The high highs and low lows of American sportswriting

The glee that comes with knowing that the 2012 edition of The Best American Sports Writing is now available didn’t last long.

I downloaded it onto my iPad (this is 2012), eager to dig into Wright Thompson on cricket, Thomas Lake on Darrent Williams, S.L. Price on Aliquippa football, Jeré Longman on Leo Messi, Alex Belth on George Kimball, Taylor Branch on the NCAA and Ben McGrath on Nancy Lieberman, among others.

The general editor, as usual, is Glenn Stout, who’s fighting the good fight bringing high-quality reads to the SB Nation blog network, as I wrote about last week.

(And today’s longform feature there comes from the wonderful Pat Jordan, an author and frequent contributor to Stout’s anthology, about the end of his brief minor league baseball career.)

Picture 1Surely the remaining pleasant evenings of back porch reading this fall will be filled with such bliss as all this.

But so will the nagging thought that the books and contents of the devices that I hold in my hands are feeling like luxury items. That these, and not the race-to-the-bottom gruel that drives some of the most lucrative precincts of the sports Web, are the guilty pleasures.

Especially after I absorbed all of what SF Weekly writer Joe Eskenazi has to say in his damning report on Bleacher Report, another very popular site with most content written by unpaid fan contributors.

That’s because Bleacher Report is not only ridiculously profitable, Eskenazi reports it was designed precisely to be what it is. Paid writers with reputations for providing quality material have come later, not long before the site was purchased by Turner Sports.

Tom Ley at Deadspin took a few shots of his own: “What’s depressing about Bleacher Report is that it’s handed its editorial brain wholesale over to the marketplace and reduced the business to its most lamentable impulses.”

Oh really, this from Deadspin, which gave the world flood-the-zone coverage of Brett Favre’s schwanz? (I’m sorry, there’s no delicate way to put this, and my Teutonic blood nearly came to a boil over the laughable irony of Ley’s lament. Is he aware of how Nick Denton built his media empire?)

What is sobering is this paragraph from Eskenazi about Bleacher Report’s commercial success, as it sits at No. 3 on the growing heap of sports sites, far ahead of those run by newspapers and other venerable media organizations:

“After denigrating and downplaying the influence of the Internet for decades, many legacy media outlets now find themselves outmaneuvered by defter and web-savvier entities like Bleacher Report, a young company engineered to conquer the Internet. In the days of yore, professional media outlets enjoyed a monopoly on information. Trained editors and writers served as gatekeepers deciding what stories people would read, and the system thrived on massive influxes of advertising dollars. That era has gone, and the Internet has flipped the script. In one sense, readers have never had it so good — the glut of material on the web translates into more access to great writing than any prior era. The trick is sifting through the crap to find it. Most mainstream media outlets are unable or unwilling to compete with a site like Bleacher Report, which floods the web with inexpensive user-generated content. They continue to wither while Bleacher Report amasses readers and advertisers alike.”

I probably should be more bothered by this than I am, especially when I think about how those making The Best American Sports Writing of 2032 — if it’s still around by then — will earn their chops. Will they be living at home until they’re 35, blogging for free until they get a paying gig somewhere, anywhere?

But this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game — some can have their crap “boobtastic” slideshows while others can be moved by the tragic story of Derek Boogaard. And all that’s in between.

I wrote hopefully last week that the longform evolution of sportswriting on the Web can be a very bright one. Dan Levy, a featured writer at Bleacher Report (and formerly with The Sporting News), has taken serious issue with Deadspin’s assertions, and, by extension, Eskenazi’s.

I do retain the cautious optimism “that chasing page views and appealing to the lowest common denominator just aren’t enough.”

Yet I also want to clutch my new book — or rather the tablet containing it — ever harder as a brace against the continuing onslaught of what prevails.

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