North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

MacGregor gets it wrong, even though he’s right

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You know, I could have sworn the war was over when it cames to statistics, bloggers and sportswriting. It’s been three years since the Oilers kicked a blogger out of the Rexall Centre and 15 since the first Baseball Prospectus came out (and about a decade since it started to become mainstream). Teams, leagues, newspapers and TV stations all have bloggers on staff. Some, like The Score, not only have blogs for every sport, but they’ve even given them broadcast slots.

I thought the war was over, could have sworn stats and blogging were accepted now. After all, aren’t stats like On Base Percentage on TV now? Don’t box scores include things like Faceoff Percentage? So why is Roy MacGregor contemplating them as the end of sports journalism?

His piece, The Dumbing Down of Sportswriting, argues that things like “Blackberry Journalism”, over-reliance on statistics and social media are destroying good storytelling and hard-hitting journalism. From his piece:

“It is called, derogatorily, “BlackBerry Journalism.” Television, ironically, is the worst offender, with the most visual of tools reducing so much of sports journalism to talking heads reading off rumours or various crumbs of minutiae handed off to them by those in a position to control such information…”

He argues great storytellers like AJ Liebling, Gay Talese or Roger Kahn would have been hamstrung by today’s requirements: posting information on Twitter, transcribing tape, shooting video, etc, ad infinitum (Never mind that, for one, Liebling’s habit of making stuff up wouldn’t fly in today’s landscape). That as networks start to rely on statistics provided by the respective leagues, they can lose sight of the message. And that more people need to read Paul Gallico’s Farewell to Sport, a very cool book written by a guy who quit sportswriting to devote his life to writing novels.

It’s not as troubling a column as the reaction would have one believe. MacGregor makes some very good points about how easy it can be to lose sight of the big picture by focusing on small, irrelevant details. And he’s absolutely right on the overburden some reporters now have. The always-cool Rosie DiManno said the same in her column last week. To wit:

Perhaps young’uns just entering the business enjoy all this multi-platform clutter and embrace the challenge of reinventing newspapers. From my perspective, it takes the eye off the only ball that should matter to print journalism: words.

Both DiManno and MacGregor rightly argue that reporters have to do a lot more these days and it’s harder to tell good stories as a result. Hell, when I was in J-School, I experienced it first hand: I once went to an interview adorned with a digital SLR, a handheld camcorder, a digital audio recorder, about 20 feet of assorted cords, notepads, pencils and cell phone. I had to shoot video of the interview for the online news segment, audio for the part to air on campus radio plus shoot still photos and make notes for the written story, too. And that was 2008, before social media. Now I’d have to tweet, live-blog, etc., ad nauseam.

I don’t mean to give MacGregor a complete pass, though. His column is wrong in how it argues nobody cares about small details like suspension length or that statistics get in the way of things. Thanks to the rise in popularity of fantasy sports, even the most mundane statistics can be meaningful. Even Face Off Percentage.

When he suggests the media needs to focus more on storytelling, he omits mention of all the great writing going on right now, from Spencer Hall to Joe Posnanski to Jeff MacGregor. One might refer him to Grantland or The Classical, where such storytelling is the norm. Twitter has hurt none of today’s Taleses. Hell, thanks to sites like SportsFeat, Longform or Byliner, it’s helped make it more popular.

It’s too bad he’s used such a broad brush because he makes a lot of good points. Sports reporting on TV now is a lot of noise and not much signal: take TSN’s heavy reliance on ex-jocks, for instance. And newsrooms are understaffed, leaving reporters overworked, thanks to a shrinking media market.

The reaction to his column is kind of ironic: it’s easier to pick up what he missed and spread it through Twitter than it is to sit, read and think about what he wrote. Nowhere does he actually say blogs are killing sportswriting. It does say he respects the power of Twitter and that too many are focused on getting hits rather than doing good work. But it’s easier to pick out and focus on the smaller, more mundane things in his column and focus exclusively on those: a snide comment on Talese tweeting DiMaggio 140 characters at a time, a quote about statistics he took from a book.

That reaction’s exactly what his column is warning against.


Written by M.

November 5, 2011 at 5:39 pm

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