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. 

 

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta.