North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Is Sports Journalism Dead?

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Sometime in late 2008 – perhaps November 18th, the date of the first post – Phoenix Suns centre and quote machine Shaquille O’Neal launched an account on Twitter, an unfiltered look into whatever he felt like saying, was thinking and felt like sharing with his fanbase.

Since then, he’s posted over 640 updates which include everything from pictures of him lying in bed or shopping at Wal Mart, his take on popular culture and his opinion about the league, the game and the players he plays against.

This is both the best and the worst thing to happen to the NBA and to sports journalism since Bill Simmons first started writing about baseball games while he was still watching them.

And the fact almost nobody realizes that is what’s wrong with everything with sports media.

Recently, I read Will Litech’s excellent book of essays, “God Save The Fan”. In it, he argues that Deadspin – and by extension other sports blogs – are going to make sports journalism obsolete, since nobody needs it anymore. Fans don’t need to have games reported to them, since they can see them themselves on cable. Or watch the highlights on Sportscenter, or even YouTube. There are so many, many options for fans these days that they don’t need the fourth estate.

This is true. But not new.

ESPN effectively drove the stake into the heart of newspaper sports sections years ago, about the same time that Sportscentre stopped aping popular culture and became popular culture – a pretty big distinction (a process itself started by former ABC Sports head honcho Roone Alridge, when he created the Halftime Highlights segment on Monday Night Football in 1971).

With that, sports media had effectively reached a crux: if somebody needed to know the score, they didn’t have to wait until the next day, only until Sportscenter. It was almost as if sports sections weren’t read for news, but for opinion within.

Jump forward about 10, 15 years. The rise of the web. A former sportswriter – and then bartender – launches a website where he writes about sports and calls himself The Boston Sports Guy. And don’t laugh when you read this, but Bill Simmons’ website was the most important thing to happen to sportswriting since BIll James first started writing about baseball. It’s a proto-blog, if ever there was one. It’s the first time in a long time that a fan began writing about his teams in a format that was widely accessible.

While he may not have been the first person to do this, he was by far the most successful at it: it’s about a decade since he started writing online – I found references to him bartending until 1997, but nothing I’d take as definitive – and he’s evolved into one of ESPN’s biggest personalities. That’s no easy feat.

His brand of personality-driven opinion has rippled across the internet. While not every sports blogger is a fan of his, they all owe him a small debt. He didn’t report on sports, he just wrote what he thought about them. He wrote about games as they happened (his live diaries are live blogs in all but name).

This style caught on, and as more people began to write their own blogs, another barrier fell; if people could post their opinion and read anybody else’s on the internet, why would they keep reading a columnist? What would any person have to say that a columnist doesn’t? Was this the point when newspaper columns started being contrarian? When some writers – I’m not going to name names – started lashing out more.

Taking it a step further, there are several sites, such as this one, where users can upload their own sports writings for all to see. It’s extraordinarily easy to get almost all the opinion you could ever want from those sites alone. As sites like this one continue to grow, why would we still need newspaper columnists?

As Will Litech pointed out in another essay, ESPN’s show Around The Horn is rarely a vehicle for discussion, but sportswriters yelling at each other for 30 minutes. This model seems to go hand in hand with the direction sports media seems to be headed – opinion is cheap and it sells. The only downside is that when you see these professional reporters, the people who cover sports for a living, yelling all the time, making fools of themselves (in one memorable case, eating dog food), how can we take them – or their opinion – seriously?

Another effect ESPN has had, one that Litech didn’t address, is how it’s elevated the players into popular culture. Not just superstars, who would have been there anyway (my mom, who has never watched an entire NBA game, knows who Wilt Chamberlain is, for instance), but the smaller stars, the ones who may not have been widely known otherwise. People like Chris Bosh, Baron Davis and Steve Nash – all of whom use Twitter.

With that, these stars suddenly have a way to talk directly to fans, the same ones who have the blogs. They don’t have to go through the normal outlets – the team beat writer, the local columnist, the talk radio host – anymore. They can just talk directly to their fans.

Greg Oden did this, with a blog on Yardbarker. Terrell Owens had a message board where he would reply to posts and answer questions. Chris Bosh’s YouTube account arguably helped him get to the 2007 All-Star game. Shaq’s Twitter account has over 300 thousand people following it – 8th most on the site.

They don’t need the fourth estate. We don’t need the fourth estate. They don’t offer anything we can’t already find and what they do offer seems less about making a point as it does about making waves. In short, they’re irrelevant – and if they are, why should we even care about them at all?

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Written by M.

March 13, 2009 at 3:42 pm

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