Saturday, November 05, 2011

I declare thumb war

Roy MacGregor filed nearly 1,000 words in the Globe and Mail on the sad state of story telling in sports ("The Thumbing Down of Sportswriting"). I want to ignore it, but no matter how hard I try, I just can't.

I loved MacGregor's book The Last Season. He was very nice to me the one time I met him. I've heard great things about him from friends and colleagues, but this story, this 1,000 words of meandering, hand-wringing, pap. I couldn't resist...

It is the classic skit of sports: Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First?

Today, however, sports is almost entirely about “Who’s first?” and while being first with information obviously matters in the business of sports journalism, the obsession with being first to shout out even the most arcane and meaningless “news” has so ballooned beyond reason that … well, it isn’t funny at all.
There may indeed be an obsession to be first, but it’s a meaningless pursuit and it's meaningless to rail against.

Never before has a scoop been less important.

Never before has source mattered less.

As Chuck Klosterman noted, "if something legitimately interesting happens…it’s immediately going to be linked to on 200 other sites…If something on The Big Lead gets linked to Deadspin, nobody who finds it on Deadspin gives a shit how it got here or where it came from originally. Following the link is no different (and no less efficient) than reading the original content in its original setting. The experience is identical…Networking is far more essential than writing or reporting…I will eventually get all that information without even trying. It aggregates itself."
Sports journalism – the well from which all great sports books have been drawn – has taken its eye off the ball.
I’m sorry, but did MacGregor say all sports books have been drawn from the well of journalism?

I'd submit that two of the best sports books ever written are The Game and Ball Four. Neither one was touched by a journalist. Salvage King Ya makes my top five of sports books and author Mark Anthony Jarman isn’t a sports journalist either.

I don’t mean to get all pedantic on this, but if MacGregor wants to build his case about writing, the words he picks have to matter…
The pendulum that swings between breaking news on minutiae – length of suspensions, minor trades, contract breakdowns, retirement of marginal players – and “storytelling” on the far side has been stuck for some time now on the picayune.
A pendulum is the wrong analogy here. It’s not a pendulum it’s a continuum. It’s not one or another, it’s a matter of degree.

All of the breaking news can be part of a larger narrative, an element of great storytelling. And great storytelling can exist despite a narrow band of editors, reporters or fans being stuck on the minutiae of sports.

Somebody used to read all that agate in the sports pages right?
Please understand, both sides are important to good sports coverage. Both sides feed off each other and complement each other, one doing the telling, the other the expanding and explaining, one the announcing, the other the introducing. In today’s sports journalism, however, the announcing has become so paramount that readers and viewers rarely get anything more of players they increasingly know less and less of.
I’m with MacGregor right up until the notion that “announcing has become so paramount.”

Readers have never had more choice. Never.

There is an incredible amount of information out there for sports fans.

When it comes to coverage, readers can get as deep as they like or stay as shallow as they want.

Into advanced stats and sabrmetrics? There are blogs, websites, and writers out there for you.

Like long form pieces? The internet doesn’t have word limits or the constraints of column inches.

Your favourite player is European? There are fans out there translating and posting the latest interviews, no matter the original language in which it was conducted.

Want just the facts, you can get those too.

This is a golden age for sports fans and we should be celebrating it.
This is not the raging of a Luddite contrarian. In 1983, I was The Toronto Star’s guinea pig for the Tandy TRS-80 (“Trash 80”) computer that transformed sports filing and had no small part to do in killing off afternoon newspapers. I love what the Internet makes possible, admire those who use social media effectively and even appreciate the power of Twitter.
Me too.
What this is, hopefully, is a cautionary flag being raised by someone who sees the sports world marching into a journalism trap where Gay Talese’s monumental study of Joe DiMaggio, the Esquire magazine feature The Silent Season of a Hero, would have to be delivered in 140 characters or less.
Whoa. Stop right there.


There is so much wrong with that sentence I don’t know where to start.

Twitter has not replaced the long form story. It never will. Twitter is just another channel to promote your writing. To exchange quick ideas and share links.

Journalists continue to publish incredible long form work while (get ready for it) being on twitter.

Don’t believe me? Here are the 2009 Canadian National Magazine Award Winners and their twitter accounts.

Gold – Carol Shaben
Silver – Chris Nutall-Smith

Off the top of my head, here are five other magazine award winners working in long form who have twitter accounts (and manage to produce pieces longer than 140 characters):

Chris Jones
Michael Kinsley
James Fallows
Tom Chiarella
Scott Raab

Somehow these great storytellers are able to write compelling, award winning, long form pieces that manage to break free from a 140 character limit.

In fact, if long form journalism is your thing, there’s a twitter account that does nothing but promote it: Longreads (if you're on twitter, follow them).
What it means for the future of sports books – think of Roger Kahn, George Plimpton, Ken Dryden, Roger Angell, Earl McRae, A.J. Liebling et al. – is even more disturbing.

It is called, derogatorily, “BlackBerry Journalism.” Television, ironically, is the worst offender, with the most visual of tools reducing so much of sports journalism to talking heads reading off rumours or various crumbs of minutiae handed off to them by those in a position to control such information. Having a number of excellent “hockey insiders” is critical to good hockey reporting in this country – think of TSN’s Bob McKenzie and a small handful of others – but when every new hire is presented as a “hockey insider,” you dangerously approach a situation where when the sports establishment – in this case, the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association – controls the information, they also control the message.
Let’s start with the problematic list.

George Plimpton was a great writer. But he wasn’t a newspaper man. He didn’t cover a beat like MacGregor. He pursued larger, literary pieces.

Could twitter, blogs, social media have had an impact on Plimpton? Sure.

Would it have eliminated, constrained or been detrimental to his larger body of work? I doubt it.

Plimpton was known for, among other things, playing alongside professional athletes and writing about it. Looking back at Plimpton's incredible body of work, were he working today I would guess that he'd be just as accomplished AND a youtube sensation. Sid Finch would have gone viral on twitter in 45 seconds or less. The Paris Review would likely have launched, like Grantland, in a digital only form.

Ken Dryden is one verbose dude. Nobody’s going to put a limit on that guy.

Earl McRae may be beloved by other journalists, but putting him alongside Plimpton, Liebling and Angell is a HUGE stretch. HUGE.

As for TV, I agree with MacGregor that it is the worst medium for trying to exchange meaningful information, but I’d also wager this has been the case for at least 30 years.

As for the NHL and the NHLPA controlling the message, I don’t see it.

Thanks to centre ice and other digital packages, fans can watch the games for themselves - and grey market streams will circumvent the NHL’s bizarre geographic blackout rules. PVRs give fans the power of slow motion remote control on every single play in the game whenever they want it. The ubiquity of Youtube makes those replays accessible to fans around the world.

And who wants to hear from the NHL or the NHLPA anyways? When was the last time they made a meaningful, insightful or sincere statement?
What the national game needs is more “hockey outsiders” not beholden to the minutiae dispensers. And what all sports needs is more old-fashioned storytelling.
MacGregor and I are in full agreement on this thought, but where we differ is on the execution.

I'd argue that sportsfans have never had more or better access to outsiders who are telling great stories. That there's never been a time when more fans could get more information from such great writers with such ease and at so little cost. Often the best way to find this great content is through Twitter.

Where MacGregor and I also differ - I don’t think there’s a lack of old-fashioned story telling, I think there’s a lack of insightful storytelling.
Tell us about the players, please.
No. Don’t tell me about the players. I don’t care about the players. I don’t need to know that the goon has a heart of gold or the agitator is the baby of the family.
Tell us how the game is being played.
No. Don’t do this either.

I watch all 82 games. I can listen on the radio, stream it on my computer, catch the highlights on a 24 hour non-stop news cycle. If there’s any information out there that’s of lesser value than telling fans how the game is being played, I’m not aware of it.

Wait. I thought of one: hypothetical line combinations. These have lesser value.
We actually don’t care all that much about minor trades or whether the suspension is four games or six, or how the contract has an average cap hit of $X-million a year. A couple of good insiders can handle that role; it doesn’t take an entire network to chase.
Sure. But as a fan I want to know this stuff.
Today’s sports reporters are not to blame. The various “platforms” they work for treat them like hamsters stuck in an endless wheel, spinning nowhere. They must set up games, tweet from morning skates, transcribe tape, blog from the rink, upload video that no one watches, and file, file, file…
If these are the same sports reporters who file about teams not giving them adequate quotes or putting the best players into the scrums - they are to blame.

If these are the same sports writers that file stories about their travel itineraries - they are to blame.

If these are the same sports writers who will ascend the ranks and become sports editors demanding this type of content - they will be to blame.
The obsession with “content” has meant next to no time for substance. In far too many cases, tweeting and blogging have become a form of public masturbation, where size matters – as in number of hits or followers one can attract. Hits, newspapers will one day realize, are not circulation.
I dunno about this. Plenty of guys can do content and substance. James Mirtle sure does. Jonas Siegel has stepped it up since moving to 1050. Joe Posnaski is fantastic. Bruce Arthur is great. Rob Neyer is informative on twitter and files a pretty mean column. And so on…
In sports, however, storytelling has always mattered, greatly. It is not dead, just rather unwell these days. We still have excellent books appearing this fall by fine story-weavers (Gare Joyce, Al Strachan and Steve Simmons to mention three);
Whoa. What is it with MacGregor and these lists?

Gare Joyce does not deserve this company. Gare Joyce can write. I don’t know that I’ve enjoyed anything Strachan has ever written or said. Half the time I don’t know what Simmons is on about and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t either. If MacGregor is holding up Strachan and Simmons as what's missing in sports journalism, let's just stop right here.
we have a new publication, Sportsnet Magazine, that holds promise; and there are, importantly, a handful of television essayists who do much-appreciated work. Unfortunately, storytelling costs a lot more money than yet another panel discussion.
Wait. Is this is about the business model of modern media? Talk about backing into a lede.

It can't be though, there's so much great content out there for anyone willing to look. Great storytelling has never been cheaper, more accessible or less constrained.
I have spent the past few weeks rereading old sports classics such as Paul Gallico’s Farewell to Sport and Leonard Koppett’s The Rise and Fall of the Press Box. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if Canadian sports editors and TV producers had a look back themselves.
First off, Paul Gallico can write. That dude is a must read. Seriously, order some of his books from your library. Track his essays and interviews down on the net. It's good stuff.

That said, Gallico only became an author after his newspaper sportswriting gig came to an end. He retired from sportswriting in 1936 to dedicate his life full-time to writing larger pieces. (Like Talese, Angell, Plimpton, later-stages Liebling, Gallico did his best work when he wasn’t working on a beat or for a daily paper.)

Or maybe that's the point of all this? In order to get great storytelling in sports, sports writers are going to have to leave their day jobs and concentrate full time on writing.

To be frank, given what greets me when I open the paper or turn on the TV, I could get behind most of them quitting. I'd also set the over-under on the production of great long form essays resulting from such a sea change at 4.5.
Koppett, the brilliant New York Times and Oakland Tribune sportswriter who died shortly after his book appeared in 2003, was particularly prescient, seeing that the overload of media in dressing rooms was killing thoughtful exchange. He also believed that “excessive use of statistics, if not checked, may turn out to be a fatal malady.” It’s certainly getting close.
I’ve never been in a professional dressing room. I have no idea what is said between reporters and athletes, but I can probably count on two fingers the number of times an athlete has said something profound in a post-game scrum.

As for stats, I love them. I like transparency and the open exchange of information. If stats aren’t for you that’s totally cool. But a fatal malady? If anything is a fatal malady for narrative and sport it’s talking head professional athletes. It's the meaningless pre-game, mid-game, post game quote from the jocks who just want to give it their best shot and, the good Lord willing, it will all work out.
But Koppett also wrote, “The secret of good reporting is simply being around.” Hanging out, he said, is “how a writer learns to know what he needs, what and how to write about it, to evaluate relevance and fairness, and how to distinguish the important from the trivial.”

It’s a fine sentiment, sir, and we’d certainly be happy to try it if we didn’t have to tweet, blog, upload video, edit audio and continually check our BlackBerrys.
Gary Smith said the same thing (he's another must read for those who like long form sports writing).

But does anyone else see the irony in MacGregor burning 1,000 words bemoaning the lack of long form story telling instead of, you know, writing a 1,000 word good ol’ fashioned sports story?


How about the fact that he tweeted about it?


  1. Less than 12 parsecs11:42 pm

    Couldn't have said it better myself. My once beloved Globe subscription is feeling less and less necessary. Every day I whip through it increasingly quickly – and too many of the times I do stop to read something (like McGregor's whinging) my blood pressure rises to unhealthy levels. Combine his blinkered nostalgia with Maki's act of journamalism on the Oilers today, and it's time to call the crash cart for the prolonged operatic death tango of the MSM.

  2. You said everything I wanted to say about this.

    Sports writing is becoming a very long tail. Most of the major outlets are being as change-averse as major players tend to be when a field's model undergoes a huge transformation, but the intriguing long form stories that aren't running in the dailies are in other places, and there are more of them, and more variation among them, than ever. The technologies MacGregor laments are the very things enabling that. He sounds like someone who thinks record stores closing means a decrease in availability of music.

  3. Well said. I'm not convinced Salvage King Ya is the best hockey book out of New Brunswick, though. I enjoyed Bill Gaston's The Good Body, and David Adams Richards' Hockey Dreams, much more. Jarman is a little too, I don't know, gritty? for me...

    But that's just personal taste. If nothing else, add two more non-journo sports books to the list. I find it amazing that some people can't see the opportunity presented by the combination of the immediacy of Twitter and the unlimited column length of the Internet.

  4. "That in order to get great storytelling in sports, sports writers are going to have to leave their day jobs to concentrate full time on writing? To be frank, given what greets me when I open the paper or turn on the TV, I could get behind most of them quitting."
    Those 2 sentences alone are worth far more than McGregor's piece.
    I also love finding an inconsequential spelling/grammar mistake in mf's writing- it reminds me that he's human like the rest of us and not a perfect writing bot. ;)
    I'd love to see the G&M pick this piece up as an excellent rebuttal to McGregor's shaking his privileged fist at the clouds post.