Endangered Species

The big-city sports columnist: devoured by TV, negated by the Net
July 3, 2008

“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.

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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.

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. 

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.