Roy MacGregor published a story today on what's wrong with the sports writing business. And while he has a point when he says:
Today, however, sports is almost entirely about "Who’s first?" and while being first with information obviously matters in the business of sports journalism, the obsession with being first to shout out even the most arcane and meaningless "news" has so ballooned beyond reason that … well, it isn’t funny at all.
I can't help but think he's looking at the worst offenders and saying, "everyone sucks". Not only that, he's committing the biggest offense of them all among media types; glorifying a non-existent past.
There is no time in history where all sports writing was a beacon of brilliant stories. You can look at a highly celebrated writer like Red Fisher to see that. Almost all his stories are both short and lacking any real insight. Today's good sports writers are better than yesterday's. People like James Mirtle, Dave Stubbs, Mike Boone, Michael Farber, Adam Proteau or Brian Wilde bring us stories all the time that are rarely breaking news, but have unique insights that grab a reader's attention.
There isn't a lack of great sports writers, there just never were many good ones, and there's more exposure for the bad ones. Now though, there's no excuse for the bad ones.
While blaming Blackberries and editors for shortening stories and being obsessed with access, he's missing the larger target here, laziness. We are living in a time where media IS obsessed with access, so much so that a lot of people are afraid to say anything critical about those they cover. Look at the media covering the Edmonton Oilers right now as an example of that. Has there been a single piece written by the mainstream media in Edmonton that's even questioned whether the Oilers are guaranteed a Cup by tanking? I haven't seen one.
But those types of reporters have always been around. The reason they're more common now is because we're also living in a time where media is being pushed back on by other sources. For the first time in history, the technology MacGregor laments has allowed anyone with a computer to write their own story. And because they're passionate about the subject, a lot of that content ends up being better than what's in the MSM.
But that isn't an excuse, it's just a reality that writers have, in most respects, failed to work around. Instead of writing better stories with more information than the average person can get, writers get lazy and pump out pablum and narrative. This is why there have been 400 stories about P.K. Subban's "sophomore slump", in spite of the fact that he dominates play whenever he's on the ice and has a horrible PDO.
You can blame deadlines all you like, but that really only applies to post game wrap-ups. Some journalists work around deadlines by working on stories long term, planning them out for a certain deadline in the future. Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette is an example of this.
Remarkably there's never been a better time for writers to publish lengthy, interesting stories. The internet has no word limit like the newspapers of the past. For once you don't have to write for Sports Illustrated to pump out high quality, long stories and give them to a massive audience.
In yet another lazy generalization, many have said on twitter that attention spans are shorter today and that's why the media has changed in this way. This could not be further from the truth. Sports fans have never been so insatiable in their need for content. Rob Elbaz of Habs Talk Radio put it very well in a message to me on twitter:
Don't think attention spans are getting shorter, but competition for attention is definitely greater. Almost seems like there are two audiences, but many are just catering to the instant gratification crowd.
That sums it up in a nutshell. And instead of competing for that attention the hard way, by writing great pieces, writers are too content with offering up easily digestible pablum with bits of information only they can get due to access.
In today's world of media criticism, the writing should be getting better, not worse. There are too many convenient excuses in MacGregor's piece:
But Koppett also wrote, "The secret of good reporting is simply being around."
Hanging out, he said, is "how a writer learns to know what he needs, what and how to write about it, to evaluate relevance and fairness, and how to distinguish the important from the trivial."
It’s a fine sentiment, sir, and we’d certainly be happy to try it if we didn’t have to tweet, blog, upload video, edit audio and continually check our BlackBerrys.
As any blogger can attest, barely anyone gives a crap who breaks a story first. They care about accuracy and the quality of the story. Celebrated insider Bob McKenzie doesn't always break a trade first. He has nearly 230,000 followers because when he does weigh in, he's almost always right. Tweeting isn't an excuse for doing a crap job.