for the livid fan; he becomes the lightning rod for the collective anguish of a city when expectations are not met. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News shared a Shakespearean relationship with the New York Yankees as they floundered under George Steinbrenner’s tyrannical ownership in the 1980s. His fearless pounding of the team and its buffoonish boss, despite criticism and intimidation from the Yankees, spoke for the countless fans suffering through a long and embarrassing stretch of mediocre baseball.