August 22, 2009
When journalist-turned-ESPN-celebrity Michael Wilbon would write about hockey in the Washington Post, it wasn't so much about hockey as it was about what it all means.
The big picture. The bullet points. The cosmic truths mined from the minutia of line parings, penalty kills and the little plays that determine failure or success; hey, leave all that crap to the beat writer or the box score, right?
Such is the task of the general sports newspaper columnist. Take Wilbon's column before the Sidney Crosby(notes)/Alexander Ovechkin showdown last postseason: Set the scene, state the history, explain the context in relatable terms (i.e. compare the NHL to the NBA) and never stray too far away from the Big Themes to approach those pesky mechanics of the game.
Wilbon has a famous byline that still commands attention when it appears in the sports section, no matter the subject, just like Tony Kornheiser before him. But would a column by Washington Capitals beat writer Tarik El-Bashir on the same subject have crystallized the rivalry, while also providing insight into hockey that a general columnist doesn't possess?
As you'll see in the news roundup later in this post, sports journalism is rapidly changing thanks to the economics of the industry and the unstoppable rise of social and alternative media. But one of the most significant changes is to the iconic roles that writers like Kornheiser and Wilbon played for decades: That of the general interest sports columnist, a form of journalism that appears to be headed to extinction.
Is that something for hockey fans to celebrate?
John Koblin of the New York Observer had a piece earlier in the week detailing the New York Times's plans for its general sports columnists, and it was a stunner: Sports editor Tom Jolly said the general-interest sports columnist was part of a bygone era. From the Observer:
He explained that The Times' sports page will use fewer general-interest writers to generate columns, and will instead rely more on beat writers to provide expertise. He wants them to blog, he wants them to use Twitter and he wants them to write analysis pieces.
"In a world filled with blogs and opinion on talk radio and on cable television, there does seem to be a pretty good craving for expert analysis-the real insight of someone who is there," he said.
Two very prominent bloggers weighed in on this later in the week. Spencer Hall, now of SB Nation, danced on the grave of the general sports columnist during one of his last pieces for The Sporting Blog:
Good ingredients work no matter the treatment, something that may not be true of generalist columnists who learned that single sentence paragraphs and easy moralizing about athletics and their place in society were a great way to stuff column space for paychecks.
The problem for them is that the audience is no longer captive. They can roam the internet looking for whatever they like, and if they're under 40, they're not waiting for it to come to them on their doorstep. They are still prisoner to one constant, however: the hunger for quality. If the general columnist dies out, it's not because the audience lost the taste for something necessary. It is because they were making do all along with what they had, and left the instant they got a better offer.
Dan Shanoff goes one step further, saying that the 800-word column as a form is dead, as evidenced by the general columnists who have attempted to continue the form online after leaving print media behind:
Writers who have been competing online in the blog era -- or even beyond -- are already, for the most part, intuitively constructing new forms and formats to try to engage and enlighten readers. If you don't do the same -- and what a wonderful freedom that should sound like to you! -- your content won't ever be as powerful as it could be, because fans will find it easy to tune it out.
Generations of fans have already tuned out, of course, which led to the booming blogosphere and the niche journalism we've seen grow on sites like Yahoo! Sports and ESPN. Once the monolithic model of the newspaper was undermined by new media, consumers were able to seek out the content they desired; not only whenever they wanted it, but in the proper dosages and structures (and sometimes with scantily clad women).
For hockey fans, that meant no longer having to wait until the general columnist was assigned (or decided) to offer an opinion about the local hockey team or the NHL; fans could find more informed analysis (if less flowery prose) on their computers every day. For many U.S. hockey fans, finding reporting on the game in the local paper was hard enough; why twiddle the thumbs waiting for analysis when 20 bloggers are ready to provide it hours after the game?
But since we're talking about general columnists, let's hit The Big Picture of it all, shall we?
Hockey fans in the U.S. should be thrilled with the death of this form of sports journalism.
General sports columnists generally don't know how to write a column for hockey fans. General sports columnists are the ones who can't write about the NHL without mentioning the television ratings or the attendance figures or the sport's place in relation to NASCAR and soccer. General sports columnists are the ones who rail against the brutality of the sport, injecting their intrinsic pacifism into a game they both do not nor care to ever understand. General sports columnists write about what they feel hockey should be rather than what it is, and certainly never how or why it is.
This is a not-entirely-incorrect generalization, of course, and don't mistake it for a blogger vs. columnist screed. Sport-specific columnists provide tremendous coverage in newspapers and on the Web. General interest sports columnists also serve an important role in journalism, and the good ones can still crystallize a moment or analyze a story in an invaluable way -- one word: Posnanski. Some can cover hockey well, too; I think Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, for example, is an incredibly talented writer with the versatility to bounce between baseball and hockey and auto racing with stellar results.
But since the Internet sports media boom, hockey fans have grown accustomed to a level of insight and familiarity with the game that the majority of general interest columnists can't match.
So we should welcome the age of beat writers who live in the locker room and watch hockey 12 months a year having the opportunity to opine about the sport in the pages of their newspapers or Web sites, rather than seeing ink and bandwidth wasted on a celebrity journalist skipping stones across the surface rather than diving into the subject.
That is, if there still are beat writers covering hockey at major metropolitan newspapers. And, as we've said time and time again on this subject, if their editors are smart enough to ignore their own abhorrence of hockey and give the sport proper space in the print edition.
A few more related topics in sports journalism this week worth your time and attention:
• With regard to the dwindling number of hockey writers in the U.S., or at least the ones that travel with their teams: A group of 49 newspapers are helping to start a content sharing alliance that will be a clearinghouse for sports event coverage and writing. This is significant not only in the context of travel budgets, but also with regard to the role of organizations like the Associated Press in covering sports.
• Score one for the good guys, as the SEC learned a harsh lesson about attempting restrict social media coverage from college football fans, quickly streamlining its policy to simply target those who take video or sell photos from events instead. (That policy still, in many ways, infringes on the freedoms of the press; but at least fans can Twitter from the stands as they would from their living rooms without the thought police cracking down.)
• Two hockey-centric notes. First, on blogs, is the great news that our partners at SB Nation have been given a rather prominent role on the NHL's new fan site. No group of team-centric hockey blogs comes to close to the depth or professionalism of coverage they provide.
And speaking of blog networks, BD Gallof is turning his maverick "Islanders Independent"-type sites into a Hockey Independent network this season. If you're a blogger who's interested in that sort of thing, check'em out.
• Finally, and speaking of NHL.com: Major, major kudos for posting the Dany Heatley phone press conference yesterday. The link was featured on the front page of the NHL site for a bit, before disappearing into the ether. Make these things available whenever they happen, even if it means allowing fans to hear the embarrassing questions the media asks (present company definitely included ... I stutter like Michael Palin in "A Fish Called Wanda" on most media calls).