It isn’t easy to find contemporary examples of this tight relationship between columnist and local fans. When you do, it more often than not will be in the midsize city with fewer professional teams, where columnists such as Jason Whitlock and Joe Posnanski of The Kansas City Star and Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch can concentrate on the city’s one or two true obsessions—like Chiefs football and Cardinals baseball; they have the time and the mandate to tuck into their teams and their towns. (Whitlock, it’s worth mentioning, has managed the rare feat of staying abreast of local sports-world doings for the Star while also writing thoughtful pieces on the national scene for AOL and foxsports.com.)
Once upon a time, the sports columnist was considered the paper’s expert on the local teams as well as national issues. He or she was also expected to be a regular presence in the press box and the locker room, actually spending time with the players and coaches who provided the fodder for the columns. As the situations of Kornheiser and Le Batard attest, the current thinking among many columnists is that sports is best covered from a detached reserve, preferably one that doesn’t involve missing American Idol. Nuance and complexity don’t work as well as irony and sarcasm on TV and talk radio, and the reporting muscles have atrophied in the face of the extra money and workload. Ironically, the more a columnist becomes a multiple platform “personality,” the less connected to the actual games and teams he seems to be. Today’s best columnists are easily identifiable—they are the ones who don’t consider interacting with athletes something to be avoided. T. J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times, for example, gets interesting and hilarious columns merely by getting in the face of cosseted players like Kobe Bryant. It’s not surprising that Simers was fired from Around the Horn, ESPN’s show for shouting sportswriters, after a brief stint.
As Jason McIntyre, who blogs about sports and the media at The Big Lead, told me in an e-mail:
Perhaps it is complacency, or the fact that they have a TV or radio show to prepare for, but columnists seem to be drifting further from one of the basic tenets of journalism—cultivating sources and breaking news. If access is one of the things that supposedly separates newspaper journalists from the masses who flock to blogs and message boards, what good is that access if the columnists aren’t using it?
The big-city columnist’s demise has not been entirely self-inflicted. His position as the go-to guy for both perspective and insider dope has been diminished by the democratization of information and the ability to quickly disseminate it to the public. When everyone has an opinion, and a way to broadcast it, the ability to get the news in the first place is crucial. Yet the columnist cannot get into the nitty-gritty of a local team’s games, because beat writers and obsessed bloggers tend to know much more about the squad and its doings on the playing field, as they parse every game, every dollop of information, every statistic. The columnist is also outflanked by teams themselves, who use the Internet to bypass the press and break news, and by the growing number of athletes who operate their own Web sites where fans can interact.
That doesn’t leave much turf—there’s the lame column attacking the city of the team your team is about to face in a big game; the generic “this player/coach/manager must go” piece; the agenda-driven taunting of the out-of-favor athlete; and the replowing of games and themes already covered by television and the Net.
There is, however, some potentially fertile ground. Perhaps the next stage is for espn.com or Yahoo! Sports (or both) to hire a columnist for every city with professional sports franchises—or even every team in every sport—marrying local, insider knowledge with the global reach of these Internet titans. Instead of just the Boston-centric Bill Simmons connecting with Hub fans as a season progresses, every fan base would be able to claim a writer who is plugged into the minutiae of a team, and also gifted enough as a writer and reporter to identify and explore larger issues than who led the team in scoring. And if those pieces stay in the ballpark of 750 words or so, then no one will miss the big-city sports columnist in the digital age.