Thursday, May 14, 2009

The death of newspapers doesn't mean the death of great writers

About two months ago, I briefly discussed the pending doom of many newspapers. Since then, we've seen many papers go by the way of the do-do. In that posting of mine, I wondered:

"What does that mean for the media business? Where do the writers go? To the Web, obviously, but can ALL of them afford to rely on an ad-based revenue model?"
We're still too early on to determine if there's going to be a total migration to an online-only model, either each writer independently or as part of an "online newspaper" that never hits a printing press.

To that end, Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily news and a HOF writer who has covered the Reds for 37 years, shared some pretty depressing tales about his fellow scribes:
Hall of Fame writer Tracy Ringolsby and Jack Etkin, two of the best beat writers in the country, were without jobs when the Rocky Mountain News in Denver published its last edition this year.

Another good friend, Jack Magruder, was covering the Arizona Diamondbacks for the East Valley Tribune — until the EVT decided to no longer print a newspaper and Jack was swept out the door. Saw him today and he is hanging in there by doing freelance work.

And how heartless was this? A backup beat writer and a columnist with the Baltimore Sun were in the press box at Camden Yards. They received phone calls. In the press box as they worked. Their services were no longer needed and please leave your laptop computers before you walk out the door. Don’t forget the power units, too.

More sad news today, which is what prompted this. Tom Krasovic has covered the San Diego Padres for at least 10 years, maybe longer, for the San Diego Union-Tribune... He was part of 150 jobs eliminated by the Union-Tribune this week and has a job only until July 31.
I can't imagine being in a position like McCoy, suffering from "Survivor's Remorse", knowing that he could not only lose his job, but also have no chance of landing another...ever. Many of us have been let go at some point, either because of our performance or just a victim of circumstances beyond our control. While this sucked, I don't think any of us ever took a look in the mirror and said: "I don't think I will ever land another job in this industry ever again because the industry is dying." That's pretty bleak.

Will Krasovic, Ringolsby, Etkin and Magruder (and hundreds more, no doubt) be able to carry their readership to the Web in a way that be able to support their families? I hope so because I don't believe that the death of print newspapers has to mean that great sportswriting has to die. There are many great writers who exist on the Web only right now and I suspect there is room for the pros, should they want to embrace this change.

The challenge will be covering each team (or "their" team) without travelling with the team. It puts them at a disadvantage that bloggers like me have to operate: relying on the broadcasts from your living room (or the basement of your mom's house) and reading the wire recaps for those games we can't see. Then there's the issue of a lack of face-to-face access with the players. But great writers can write and hopefully will figure out how to best re-carve their niche and re-capture their previous readership. How many of the most seasoned writers will be ready, willing and able to embrace the new media tools that are out there, such as Twitter? Will they be interested in starting a two-way dialogue with their readers, rather than the traditional one-way dialogue done with newspapers?

The beauty, for me, of the blogosphere, is the ability to interact with those good enough to take the time to read your thoughts. Comments from you guys are the payback. Whether your agree, disagree, love, hate...whatever... it's great to get that dialogue going. It's like having a chat at the bar. Can a 37 year veteran at a newspaper adapt to this new medium and style? The quality of their writing isn't the question; it's the ability to interact with us, the readers, that makes me wonder.

My view of the NY media makes me wonder if the 'pros' will be able to adeptly handle this. Many of them are so antagonistic, so affronted by any criticism. That's great for driving pageviews and I know that's the goal.

Perhaps the best writers will turn towards publishing. Maybe we, the fans, will benefit from some great baseball books that aren't about steroids. Surely there has gotta be some great untold stories from the pressbox.

But no matter what, the death of the newspapers doesn't have to mean the death of great writers. It's pure Darwinism: adapt to survive. Or not.

UPDATE (1:30pm, 5/14/09): Via the comments below, former Giants beat writer Jeff Fletcher shared a link to something he wrote back in February on this very subject:
The Giants don’t exactly invite the public in on their internal discussion, and it takes the hard work of professional reporters to seek those answers. It is work that you just can’t do unless you have experience, access and — to be honest — someone paying you to do it.

Even on the easier stuff ... you need someone there to ask the questions.
Jeff is obviously spot on and adds a perspective to this discussion I didn't anticipate being able to share. Thanks for jumping in, Jeff.


Sara K said...

I think you are absolutely correct in your assessment. The best of the blogosphere is every bit as good - if not better - in capacity for clear language and relevant analysis. Where it lacks is the insider access. What print media has/had is an established guild with ready-made credentials for its employees.

Perhaps soon - five years? ten years? - sports bloggers will have a similar guild and recognized credentials that allow its members access to the inner sanctums of sport?

Jim Hoffman said...

Even the greatest writing can't survive if the writer isn't getting paid. There has got to be a way to bring together the best of the best--with ad space and subscription fees. Maybe like a modern-day "The National".

But the writing has got to be good, as there are too many blogs now dedicated to exposing shoddy work.

Leo said...

One of the problems with the new model you propose is the access issue.

Most bloggers don't understand why access is so important. I get why they disagree: Because newspaper beat writers have had this access for a century, and have largely done a mediocre job.

With that said, the best sports writers need consistent access to their subjects. Watching on TV and relying on wire reporters who have access but by nature are able to report only the basics (dry quotes from players, injury updates, etc) is not the same as access. Just because the majority of newspaper beat writers used that access to write hackneyed game stories and notebooks for generations doesn't mean access isn't important.

Twitter does not substitute for face to face interaction. Neither does the telephone.

Jason @ IIATMS said...


I don't think I overlooked the access issue ("Then there's the issue of a lack of face-to-face access with the players."). Maybe I should have hammered on that more than I did, but I spent a paragraph on the access/at-game issues.

Leo said...

Granted, you addressed it. I didn't mean to rip you, but I get frustrated that the majority of bloggers don't understand how important it is that someone other than the AP and TV announcers have access to the clubhouse. If the only people with access were the wire service writers and the TV broadcasters, blogs would be worthless. There would be no one to objectively report actual news other than the day-to-day occurrences on the field and with injuries.

The good blogs like yours, Shysterball, et. al., are good because you can comment, editorialize, criticize and expand upon the credentialed media's reporting. Without actual quotes from actual players, managers, coaches and front office staff, blogs would be a lot less interesting.

Jason @ IIATMS said...


Don't sweat it; I didn't take it personally! This is the debate that I referenced in the posting that makes doing all of this so worthwhile.

When I was looking at this blog as this season started, I debated doing recaps and then I realized that what the blogopshere DOESN'T need is another game by game recap. We rely on the beat writers to provide the color to the stuff we see, including interviews and other stuff that you can only get via insider access.

Blogging is derivative, generally speaking, by nature. And we need those with insider access to base our derivative-ness (OK, that's not a word, but you get me) off of.

So when the local papers in Denver, for example, dry up, who's going to get credentialed access to the players?

That's the tricky spot.

Jeff Fletcher said...

Nice to see that someone in the Blogosphere understands this. I was one of those many newspaper beat writers who lost his job, but since I've become one of the very few who has landed a full-time job covering baseball online. (I'm now at AOL FanHouse.)

In any event, you are right that access is vital to generating all the stuff that bloggers like to opine about. The only solution to this problem is if the general public one day comes to realize that the content produced by baseball writers is worth paying for, even if you read it online.

No one expects for the plumber to come fix his toilet for free, so why should you expect a writer to report on baseball for free?

I wrote about this on my blog a while back....

Subway Squawkers said...

Jason, one of the things bloggers have been able to find a niche with is in providing original thought. Your site is a great example of that!

Anthony Roberts said...

A lot of the good reporters, even the shoe-leather variety have already embraced the internet, and are more than ready to make the switch over, if the need should arise. The entire NYDN I Team has a blog, and some of the younger beat writers for the NY Post (Perry Chiaramonte, etc..) have their own outside blogs (his is

I think times will move on, and change, and the good reporters - the really good ones - will be ready.