Thursday, August 10, 2017
The Copper Age of Sports Journalism
About four and a half years ago, I wrote a column called "The Golden Age of Sports Journalism," extolling the virtues of deep, well-written think-pieces that were finding homes on websites tailored made just for them. In particular, I wrote about Grantland, Sports on Earth, and The Classical.
Things have changed since then, and not for the better. For starters, websites looking for the most bang for their buck are largely moving away from writing altogether. FOX Sports is doing away with written content entirely in favor of video. While most other sports sites aren't going that extreme, you don't need me to tell you that sites with autoplaying videos are the rule and not the exception these days.
I don't know anyone who doesn't hate those with the fire of a thousand suns, but apparently they "work," in some marketing or profit-making sense.
So what's left of the sportswriting landscape in 2017? Sports on Earth continues to tick along, but Grantland was famously shuttered by ESPN in another "great writing isn't profitiable" move in 2015, and The Classical, never much for tons of content, hasn't put out a new piece in almost a month as of this writing.
Have other sites risen up to fill the void of Grantland and a fairly dormant Classical? Yes, but they are, ahem, not as good. Let's take a closer look.
The Ringer. Okay, this one I'd say is as good. But that's no surprise, it's pretty much Grantland reborn.
In that 2014 column, I wrote that I hate Bill Simmons as a writer but he's a great curator of other people's writing. That remains true, and Simmons did a smart thing in creating The Ringer: it's exactly Grantland (great sportswriting produced copiously, a ton of podcasts, and pop culture coverage), just under a new name and a new web host. I'm sure he and other Ringer brass would point out this change or that that I didn't notice or realize, but for all intents and purposes, he didn't fix what wasn't broken.
Just today, The Ringer announced a partnership with Vox Media, which I think bodes well for their future. Vox Media already produces the best network of single-team sites in SBNation.
I particularly liked this piece by Bryan Curtis, where he writes about the dumb sour grapes every retired athlete spits out, and how yesteryear's sportswriters do the same.
The Athletic. The Athletic sort of has an interesting model. There's no national edition, so to speak, of The Athletic. Instead they have editions focusing on the sports of, at this point, a random hodgepodge of cities: Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, and the Bay Area.
When I went to read my first column, I found that it was paywalled, but that I could open up all of their content for just a dollar.
I liked that, and I am more than happy to pay what is clearly a token amount to support The Athletic and good journalism. But that turned out to be a bit of a bait-and-switch. It's a $1 trial. After the trial ends, it's $8 a month. So they are less Grantland and more ESPN Insider.
What I found after I paid my dollar was fine, but not impressive. There were good stat-driven articles a la Fangraphs. The feature stories were ones that those sportswriters of yesteryear would probably appreciate. They were quote-heavy, competently written, and lifeless, with no inkling of the writer's style or personality contained therein.
Good sportswriting is a tricky thing. I like good signature styles and personalities in my sportswriters, but I can't stand it when they go too far and make themselves the story and/or come off as narcissists. It's a fine line, I know.
The Athletic prefers to not toe that line at all, and it was boring. I already canceled my subscription.
The Comeback. Hoo boy. What a stinker.
This one is put together, strangely enough, by NESN, a Boston-area sports channel (NESN stands for New England Sports Network). To their credit, there is no particular focus on Boston-area sports.
That wraps up the nice things I can say about them. This piece by Pauly Kwestel has a ton of awkward syntax, meh writing, and he commits a giveaway "I don't *really* know all that much about my craft" sin, using "begging the question" to mean "raising the question."
I'll pause here to note that I have surely been guilty of awkward syntax, meh writing, and ignorance of cardinal rules myself, so have at me, Pauly Kwestel.
But that piece wasn't the worst of it. Check out this preview of Oklahoma State's upcoming football season, by "Bart D."
I hate this piece, but for reasons that are not Bart D's fault, but rather his bosses at The Comeback. First of all, nothing screams out to me "We're not a serious publication!" then letting your users write using some sort of internetty handle like "Bart D." You're not writing about classified CIA ops, here. No need to be anonymous. This tendency, by the way, might be the only thing I don't like about SBNation.
Second, in that old-guard-vs-new-guard Ringer piece by Bryan Curtis that I mentioned, he says that a common refrain of old sportswriters against new ones are "Where are your editors?"
Here, they probably have a point. In the OSU piece's "three players to watch" subsection, it says, so help me, "Pick out one player on offense, one on defense and one more of your choosing and write a paragraph summary of their importance to the team in 2017."
That no one noticed that instructional snippet made it to publication means that either The Comeback has no editors or they are paid poorly enough to just mail it in. To The Comeback I say, if you can't be bothered to check for errors that egregious, I can't be bothered to give you any more clicks.