The paradox of sports journalists online

On Tuesday I write about developments in sports media, and occasionally step back in time to a different era in sports journalism.

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When I first got the hang of Twitter — and discovered how much of a magnificent time vampire it can be — I also noticed something else about the short-form “microblogging” platform that struck a chord:

It’s an endless banter box.

And banter is the coin of the realm for anyone who’s spent any time in a sports press box.

As Twitter has proliferated, print-oriented sports journalists have flocked to it to share links, break news, live-Tweet game coverage and, on occasion, exchange potshots with heckling readers. What you see on Twitter on some sportswriters’ accounts is what you get if you were sitting within earshot of them on press row.

More than anything, they love to banter. When I check in with my sportswriter-laden Twitter stream, I feel like I’m in a virtual press box. Longtime San Francisco sports columnist Ray Ratto now does on Twitter what he’s done for years in print, such as this:

Then there’s the legendary golf writer Dan Jenkins (gloriously profiled here by Bryan Curtis of Grantland), who has more fun on Twitter than just about anyone (and occasionally has gotten in deep trouble for it):

His Ownself(Jenkins not only mentioned this in recent memoir, “His Ownself,” but he also retweets the cleverness of other writers. So some old print dogs really can learn new tricks.)

So when the Nieman Journalism Lab yesterday summarized a report on the mixed reaction of sports journalists to increasing online duties, I wasn’t surprised. The report, conducted by two academics for the International Symposium on Online Journalism, is entitled “Curmudgeons Yet Adapters: Impact of Web 2.0 and Twitter on Newspaper Sports Journalists’ Jobs, Responsibilities and Routines.”

Take a second breath.

And keep in mind that the sample size is very small. Only a dozen ink-stained wretches were interviewed by the researchers, and as Joseph Lichterman recounts in the Nieman post, some are eternally hostile to such things as blogging.

A good bit of this resistance is due to the time involved to do this work, and the 24/7 demands for constant posting, as sportswriting legend Dave Kindred wrote for Neiman Reports in 2010.

There’s also skepticism about the form itself, which some believe is the antithesis of reported, vetted and edited journalism.

Sportswriters have been expanding their reach, and taking their talents, to talk radio and television, for years. So why is the reaction some have for the Web — besides the quick and easy post on Twitter — so different? Macon Telegraph Bulldogs Beat

There are many sportswriters (and print journalists in general) I know who dislike using social media, even after all these years of being badgered by management, because they just don’t want to interact with readers. The ISOJ report bears this out, even anecdotally.

So many of those in what I call The Tribe interact only with one another on Twitter. It’s understandable to not want to respond to abusive readers — and they are out there, in droves.

Some of this is also the boys in the press box just wanting to hang out, even virtually, with other boys in the press box, their chums in banter and post-game beers.

Their attitude also has been shaped by years of one-way communication in print. To have to respond to anyone outside the bubble of the newsroom — even being approached by friendly fans at games, as we all have — is an anathema to some writers.

After reading some of the comments in the ISOJ report, part of me wanted to shout “It’s 2014!” But I also understand the reluctance. When I went from sportswriter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to a sports producer and editor at 10 years ago, I embraced the possibilities. So did my editor, who also had migrated over from the print side.

But some in our ranks didn’t want to do more than what they, and I once upon a time, had always done. This is the most troubling, and stubbornly persistent problem that continues in most every newsroom.

To utter the words “blog,” “podcast,” “tweet” and others in the presence of some writers is to hurl the vilest profanity, rare epithets that they takes as insults. These new-fangled forms are an affront to their newspaper mentality, and their notions continue to die a hard, excruciatingly slow death. It’s not that different from the hostility some writers have to advanced stats. The Last King (Murray bio)

The aging boys of print are clinging to, more than anything, a great reverence for the art of short-form, on-deadline print narrative, embodied by masters like the late Jim Murray. Yet Ted Geltner, who published a biography of Murray in 2012, said this in a Q and A with The Big Lead:

“There’s a lot of aspects of journalism that really don’t change even as the platforms change. Deep down he really embodied a lot of the key tenets of journalism. He still has something to say.”

Perhaps the biggest gap between old-school print reporters and their younger protégés is an understanding the latter possess that Murray’s ideal not only lives online, but is thriving.

It’s been a decade since I made the switch, and I’m still bullish about what I see. As I’ve blogged often here, the emergence of so many quality sports websites has been exceptional. A younger generation of sports journalists native to the Web and to social media and comfortable with interacting with their readers is gradually dominating this evolution.

Doing all these things can be very time-consuming. I know beat writers who, in addition to all the duties Kindred wrote about, now have to shoot and post quickie videos of post-game press conferences. It’s grinding, grueling work that doesn’t get easier for those in middle age and older.

Another legitimate concern is whether all these digital-first efforts can pay the bills. Many of these experiments will continue, even after some, including one that claimed my last job, didn’t succeed. It’s a feeling many of us who’ve gone to the Web have felt.

These are business matters that are beyond the pay grades of mere sportswriters. Indeed, much of the stress they’re feeling could be alleviated by management that emphasizes the wisest use of multimedia forms. Instead, so many reporters are ordered to do a little bit of everything, even on deadline, and in sports this is an extreme pressure cooker.

The challenge here is about continuing, and re-imagining, a long tradition of storytelling and insight that once made the American sports pages a vibrant component of newspapers.

They’re being refashioned online, and while it’s still in its infancy, this transformation is already boasting better journalism than the last of the curmudgeons think.

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