Backtracking 2013: Longform sports hits its stride

‘Tis the season for year-end “Listicles,” “Bests Of,” etc., that try to come off as more authoritative than they really are. If you read enough of these pieces, you’ll find that there’s a certain “must read” herd mentality to them.

This week I’m referencing a few of my favorite links from the past year in the areas of sportswriting, sports history, sports books, women’s sports and sports potpourri. This blog this year has centered on these topics more than others, and while my frequency in posting hasn’t been what I always wanted, I’m occasionally including at the end of these posts some links from what I’ve written on these subjects.

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At the end of 2013, a media scold declared sportswriting as dearly departed as Jim Murray.

An editor at Editor & Publisher magazine -- remember that? -- has declared that sportswriting is as dearly departed as the legendary Jim Murray.

Today, I’m leading off with what I liked about sports journalism and sportswriting from 2013, especially how this part of my profession is transforming itself. There’s been plenty of nostalgiac hand-wringing about how the business ain’t what it used to be.

But I’m encouraged about the renaissance of a form that’s withstanding the bombastic noise, speed and endless sensation of all-sports television and the clickbait side of the Web.

While much of the writing and blogging about sports media is overly obsessed with television, longform sportswriting on the Web flourished this year like never before. It may rate only passing mention behind the latest ratings reports, profiles of sports media (usually television) “personalities” and ginned-up pundit controversies, but the range of first-rate stories has been a real treat.

Tim Marchman of Deadspin trots out a collection of what he liked. There’s a lot to gorge on here — some of it pretentiously overwritten –but if you look around a bit you’ll find something to suit your taste, and will want to keep searching for more:

There’s definitely something gratuitous and undisciplined in a lot of the long stories that run today, and in the general fetish for them, but this is just part of the price paid for the ready access we all enjoy to an astonishing depth and variety of quality work.

If there’s one story that captured my attention above the others, it’s a piece from late July on NASCAR driver Dick Trickle, who committed suicide earlier this year. Jeremy Markovich, writing for SB Nation Longform, doesn’t get in the way of the story. Nor, as Farhad Manjoo points out on Slate, does the story’s presentation get bogged down in showy multimedia features that irritate readers. “Elegy of a race car driver” unpacks the tragic story of a no-nonsense figure in a straightforward manner, without the mawkishness of standard human interest features devoted to death:

Race car drivers don’t like to talk about pain. It shows vulnerability. And besides, it might keep them off the track. Dick Trickle endured a lifetime of crashes and hard hits. He wasn’t a complainer. But he’d been through a lot of pain. His chest. His hip. His granddaughter. His nephew. Dick Trickle was always a guy who looked ahead. He didn’t dwell on the past. He always raced so he could race again. But there were no more races. Ahead, all Dick saw was suffering.

This is a story about an individual I wasn’t familiar with in a sport that frankly doesn’t do much for me. But Markovich applies just the right touch throughout a very long story without self-consciously pandering to cheap emotionalism.

Behind the scenes at SB Nation Longform is Glenn Stout, the general editor of the fine annual “Best American Sports Writing” collection and the author of several books about sports history, most recently “Fenway 1912.” Earlier this year he told AdWeek magazine that longform sports, once showcased in Sunday newspaper magazines, is finding new life on the Web, but is still in a very early stage: basw2013

“A number of sports entities are seeing that the future of sports journalism lays in longform, as people become more accustomed to reading on phones and tablets.

“There might not be a whole lot of money in it yet. But you can not only find a place to show your work—you can find an audience for it.”

(Here’s still more on longform across all of journalism from David Folkenflik of NPR, who talks to Stout, among others.)

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Stout explains more about how he puts together the BASW on The Stacks, which Deadspin debuted this year to give Alex Belth a wider audience for his masterful curation of classic sportswriting. Like any good historian of anything, Belth links the work of those from the pre-television past with those working in the 60s and 70s — an era some think is the golden age of sportswriting — as well as the present, demonstrating the continuity of quality, compelling storytelling.

And lastly, as the holidays approached, Michael Wilbon’s fretting about the current state of sportswriting got a proper — but respectful — pushback from Rob Neyer, SB Nation’s baseball sabermetrics ace:

“I suspect there’s just as much brilliant writing about sports as ever, but that the market for that sort of thing is smaller than it was. Which means you have to look a little harder for it. I think what’s really tripped up Wilbon isn’t a decline in great writing, but a decline in great writing where he used to find it.”

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