Where sports journalism will be in 20 years

I’m only guessing

Image result for sports journalism

As someone who plans to be involved in sports media over the next 20 years, it’s about time I stepped back to take a look at where sports media is now and how it could move forward.

As society grows on into the future, people are only going to become more attached to technology. Newspapers are surviving at the moment, but digital subscriptions will likely eclipse physical papers in a few decades. What that doesn’t mean, however, is the elimination of storytelling. I’d like to get this point out of the way early. The quality of work that goes into sportswriting will not fall victim to time.

If I could throw sports in alongside death and taxes as life’s certainties, I certainly will. How could I not? Every year, people go back to their teams. Sports seasons are a part of society’s routine life. With those sports seasons must come sportswriters. Whether they report, blog, investigate, analyze, overanalyze or criticize, the media will always have a place in sports. Regardless of the medium, the sportswriting will remain as consistent as the sports themselves. The unscripted drama that sports provide is an unmatched thrill that spans generations. The media must take that unscripted drama and interpret in a way that makes the story just as important and memorable as the moment. It seems that the ways in which people receive their news is the only thing that’s changing. Other than that, people will always need their sports and their sports news.

The platforms on which people receive their sports news is a vastly growing horizon. Given that social media platforms are the quickest and easiest way to get news out there, sportswriting has adapted alongside it. Every major news outlet is now on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat or some other sixth one. If there’s a sports media outlet not on social media, they’re losing. As younger athletes of the technology age take over their respective leagues, social media has turned into a place where news is broken first. If a player wants out of their contract or if they are joining a new team or they just so happen to like Lucky Charms, social media provides a mean for reporters to gather content. Considering that social media is where any team or player can connect with their audience, any sportswriter, blogger or media outlet can connect with that same audience.

I don’t really see where social media adapts from here. As of now, the quick, clipped aspect of social media is what’s winning over many eyes. That doesn’t mean that sports media and the work that goes into it should completely put their eggs into the basket of brevity. If ESPN needed to trim a small portion of Lisa Salters’ interview with Kareem Hunt to promote that interview on social media, ESPN nor Salters should get upset with people engaging with that post. I’d say something like that trimmed promotion would get people to go watch the full interview. I think outlets like ESPN should have their interests across many platforms. Judging by the rise in social media, it’s best that all media outlets work just as hard in their social media department as they do in their investigative reporting department. There’s no foreseeable end to the social media platform, so I think that sports media should continue to rise along with it because that’s where both the audience and the athletes are.

For all the voices that are out there, I say keep speaking, writing, blogging, vlogging, or tweeting. The sports media market is home to so many voices. ESPN is clearly the behemoth of them all but places like Bleacher Report, The Athletic, The Undefeated, Sports Illustrated, SB Nation, Barstool Sports or any of the sports sides of the network television channels are all places to consume sports media. Each of them have unique voices and they’re all adapting to modern technologies while also sticking to classic, quality sports journalism. And yes, I include Barstool.

Here’re my two cents on Barstool. They were born out of the social media age and are thriving in it. I’ve noticed purists to sports media trash on Barstool, but I think it’s because they’re the new kid on the block. Just because it’s not sports media in the traditional way, people tend to hate their content. I don’t like all of their content. But I don’t like all the content that ESPN or Bleacher Report put out either. Barstool is good at what they do because they were born in the social media age. Some of the more distinguished outlets have even started mimicking Barstool’s habits whether they’ll admit it or not. I just think Barstool must be given their due in the world of sports media because there’s no foreseeable end to them just like all the others.

Given that there are many voices out there, it’s all about selective hearing in the new world. Technology has provided anyone with a phone or computer the ability to put their voice out there. Not everybody will absorb every bit of content out there. I think with all the voices out there though, each individual voice must continue to produce their content as if everybody will absorb it. ESPN reporters shouldn’t act high and mighty over Ol’ Billy Two-Shoes’ Sports Blog. ESPN clearly has more credibility but they have to stick to their quality guns. Given that they’re the behemoth, they must still report at a level they hold themselves to. That doesn’t mean Ol’ Billy shouldn’t have a blog. He should continue to write and work as if he had the same opportunity that an ESPN reporter has. The ESPN reporter may have a degree and all, but the reality of the situation is that you don’t need a degree to do what we do. It stinks to admit that but it’s true. But in journalism education, we’ve been prepped pretty well for the adapting world and we were taught the ethics and a quality standard. If you’re a better sportswriter than Ol’ Billy, show it. Don’t trash on Billy because he gets an audience. There may not be room for everybody at the top but there is room for everybody. To all sportswriters, just keep writing. Hold yourself to the ethical standards you were taught if you were taught them. If you want your voice out there, put it out there. The world is only going to continue being an open forum.

Of all things presented, I think in 20 years, as long as sportswriters stick to quality, sportswriting will survive in the ever-changing world. Quality has varying degrees of acceptance now but quality is in the eye of the audience. As long as any sportswriter or reporter or blogger etc. respects their audience and they want to continue telling sports stories, the field will exist. Time will only tell if social media or traditional newspapers will outlast the other. The only thing that can be guaranteed is that the Yankees will still suck 20 years from now and somebody will have something to say about it. That’s what sports journalism is about. That’s what it has always been about and that’s what it will always be about.

A comparative essay in sports journalism

A look at how Yahoo Sports columnist Pat Forde compares to ESPN feature writer Wright Thompson

When looking at the works of both Pat Forde and Wright Thompson, it’s safe to say that sportswriting is in good hands. Both are graduates of the University of Missouri’s Journalism School. Forde is a columnist for Yahoo Sports. Thompson is a feature writer for ESPN. The differences in their writing styles and forms are apparent however, their unique approaches both work successfully as great sportswriting.

When reading Wright Thompson’s piece on Michael Jordan, one can only notice the extreme detail that Thompson takes to build a setting and characters. The third graf reads:

“Back in the office after his vacation on a 154-foot rented yacht named Mister Terrible, he feels that relaxation slipping away. He feels pulled inward, toward his own most valuable and destructive traits. Slights roll through his mind, eating at him: worst record ever, can’t build a team, absentee landlord. Jordan reads the things written about him, the fuel arriving in a packet of clips his staff prepares. He knows what people say. He needs to know, a needle for a hungry vein. There’s a palpable simmering whenever you’re around Jordan, as if Air Jordan is still in there, churning, trying to escape. It must be strange to be locked in combat with the ghost of your former self.”

Let’s just say you didn’t know who Michael Jordan was. Thompson addressed in our class that it’s a very hard thing to picture, but it’s possible to write that way. The important point being is that the way Thompson writes about Jordan puts the reader right on the yacht with His Airness. He describes the inner emotions and thoughts of Jordan and makes readers well aware of what’s been eating at the Greatest of All-Time. It’s a very novelesque way of writing in the way that Michael Jordan could be a fictional character and the passionately competitive drive that helped him do seemingly fictional things on the court could be part of that. Another great part in that is building around the legendary Michael Jordan that wore No. 23 for the Bulls and putting that figure against the 50-year-old Michael Jordan that’s at the helm of the struggling Charlotte Hornets. Thompson does that by keeping the audience captivated with displaying how the same competitive drive exists in this man who just can’t take it out by dunking on someone any more.

Another piece of Thompson’s that I enjoy is his piece on the legacy and family of Ted Williams. Just like in the Jordan piece, Thompson is able to generate awe by making Ted Williams an ever-present figure in a story about his living family. In this story specifically though, he is able to weave between the past and present perspectives of Ted Williams’ daughter, Claudia, and piece together more information on how life in the Williams home really was. A little bit into the story Thompson writes:

“THIS STORY BEGAN two years ago, when I reached out to Claudia about meeting at her home in Hernando. The timing never worked for her because she struggles to look past her obsessions: nursing school and a book she wrote about her father, which started as a stocking stuffer about lessons she learned and turned into a cathartic exploration of the person she’s still trying to be. Finally she said yes. The first visit lasted a week in the fall of 2014, and we made paella and she told funny stories about her dad — he’d call the public phone in European hostels and boom at unsuspecting travelers, “Is CLAUDIA WILLIAMS there? This is her FATHER! OL’ TED WILLIAMS!” — and she got melancholy later and said, “We need to laugh more.”

I like this section because Thompson gives us a lot and a little all at the same time. We learn about funny instances between Claudia Williams and her father but also that these funny instances led to sadness. It’s unique because while there is Thompson’s trademark detail, there’s bait for readers to continue reading. It works excellently as a sports journalism piece.

The reason why Thompson’s feature writing works for sports journalism is because of how vastly detail oriented his pieces are. Like I said above, his writing his novelesque. The attention to detail alongside the rich storytelling makes his features on these sports legends seem like they’re only that; just legends. But since it is novelesque, there’s an opening to interpretation. There’s a lasting impact in Thompson’s style. So I’d say, Thompson’s ability to capture real-life people and real-life situations creates an astonishing sense of awe. Awe always works. Not only in sportswriting but in all writing.

Pat Forde, on the other hand, works mainly as a reaction columnist. In terms of sportswriting, this is a perfectly fine way to approach stories as well. Forde does an excellent job at inserting emotion into his pieces. One of the pieces in which this is evident is his column on Urban Meyer and Ohio State Football.

After identifying the ridiculousness in Meyer’s statements following the Zach Smith domestic violence investigation, Forde writes:

“Sorry to be cynical regarding Meyer and his motives, but what’s the point in trusting him? His statement Friday vaguely admitted to lying repeatedly at Big Ten media day when asked about Zach Smith’s 2015 incident. Meyer said in Chicago last month that he knew nothing about it, then Friday admitted he knew about it, trying to chalk up the multiple falsehoods to not being “adequately prepared” for that line of questioning.

Please.”

The interesting thing about Forde’s writing is his conversational tone. He’s taking a very serious issue and he’s inflating the doubt around Urban Meyer’s denial and showing his distaste for it. By stating that he may be cynical allows the reader to interpret his writing but then after he mentions Meyer falsifying the situation, the “please” that is thrown in by Forde closes down the apology he had just made. This isn’t a contradiction. This is Forde using his columnist skills to their finest. Domestic violence isn’t ok. Knowing about domestic violence and then lying about it isn’t ok either. Forde is able to throw in a conversational tone to emphasize the ridiculousness in Meyer’s lies. There’s no room for interpretation because domestic violence can’t be interpreted in more than one way.

Forde’s writing style limits interpretation, however, his brash frankness presents the column in a unique light. Though Forde is a columnist, he does have experience writing features as well. A feature of his that I like is his on Olympian Cody Miller and his rise to stardom.

About midway through the feature, Forde writes:

“The reasons why Cody should never have been the happiest bronze medalist in Brazil are numerous, and not all of them have to do with a fractured family upbringing. You can go back to birth.

He was born with a condition called pectus excavatum, which basically is a sunken chest caused by deformities of the ribs and sternum.

‘It looks like I have a big hole in my chest,’ Cody said.

He was teased about it repeatedly as a kid, but the challenge of the defect goes beyond appearance. It also inhibits lung capacity, which is about as vital as any physical characteristic for a swimmer. But Cody and, in turn, his sister took to the sport at a young age and he overcame the sunken chest with relative ease.”

Forde’s frank tone and writing style is evident in this piece. However, Forde does his best Wright Thompson impression by writing a solid feature that pays close attention to detail and emotion. Clearly, even Forde as a columnist can pull off feature writing with great success. The reason why is that he has a unique enough voice and writes with brash frankness that gets the point across with a conversational tone. This works in both his columns and his features.

Overall, Wright Thompson and Pat Forde have unique sportswriting styles that both operate well under the umbrella of sports journalism. Thompson’s novelesque feature writing effectively draws readers in with awe and the opportunity for interpretation. Forde’s curt, conversational tone allows him to get his point across and persuades the reader to feel exactly how he feels. Though their styles are different, they each give an effective and unique voice in the collaboration of many voices that is sports journalism.

~DS

How sportswriting hasn’t really adapted within the last 70 years

The only difference between how a sports story is written now as compared to 1951, is the medium on which a piece is written

When considering the evolution of sports journalism within the last 70 years, one can’t help to also consider the culture that has changed around sports journalism itself. The way people consume news and information on a daily basis has certainly changed. With the advent of social media and 24-hour news networks, the average human is bombarded with more news and information that they barely even know what to with. Yes, technology and the countless amounts of mediums to receive news has affected the modern news consumption patterns of many.

However, what has remained consistent in sportswriting is the understanding of the beauty in words and sentences to tell a story. At the thicket of all the technological innovations that has morphed and adapted the way that mass audiences receive sports journalism, the one thing that remains the same is the ability to tell a story. Within the last 70 or so years, athletic competitions and the stories that make them memorable are two of life’s guarantees accompanying oxygen. Every single year (barring strikes and lockouts), athletes, fans and sportswriters fill arenas around the world to participate in unscripted drama. It’s the job of athletes to compete at a high level in athletic events. It’s the job of the fans to exaggerate the line between life and death as they filter their passion for their team and players during an athletic event. And it’s the job of the sportswriter to author a story involving the event, create a memorable account of a certain place in time and make that account available to mass audiences for a long time to come.

In order to peer closer at how sportswriting may have or haven’t changed within the last 70 or so years, two stories nearly 70 years apart can be analyzed for their similarities and differences. At the core, the writing in Red Smith’s 1951 story on Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run and the writing in Zach Berman’s 2018 story on the improbable Super Bowl LII victory by the Philadelphia Eagles both capture the emotion and impact of an athletic event. Despite the gap in time, the effectiveness of storytelling by both authors shows how the beauty of storytelling can transcend both time and the adaptation of technology.

Before taking a look at Smith’s memorable account of the dramatic finish between the Giants and Dodgers in 1951, insight into why Smith’s account is so memorable can be given some context. In a 2014 lecture on sports journalism, sportswriter Frank Deford emphasizes the difference between reporting and storytelling within sports journalism. He basically considers Red Smith to be the pacesetter for storytelling in sportswriting being more significant than simply reporting and covering an athletic event.

When considering Deford’s praise of Smith and his mastery of both capturing a memorable moment in sports history and authoring a memorable story recounting that moment, there’s more of a significant lore around Smith’s piece.

To begin his account of Game 3 of the 1951 National League Pennant playoff series, Smith leads with one of the most memorable ledes in the history of sportswriting.

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

When reading this, it’s hard to tell that it’s even a lede about a playoff baseball game. However, Smith acts as a composer with his written work being a symphony of historic delight over a specific moment in time. Because it’s not a typical lede for a baseball story, Smith catches the eye by drawing people in with blatant curiosity. This lede provides an air of mystery that forces readers to read on.

What follows Smith’s lede is an anecdote about a drunkard storming the field during this cross-river playoff matchup. By continuing to write not too much about RBI, hits and other baseball stats, Smith entertains the reader with detail that one couldn’t possibly have known unless they attended the now-late Polo Grounds in New York City. Despite this game being the first nationally televised baseball game, Smith gives a detail that adds substance to his account. There’s beauty in substance. Smith’s commitment to the beauty of words guides the reader to the impactful moment of Bobby Thomson’s home run.

By the time Smith mentions the moment readers came for, a broader context and a prelude to the moment can be understood by mass audiences. By writing in the largest moment later on, Smith knows that readers want to get there. So he incites readers to continue reading so that by the time they get to the home run, they’ve gotten to follow along a journey of why that moment is so important.

From an anecdote about the pre-mature storming of the field, to a minor tale about players interacting during the game and all the way to the impact of “The Shot Heard Round the World,” Red Smith gives readers an impactful and memorable account of this Giants victory for generations to come.

Similarly to Smith, Zach Berman draws in the wandering eye of modern readers with a hard-hitting lede in his account of Super Bowl LII.

This night will be remembered for decades in Philadelphia, when old friends reminisce about where they were on Feb. 4, 2018, and parents tell their children about the moment the Eagles won their first Super Bowl. They’ll remember when Doug Pederson called the trick play at the goal line, when Zach Ertz dove into the end zone in the fourth quarter, when Brandon Graham stripped Tom Brady of the ball, and when the greatest dynasty in NFL history fell to an improbable champion from Philadelphia.

With this lede, Berman creates an impactful allure of impossibility. Berman addresses that the impossible became possible on Feb. 4, 2018 and by grazing the surface of the key moments that made the impossible happen, Berman forces readers to continue reading his account.

As a note on the changes in sportswriting, Berman does give more of the “who, what, where, when, why and how” more early on. Knowing that audiences may not read as long as they used to, Berman put the thicket of the moment earlier on in his article in contrast to Smith saving Thomson’s home run to the end of his article. Berman writes in an era where anybody with a blog or Twitter account can write a story about this game. So, he has to draw readers in a slightly different way than Smith.

However, what would follow in Berman’s article doesn’t differ too much from Smith’s story. Berman authors in the impact that the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory has amongst the city of Philadelphia and the fans of the franchise. He gives readers context into how the improbability of the moment created a spectacle that night in Minnesota.

Even if you aren’t an Eagles fan, you understand the impact of the moment. I’m a Patriots fan. Reading this brought back painful memories from that night. Berman’s writing still instilled memories within me and made me understand the impact from Philly’s side of things. After explaining how the improbable and nearly impossible was accomplished by the Eagles, Berman guides readers through the game and brings up key moments in the game and even from the halftime performance. Berman, exactly like Smith, is married to authoring a memorable story that makes the memorable moment an impactful account that can span generations. Most importantly though, Berman’s storytelling in this article helps him fall into Deford’s class of sportswriters. He makes himself a master storyteller and not just a reporter.

Overall, these two sportswriters tell impactful stories that emphasize the beauty of specific moments through the use of beautiful words. Although Zach Berman’s story was written in a time where a plethora of people have access to writing and reading about the same exact moment in his story, he draws readers in by committing to the ideals of great sportswriting. Red Smith helped create those ideals by committing to the beauty of words to define a specific moment by writing stories within his story. Despite writing nearly 70 years apart, both Smith and Berman effectively write stories that emphasize the beauty of both sports and sportswriting.

~DS